Bullish: Social Class In The Office

October 14, 2010 | By | More

Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men was this summer’s gender meme: it’s hard to say that women are, across the board, oppressed in America when they graduate from all levels of education at higher rates than men and when the recession is killing traditionally male jobs left and right.

You only have to watch Mad Men to see how far we have and haven’t come. Do people still sometimes act like that? Of course. But, today, Peggy Olson could go start her own firm. On her laptop. In her apartment. The real Peggy Olsons of the 1960′s couldn’t: until the 1968 Truth in Lending Act (and the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which allowed married women to obtain credit without their husbands’ signatures), it was completely legal for a banker to tell you to your face that they don’t lend to women, or that you’d really better bring in your father if you want a loan. Ditto on the commercial real estate agent, etc.

Obviously, we live in a wildly different landscape. Rosin suggests in The Atlantic that women may actually be better-equipped to succeed in the modern economy:

The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true.

Of course, there are still localized pockets of gender discrimination all over the place — against women on Wall Street, against men who want to work with young children, etc. But this column is about class, and I mention the changing gender dynamic of the workplace to point out one thing: there are a lot more women working on Wall Street than there are people whose families couldn’t afford braces.

Here’s a really quick quiz that has a bit to do with social class in America. When you were growing up, did you ever see your parents shake hands? With anyone? Ever?

I never did. The idea of genially touching a stranger is a class marker in itself. My dad was in the military; my mom stayed home. In the Navy, you salute people who are above you. Or you just say things, in normal words, without touching people. (At least that was my understanding as a child). And I’ve never seen my mom shake hands in her life. She wasn’t ambitious, and why would you shake hands with a stranger when you have no interest in using that person to better your own position?

People shake hands because they’re in a business situation, of course, and because everyone else does. Often, shaking hands indicates the start of some cordial, functional relationship based on something other than actual affinity or friendship. Shaking hands can be a way of saying, “We all understand that we will follow certain conventions of getting things done by smoothing out the edges of this interaction as much as possible.” It’s two people putting their tails between their legs at the same time.

If you’re from a certain kind of background, you react with some alarm and uncertainty at a high school debate tournament when some Brooks Brothers-clad kid sticks out his hand as though it’s the most natural thing in the world. I mean, really: just like you have to learn to use a fork, at some point someone has to teach you which hand to use. It’s not automatic.

My high school debate coach caught this, and taught me all about shaking hands. Wisely, he also taught me some other excellent rules for succeeding at debate tournaments and in other situations that are remarkably like debate tournaments. These include:

  • Don’t sit on the floor in the hallway between debate rounds. Since there are no chairs, you just have to stand, even when you’re tired. In between individual debates, in which you are being judged, you are still being judged.
  • Shake hands with enemies. You have to (cordially!) shake hands with people you don’t like before you defeat them. If such a person offers you a religious pamphlet, take it and say “thank you.” (Do not say, “Goddammit, do I really have to debate another fundamentalist? Jesus, I mean, your high school prohibits interracial dating.”)
  • Be helpful to enemies who aren’t really threatening. That is, help the most pathetic of your enemies get a little better. Then everyone thinks you’re nice. Then they don’t dislike you when you really wipe the floor with an opponent who was actually skilled enough to pose a threat.
  • The smartest person doesn’t always win. Even when people try their hardest to create a meritocracy (and high school administrators can try pretty hard), there is really no such thing as a meritocracy.

(Thanks, Mr. Eakin! That was about the most helpful thing that ever happened).

I was reminded of this when I read the book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams. Author Alfred Lubrano, the son of a Brooklyn bricklayer, experienced severe culture shock at Columbia and later as journalist. And when I say “I was reminded,” I mean I cried cathartically for a week, like when someone discovers that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman.

Lubrano writes:

Social class counts at the office, even though nobody likes to admit it. Ultimately, corporate norms are based on middle- and upper-class values, business types say. From an early age, middle-class people learn how to get along, using diplomacy, nuance, and politics to grab what they need. It is as though they are following a set of rules laid out in a manual that blue-collar families never have the chance to read.

Open expression of anger is verboten in the office workplace:

American corporate culture is based on WASP values, whether or not WASPs are actually running the company. Everything is outwardly calm and quiet. Workers have to be reserved and unemotional, and must never show anger. It’s uptight, maybe even unhealthy, and all that pent-up aggression comes out in long-knife ambushes at the 2 P.M. meeting.

Compared to people who wear button-down shirts five days a week, it seems that — gender stereotypes be damned — I am actually in the top 25th percentile of angry people. Once, in a conversation with a boss I talk to openly all the time, I said in what I thought was a reasonably diplomatic way that I wasn’t interested in working on projects involving a particular person whose demeanor I found condescending. I realized from his reaction that I had said too much. Even this is over the line: every office interaction must be smooth like butter. Incredibly fake butter. Like Country Crock.

When I go home and visit my father, we have one topic of conversation: stupid people and how stupid they are. And when you move missiles for a living, there’s really not a lot of room for stupid. Lubrano tells a story about an editor chewing him out for something, and when he told his father, the father suggested that he “grab the guy by the throat, push him against the wall, and tell him he’s a big jerk.” The father even defended this advice — “Do it! You get results that way” — and could back up the prescription with stories of successful direct confrontation on construction sites.

Of course, I am not advocating a work environment with more physical violence. But it can be hard to master the sort of tamped-down, indirect communication required for workplace success when you were raised on a lot of bluntness, yelling, and authoritarianism.

Lubrano also mentions the discomfort that many “Straddlers” (blue-collar kids now in a white-collar world) feel when business bleeds into personal life. Lubrano writes of his childhood bafflement at the show Bewitched, in which Darren would frequently bring home his boss for dinner, expecting his wife to impress the boss with her cooking and hospitality. One benefit of punching a time card — and treating your boss, whom you actually call “Boss,” as the enemy — is that you would never be expected to have the guy over, or invite him to your daughter’s wedding.

He also writes about blue-collar people’s incredible discomfort with networking. One interviewee actually became nauseated at a seminar on how to network, feeling that it was just a class on how to be fake and dishonest. (I was once taken aback when some people from an organization I worked for ended up eating lunch with some competitors, and I thought that afterwards we’d exchange some competitive banter among ourselves: our team is better than their team, that kind of thing. Instead, I was part of an email chain about who should send the first thank-you email and how many of us should do so).

Blue-collar people do network, of course, but the style tends to be more direct, and stays at work: “It’s colleagues asking colleagues; nobody crosses any peer lines to hunt down opportunities. Among the working class, there is a belief — a naive one, some say — that you should make it in this world on merit alone.”

Straddlers interviewed by Lubrano also reported disgust at companies’ wasting money on projects everyone knows won’t work. Success in a corporate environment often requires either going along with the flow (of stupidity), or else supporting something pointless as a sort of political favor to those behind the project. Some Straddlers had a hard time catching on that you don’t point out your boss’s mistakes. (Lubrano had mixed success prefacing his blunt criticisms with “With all due respect….” As in, “With all due respect, that is a stupid idea that will fail.”) And many Straddlers expressed contempt at the sense of entitlement of their coworkers, those who carry with them an automatic sense of belonging that persists even when those patrician sons and daughters are talentless and continually fail. (After all, when they failed at things in childhood, their mom just hired them a tutor. Amazingly, expecting the same kind of handholding from a boss actually works fairly well in many workplace situations).

Other interviewees had a hard time believing that meetings counted as work, or that the equivocation, circumlocution, and sheer word count of those meetings was really better than a boss just telling people what to do. In 2008, I had an office on West 35th Street, and had also volunteered to help put on a big event: let’s say it was a women-in-business seminar. I offered my conference room to the volunteer committee for one hour, and was very clear that the meeting had to get done within an hour. I was livid when the meeting dragged interminably. At every step, someone would say “How do you think we should do this thing none of us except Heather, who is not here, really know how to do?” I would say, “Let Heather do it however she thinks is best, since she’s the expert,” and then everyone would look at me as though I had just shot a pistol in the air as an act of dominance, and then they would keep going back in forth, all milquetoast-like, about how to do the thing that they didn’t really know how to do. I guess that makes people feel a sense of togetherness.

While virtually every field in which one could have a career has a networking organization for women, I’ve never seen a networking organization for people with class dislocation issues. I’m not sure what you would call such a club or how you would advertise. Would volunteers from this club set up tables outside Wal-Mart, suggesting that young people consider careers in project management and take after-school classes on subtlety? (See Personality Qualities More Important Than Anything On Your Resume and its follow-up column for a bit soft skills).

The advice I have on this topic — other than to read Limbo: Blue-Collar-Roots-White-Collar-Dreams – isn’t going to be a surprise to regular readers of Bullish : The more you can exempt yourself from the 9-to-5 working world, the less all of this becomes an issue.

• A natural propensity for direct speech can be a huge advantage if you’re a freelancer who bills by the hour. Become a mercenary in your field. Let other people argue over defining the task. Then they send it over to you, and you execute it with ferocious speed and legendary panache. End of story. Your work is more gratifying than theirs, because it involved actual work. Sometimes, nothing is better than cutting the crap of workplace communication with a one-word email that just says “Done.”

• Righteous anger can be useful, as long as you don’t erupt into physical violence. As Lubrano writes, “the middle-class workplace pumps cowardice into your veins.” Anger can motivate you to change circumstances; it can give you the mojo to say “Fuck it” and take your business elsewhere. People who take shit from their boss all day and then get out their rage on the raquetball court are wasting a precious resource.

• A lack of a sense of entitlement prevents the tragic situation in which you are being obnoxious and don’t know it. If you were raised more in the “Shut up or I’ll knock your teeth in” school of parenting than the “Everything my little Chandler does is invaluable” school, you are aware that you have to earn things and that people will hate you if you are receiving things that you didn’t earn.

• Consensus is a champion time-waster. If I may go all Archie Bunker here on TheGloss: saying that everyone’s opinion is equal is some commie pinko bullshit. Comfort with hierarchical structures can save time and help you move faster and make more money than your mincing WASP competitors. Lubrano cites a study from the 1950s in which “…a group of students with a working-class background and a group of professors’ children who were also students were assigned the same task. The working-class kids picked a leader, then dove in and did the job. The white-collar kids ended up arguing about principles and aims, and accomplished nothing.”

Of course, if you’re concerned with these issues at all, then you’re someone who wants many of the benefits and enjoys many of the cultural mores that come with a white-collar lifestyle. When I was twelve, I thought that a cream-cheese croissant from Au Bon Pain was the most cosmopolitan thing imaginable, and that Reader’s Digest was pretty highbrow. I wanted better, and got it. That doesn’t happen without college admissions committees looking for people like me, and high school debate coaches stepping in, and deans at Dartmouth trying to figure out how I could be so miserable in the face of such knowledge and resources. It all worked out pretty well, and I am grateful for that. While I may sometimes admire the forthrightness of construction workers, of course I never wanted to be one.

In sum, there’s a best-of-both-worlds approach. It may involve trading in Cheez Whiz for brie and the Post for the Times, but it also involves staying out of a cubicle, letting experts do their jobs (and taking no bullshit when the expert is you), not talking for the sake of talking about talking for talking’s sake, and saying things in a direct enough manner that words actually still mean something. Occasionally, it involves punching someone who needs punched, although probably not nearly as often as many of us feel like doing so. And if your parents could never afford braces for you, it would probably help to try to get that taken care of as an adult (that’s one thing socialized medicine has done in the rest of the developed world — gotten rid of dental class markers).

While pursuing that best-of-both-worlds may make a person feel perpetually out of place, it is nevertheless a great pleasure to live in an age in which technology makes entrepreneurship so easy, and sexism has become but one of a shifting field of overlapping unfairnesses that are part of society — in other words, an age in which these ideals are so very possible to bring to life.

originally published on The Gloss

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Category: Best of Bullish, Bullish, Feminism, Money

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