Bullish: Social Class In The Office

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 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.

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    • Jennifer Wright

      Growing up, my dad told me that when I was doing business with someone I should smile warmly and then shake their hand as though their fingers were a baby bird I was trying to crush to death. It was so they would know who was in charge. I’m still not sure whether this is great and/or terrible advice.

    • eEv

      This is really interesting. I wouldn’t exactly call my upbringing blue-caller (my parents owned a newspaper, albeit a weekly in a very small town) but we definitely weren’t WASPy and the part about anger really hit home. Good to know it can be useful.

      • eEv

        blue-collar* Ugh, caffeine is rotting my brain.

    • Eileen

      Reading this article has forced me to come to terms with the fact that I am totally not blue collar.

    • Jennifer Wright

      Wait. Jen. The Post is the record of history. You don’t just “trade” something that is true and good and real for some slutty grey lady who is 74 million in debt. She only wants you for your subscription money.

      • Jen Dziura

        Ha! You can’t beat a paper that gangs up on its readers for having to look up “Kristallnacht”. From http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/50-fancy-words/ (an article about the 50 most looked-up words on the NYT site):

        “Kristallnacht” is there — somewhat surprisingly, I thought — along with “omertà” and “renminbi.” “Hubris,” “crèches” and “démarche” are foreign words that seem firmly established in English, but that still present hurdles for many readers.

      • Eileen

        “Kristallnacht,” seriously? I’d say the NYT uses a ton of much harder words than that…my eighth grade math teacher told us that the NYT is written on an eighth grade level and that therefore she was making it her business to teach us a word from it every day, and some of those words were seriously tough. “Kristallnacht” is a word you learn in high school history during one of the many units on the Holocaust.

    • porkchop

      Here is my class marker question: If you offer something to someone, do you care whether or not they accept it? When I was working in a wage job, my boss once offered me a home-made treat, and I said no thank you because I assumed she only wanted to share with her friends, and just included me to be polite. But she was clearly offended that I didn’t accept her generosity. The way I was raised, you’re always offering things to people, but it’s mostly to show you’re considerate, not because you want people to experience your generosity.

      • E.D.

        I don’t think it is. I had blue-collar parents and I care if someone accepts a treat. I was also taught that you always take a little of what is offered and at least try it (barring allergies). In our house it was “always offer, always accept.”

    • Shilo

      Wow. As a person who grew up blue-collar (at best), I’ve always known that it’s subtle behavioral differences that mark the classes in American culture, but this: “people will hate you if you are receiving things that you didn’t earn” blew me away.

      Holy crap dude, way to nail it. That statement summed up an entire unease that I’ve always felt around those with more entitled attitudes. It simply never occurred to me that others from more affluent backgrounds wouldn’t naturally feel in agreement with that statement, because it’s such a no-shit-sherlock sentiment among all the people I knew growing up (who were unsurprisingly, blue collar, working class, or straight up broke).

      I’m psyched to go read that book now.

    • Kate

      I LOVE Bullish! This is such an interesting article. I definitely grew up white-collar, but I worked as a waitress for seven years before my first professional job. Working in restaurants I was always too meek, too polite with my coworkers. Now as a young professional, I’m either clumsily calling out the elephant in the room (or meeting) or biting my tongue while stupidity runs amok. The fact that I have to handle my desperately insecure superiors with kid gloves is just baffling to me. And what is up with bosses’ insecurity, anyway? I recently watched a coworker, who I thought was pretty down to earth, go through a Jekel/Hyde-like transformation when he got promoted. wtf?

    • Veronika

      I think I just read a 100% correct explanation of why I completely failed at my first corporate job.

      Calling stupid projects stupid? Check. Saying what I meant? Check. Resenting people who had it easier than me although I was better at my job than them, and making no fucking secret about any of my feelings? Check.

      I’ll have to read that book.

    • gem

      Your exercise about “when you’ve seen your parents shake hands” made me smile because my response was so off from what you, I assume, wanted. The times I can remember my parents shaking hands are with my aunt and my uncle. And I learned how to shake hands from that aunt and uncle, when I was like five. Granted, my aunt and uncle were not born in America, although they lived here since their teens. They’re Eastern European, and to them, a hand shake is a sign of respect and you respect your family, just like you respect your business partners. At least, that’s how I took it?

      I loved reading this. My parents were, actually, white collar, but being foreign is often similar to being blue collar in terms of cultural things. I am highly uncomfortable in my white collar job (I’m a teacher) and hate with a passion every single meeting I attend. At the last one, I couldn’t help but make faces of disgust and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized that I probable offended at least a few of my co-workers. It’s funny too because we’re supposed to teach our students how to work effectively in groups and collaborate and come up with answers, but I find that some of my co-workers unconsciously teach white collared vagueness. But then they get annoyed when our students are vague on assessments… I’m rambling now, but this piece gave me a lot to think about, so thank you! I will also definitely be checking out the book too.

    • Taylor

      I read this article when it was published and applied it to my job. I read it again tonight and applied it to my boyfriend. Things make so much more sense now.

    • Crystal T

      I’m still stunned that you think most people do not shake hands upon meeting. My parents always shook hands with people. Everyone in my life did. This has been a question among various groups of my friends. Those of us raised in the South all agree that you *always* shake the hand of a stranger when meeting for the first time, no matter the occasion. It would be rude not to, as if you’re saying you’re too good to touch that person’s hand! (I was born and raised in Central Texas, for reference.)

      But now I see that this regional difference could put one at a disadvantage perhaps? If I go to shake the hand of a Northerner, will he think me weak and trying to work my way up the social ladder? If he is reluctant to shake my hand, I will think him snooty or rude.

      • macalny

        I think your point and Jen’s are different. Her comment made absolutely ZERO sense to me when I first read it because who the hell doesn’t shake someone’s hand when they meet them? I mean, really. That’s appalling. But I think this has less to do with where someone is from geographically – I was born and raised in New England and would never not shake someone’s hand (unless they’re an orthodox Jew, which I am not) – and more to do with social class, which is the entire point of this article. So I don’t think the author is saying “most people do not shake hands upon meeting,” she’s saying *she* wasn’t raised to shake hands upon meeting. What I take from this is that she views hand shaking as a ‘white collar’ thing to do rather than a ‘blue collar’ thing to do (which I find an utterly ridiculous idea, but whatever).

    • Elle

      This is a great reference for me and I intend to read that book as well. It’s going to be invaluable while navigating office politics and when visiting the “upper middle class” half of my family. For a while now, I’ve been looking for some sort of cultural Rosetta stone. Thank you!