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.