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.