• Thu, Oct 14 2010

Bullish: Social Class In The Office

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.

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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!