• Thu, Jan 13 2011

Bullish: How to Win When the Workplace Runs on Feelings

Recently, a colleague of mine — a 24 year old woman in the market for a new assistant — told me that her previous assistants had complained that she never said thank you. “I hate saying thank you to people just for doing their jobs! Why should I have to thank them?”

(Note that, on Mad Men (Season 4, “The Suitcase”), Peggy Olson similarly complained “You never say thank you,” leading Don Draper to thunder, “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!”)

I couldn’t help but laugh. Saying thank you doesn’t cost me anything. I can literally say thank you all day long. I mean, really, the number of times I am physically able to say thank you in an eight-hour workday is several thousand. The number of times I can say thank you without using up the linguistic space I need in order to be able to say other words is at least a couple dozen. And if you have the option of compensating someone in spoken gratitude or in actual additional money, then there’s a solid financial case for even the most cantankerous bitch in the world to suck it up and thank people for performing the job functions they are already being paid to do.

I wrote in How to Remain Blissfully Unfrustrated in the Face of Other People’s Incompetence that “fake niceness goes a long way, even when everyone knows it’s fake.” (“A fake smile is just fine; it shows that you are committed to making the other person’s job easy. People like that. Fake niceness is the lubricant of unpleasant tasks.”) I’m in favor. But there’s a larger principle at play: some people are willing to be compensated in feelings, and some aren’t. Feelings are a currency. You want to win at Emotional Currency Arbitrage.

Here’s what I mean. There are a bunch of Four-Hour Workweek devotees running around countries with weak currencies right now, bragging about getting paid in American dollars and living in Argentine pesos or Vietnamese dong. Sure, if you can bill at $60 an hour, U.S., while working online, and live in an $18 a night hotel that magically has WiFi while also receiving $5/hour lessons in Spanish/capoeira/machete fighting, then you are queen of the lifestyle arbitrage world (although, sadly, your clever Western money-magic will not protect you from food poisoning, and as a person who has had her hair held by a gay French tourist as she puked on an Argentine coffee shop bathroom floor, I can tell you that this is not traveling like a gentlewoman).

So, winning at lifestyle arbitrage means making money in a more powerful currency than the one in which you are spending. (Please, Four-Hour Workweek devotees, do not make your $5 an hour virtual assistant in Bangalore book your gynecologist appointments. Thank you). To win at Emotional Currency Arbitrage, you want to pay others in feelings (when that’s what they would like — don’t abuse this power), but not be duped, yourself, into being paid in feelings.

A recent report that’s been making the rounds says that young people today crave self-esteem boosts “more than sex, drinking, money, or food.” Insert a bunch of rhetoric here about Millennials and their overbearing helicopter parents.

I hope you’re not one of these people. If so, you are only going to be disappointed and taken advantage of; those who need praise are highly dependent on praise-givers. Praise junkies are in the world’s worst negotiating position. Praise cannot be converted into any other form of currency; it’s like being compensated in beautiful bouquets of flowers that wilt after four days, no matter how much flower food you dump into the vase, hoping to get just one more hit from the cheap carnation of other people’s approval before you reluctantly toss the whole thing in the trash.

I find that there are many other feelings that come, unnecessarily, into play in workplace environments. When coworkers spend more time with each other than with their own friends or families (or, alone, actually doing work, as is my preference), unhealthy attachments develop. People support stupid projects because those projects are important to their work friends. They prioritize wrong, trying to please the person physically closest to them and with whom they are therefore most likely to discuss their work. They want something impressive to share at a meeting in which they are too emotionally invested, much the same way that everyone wants a cool story to tell in the middle school lunchroom.

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  • Eve

    Great advice! Thank you, Jen.

  • Eve

    I realized that may have sounded like I was being a smartass, given the topic, but I meant it sincerely.

    • Jen Dziura

      Ha! Meta-comment.

    • porkchop

      :D I know! Having been taught to use politeness as a tool, I’m plagued with doubt when others appeal to my feelings–do they think they’re successfully manipulating me? Did they too learn manners by rote and are now using them on me because they think I care–and if so, can we give each other permission to stop? Or are they just sweet and gentle people following their natural impulse to be kind?

  • http://twitter.com/Eva_fate Eva Rinaldi

    I love this post, but what about those of us who are making very little money, and have to deal with a workplace environment where people often ARE paid in feelings? I’m the only person at my office who does not give a crap about being thanked or appreciated, I would really rather be scheduled for more hours. I wish I could say to my employer “Don’t say thank you, schedule me to work this weekend instead of the person I filled in for at the last minute because she had a headache.”