A Pleasantly Illegal Side-Effect Of A Humanized Interaction

For almost three years now, during those weekdays that I spend in the CUNY Graduate Center library trying to get some reading and writing done, I have, on occasion, been a participant in the following ‘encounter’ or ‘exchange’: I pour myself a cup of coffee at the dining commons and on arriving at the cash register to pay for my ‘purchase,’ I am waved through by the lady who works there with a cheery ‘you good babe.’ The coffee is on the house. I have not seen this ‘favor’ extended to any other customer of the dining commons; this ‘gift’ is sporadically given, with no regularity to it. Quite simply, every once in a while, I get a ‘free coffee.’ I know the worker in question: that is, I know her name, which is written on her name tag. She does not know mine; she has never asked me for, and I have never volunteered it. I feel unsure about whether she knows that I’m faculty or whether she thinks I’m a graduate student. We do not really know each other; we are acquaintances of a sort. I wish her a ‘good morning’ when I enter, and occasionally ask her how her vacation or days off went. She answers with a brisk ‘all good!’ Once in a while, in response to her asking me how I am, I mutter something about my lack of sleep. When I receive my ‘gift’ from her, I beam and say ‘thanks’ and wish her a good day; she reciprocates. I sometimes wonder, uneasily, about whether what we are doing is ‘legal;’ it clearly is not. I do not know why I am the beneficiary of this minor largess.

But I can venture a guess. My ‘donor’ is used to anonymity in her job; she rings up purchases, gives back change and receipts. Her interactions with her customers are brisk and efficient; they can easily shade into brusqueness. Customers walk over to her counter with food; they pay, they move on, perhaps offering a quick ‘thank you’ before they leave. There are few to none conversational niceties visible in these interactions. I did not follow this template in my initial interactions with her; I used her name, smiled, inquired into how her day was going, and then thanked her as I left. My interactions with her were perfunctory and still remain so to this day, but in retrospect, they strike me as being orders of magnitude more personal than the interactions she might have been accustomed to. I would like to think the little freebie I receive on the side every once in a while is an acknowledgment of the slightly elevated personal level of our encounters with each other; tiny islands of recognition and greeting and response in a sea of anonymous exchange.

My ‘friend’ works, like most people do, in a job that renders her faceless and nameless even when surrounded by thousands of fellow human beings; like them, she acts to dispel her workday state of affairs with little affirmations of her humanity. I’m ready to aid and abet her–for partially self-serving reasons–in the commissioning of the minor illegality her so acting entails.

Work Ain’t Working For Us (And Hasn’t Been)

‘Work’ is a four-letter word, variously used to describe an activity for which a bewildering array of pejorative adjectives have been deployed over the years. Slogans abound, on bumper sticker and office cubicle alike: we’re working for the weekend; thank God it’s Friday; a bad day fishing is better than a good day working; and so on. We all hate Monday mornings; hump days signal relief lies ahead; Sunday evening gives us the blues. When we do enjoy that which brings home the bacon, we rush to reassure others that ‘it’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work.’ And yet, peculiarly, our moral values and sensibility are fully imbued by precisely those qualities that make us better workers: thrift, industriousness, patience being but a few. We are praiseworthy if we have a ‘good work ethic.’ We are told that ‘early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ The worst abuse that can be directed against a the consumption of a psychotropic substance is that it makes you ‘unproductive’ and induces ‘amotivational syndrome.’ Apparently, we are to be instructed that we are good if we consign ourselves to the bad. Something seems amiss. Sure, work is described as ‘virtuous’ in order to make the above stipulations of our moral ordering work, but the irony and perversity remains: we are good if we find the boring and pointless and tedious fulfilling and engaging and worthy of devoting one-third or more of our lives to.

This clash of the ideology of work with our lived experience of actual working situations is seemingly as old as the hills, as are the litanies of protests–practical and theoretical–directed against it. (For the latter, we may consider as historical examples provided by the dual, converse critiques to be found in Karl Marx‘s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; for the former, we need only consider the long and troubled history of labor relations.) But we continue to work, harder and harder, afraid that if we stop poverty, and what’s worse, moral approbation, will come crashing down on our heads.

Ideologies are powerful, and so we are resigned to this state of affairs: we need all that we are working toward, we cannot give up the comforts work provides us, the fate of our civilization, our world, depends on out work. Nose and shoulder back to the grindstone and wheel, please. Periodic irruptions remind us that this resignation is sometimes an uneasy one; the intolerable can only be tolerated for so long. We murmur uneasily at the deluded troublemakers, casting quick glances at them, before returning to work; their rabble-rousing threatens to disrupt our work. You know, the thing we despise and cannot wait to be done with.

Man is a curious creature, capable of tolerating many contradictions and ironies, material and formal. Here is another one; a daily presence in our lives. We’ve learned to live with it; we teach our children how to.

Workplace Dynamics And The Treatment Of Support Staff

A couple of days ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin asked (on his Facebook page):

How many academics would get tenure if the review took into account how they treated the department’s secretarial staff?

A year or so after I had begun work at Bell Laboratories, I told a new hire that she should always strive to keep three classes of co-workers (or ‘staff’) happy: secretaries, computer system administrators, and security guards. Later, I extended this claim to other members of our building’s facilities crew. This imperative suggested itself to me as prudent and moral (and political). It still does in my current location at my academic workplace.

The first two on the list above made our daily tasks much easier; they helped us navigate workplace mazes, administrative, logistical, and bureaucratic; they let us concentrate on our work, which was supposedly technical and creative. The third were the first ones to greet us on our entry to the building, and the last ones to bid us goodbye when we left; being friendly and personable in our interactions with them served to provide a kinder, gentler bookend to our days at work (And if you forgot your ID card on the weekends, in the days before high-speed dial-up connections, you could count on them not blocking your entry to the building in case you desperately needed to get some coding work done in your office that could not be accomplished from home.)

I’m happy to say that over the years I have followed my directives quite faithfully, and have generally enjoyed good relations with most members of my ‘support staff.’ These have made my workday experiences considerably more pleasant. The exceptions to this have occurred with some security staff who insist on taking their badges and uniforms a little too seriously and adopt the demeanor of the police a little too eagerly.

Despite these fairly self-evident considerations, secretarial staff still remain unappreciated, frequently overworked, and poorly treated. (The sexism and harassment directed at female secretaries is legendary.) In my corporate workplaces–which were mostly manned by folks with technical backgrounds–there was a great deal of patronizing and dismissive behavior too. In response, secretarial staff often scorned the head-in-the-air attitude of those they served, decrying their inability to accomplish the simplest tasks by themselves and directed some scathing disrespect at them behind their backs. To the credit of my colleagues at my two university employers–the University of New South Wales and the City University of New York–I have witnessed fairly pleasant and egalitarian patterns of interaction between them and our administrative staff. (Robin’s question above seems to indicate there is trouble in paradise.)

At academic workplaces the power differential is clear. Faculty might imagine themselves, PhD and all, as the bees knees, with administrative staff, possessing perhaps only a lowly bachelors or associate degree, as mere dust to be shaken off their feet. (This was certainly the case at Bell Labs, which was populated by graduates from the nation’s top science and engineering programs.) Faculty are also often overworked too, and their requests for assistance can be made a little brusquely. Status and class anxiety does not help this already complicated picture.

It might behoove all of us ‘non-management types’ to remember that a more equitable and harmonious relationship among ourselves is one of our primary protections against the impositions of our ‘bosses,’ that there are allies here, if we were only willing to look a little closer.

The ‘Real World’: The Corporate Workplace

Dear Reader, do you know where the ‘real world’ is? Do you live in it? Do you work in it? Corporate recruiters and CEOs can tell you.

If you are attending a school or a university of any kind, you do not live in the ‘real world.’ If you are a child, you are not living in the ‘real world.’ If you teach in a school or in a university, you do not live in the ‘real world.’ If you work for a non-profit organization you do not live in the ‘real world.’ You are merely living in a world of make-believe and fantasy and charming artifice.

The real world, it turns out, is a workplace, and a very particular kind at that. It is the corporate workplace, where you will have a boss, and where you will not be allowed to indulge in those childish fancies and illusions that sustained you in the bubbles you previously occupied. Here is the McCoy; all else is ersatz. In this arena, the lessons you have learned in the fantasy world you previously occupied have to be unlearned; they should be checked at the door like pilgrims’ shoes outside a temple. They would bring in too much of the unreal world’s dust and dirt otherwise. Those lessons include a great deal of moral instruction, which must now be discarded as irrelevant, unrealistic, and fantastic. In sharp contrast, in the ‘real world’ you will learn all about punctuality, conformance to schedule, the virtues of hard work and nose-to-the-wheel commitment–all the better to boost those bottom lines that ensure a livelihood for you.

The good old public-private distinction has nothing on the real-unreal world distinction that corporate boosters espouse. Aristotle thought the polis was where you went to become a citizen, a full political subject, a person. Corporate recruiters will tell you that the corporate workplace is where you go to get a dose of reality. Your childhood, your school days, your learning in school and college, those books you read, the games you played, the friends you made–all mere specters, ghosts, insubstantial spirits. You were merely prisoners in the cave; the light and illumination and enlightenment of the ‘real world’ awaits. Then mere shapes will acquire substantiality; then reality will slap you upside the head.

This invocation of the ‘real world’ as a rhetorical device with which to dismiss the experiences of those who do not live in it has a long and dishonorable history. of course. It is a prominent arrow in the quiver of the corporate propagandist; it is drawn and fired all too indiscriminately.

It should come as no surprise then that denizens of the ‘real world’ find even the domain of politics and governance possessed of inadequate reality. So much so that they will even deign to step away from their upholstered desks and carpeted offices to intervene, to take over the helm of the national ship and steer it into zones regulated by rules they know well. The ones of the ‘real world.’

Why You Hate Work (And Will Continue To)

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath tell us why we hate work. (“Why You Hate Work“, New York Times, May 30, 2014; the “You” in their title article is less inclusive than it appears, for the primary focus of their study is white-collar workers. Still, perhaps there are lessons here to be learned by all.)

Their article has a familiar feel to it: there are several dimensions to employee satisfaction; employees do better and feel better when they are satisfied in those; employers are not sensitive to these spaces of desire; they ignore them, being all too easily satisfied with the fulfillment of work demands.

Put another way: employees are humans with needs; the workplace doesn’t meet them; the workplace-boss-employee relationship is asymmetrical.

Color me surprised.

Schwartz and Porath make recommendations to improve workplace environments: invest in employees; pay them enough; give them breaks; praise them; and so on.

It is tempting to say this is all common-sense, a temptation that finds its grounding in the utterly unsurprising nature of these recommendations. After all, who’da thunk it: humans need rest, adequate wage for labor, a little encouragement?

We have known for a very long time that ‘work’ is a four-letter word. The dichotomies are familiar. Work-bad; leisure-good; weekday-weekend; boss-friend; the list is easily extended (and extendable.) Everybody’s working for the weekend, after all.

A clue to why the Schwartz and Porath study might be cited extensively but almost certainly will not have its recommendations followed–once the initial hubbub following the publication of their Op-Ed in the nation’s leading newspaper has died down–may be found in the fact that while the word “profitability” shows up in their article, “short-term profits”, “shareholders”, “capitalism”, “first-quarter earnings” (and other such gems) do not.

Perhaps you might have guessed where I’m going with this: creating a workplace that keeps employees happy and satisfied has costs associated with it; these costs bite into profits, especially short-term ones;  employee satisfaction, to put it bluntly, is incompatible–economically–with short-term profits and quarterly earning reports; ergo, there is little chance the recommendations for the creation of such workspaces will be implemented.

There is something particularly terrifying about repetition compulsion: the endless recycling of a past, its contours showing up again and again to haunt the neurotic. Modern business is similarly afflicted; it rules over armies of the disgruntled, determine to repeatedly lurch from one past mistake to another, resolved to not make the changes that might palliate the suffering of those in its embrace.

This commentary of mine is incomplete; there is a more thoughtful, historically sophisticated take possible on our understanding (starting, perhaps, with the notion that ‘work’ was done by slaves.) More on that in another post in the near future.

Note: A budding neuroscientist might be interested in conducting an fMRI study in which it would be ascertained which brain centers were activated when subjects viewed the word ‘work’ or were asked to perform tasks that were described as ‘work.’  Performance on the latter could be compared with that of a control group which performed the same tasks not described as ‘work.’