Monday, July 15, 2013

A Sociopolitical Anthropology of Office Behavior

Ah, the office: a place more awkward than a class reunion at Introvert High School. Prior to actually wearing the white collar, all I knew about offices was borrowed from Kids in the Hall, which, I daresay, was a grand introduction:

Because politics is off-limits, I fill my conversation with mock-shocked statements about the weather ("can you believe it's raining again?") or reminding my coworkers of the day ("ugh, Monday!"). If I'm feeling particularly adventurous, I’ll allude to some weekend debauchery, but as far as my coworkers are concerned, my Saturday consists of laundry, laundry, laundry.

During my first week, my coworkers took a marked interest in me: the youngest, newest inhabitant sharing their corridors and copy machines. They would constantly ask:

"What's your background?"

Which translates into a question about whether or not you're qualified for your position. For other tyros to the office habitat, and for those likewise lacking in actual job experience, ranting about academic accomplishments seems to have a neutralizing effect, thank the high holy heavens.

Determining the intonations of everyday office language could be paradise to the paranoid. Is "you're so nice" office lingo for "you're such a naive little boy"? Does "get home safely" suggest an inability to take care of oneself?

In addition to language, there's the whole, dire matter of politics, both the interpersonal and macro-level kind. How can we be honest with one another if we are advised not to speak about politics when "the personal is political"?

Veganism is a case in-point. At first, whenever a staff member offered a pastry, a fruitcake or somethings' leg, I'd turn-down the food without explanation. Human Resources identified that I was refusing every food offer. I was told that this could be taken as offensive - not accepting the gifts of others - and so I confessed to my deviant lifestyle. Admittedly, the whole point of veganism is to make a political or philosophical statement, so my initial reluctance to declare my morality sounds less logical than a spray-tan salon in the middle of Oompa-Loompa-land.

Then again, given my apathy towards isinglass and my wardrobe of more than few wool garments, any attempt to share my “reduce harm” mindset seems superficial. I’m not a particularly good vegan; why, I’m worse at veganism than Hitler was at making Jewish friends.

A greater sense of shame resulted from my not challenging the political discourse of others in my office. One coworker (“A ‘liberal,’ but not a “blame-America-first liberal’”) recently claimed that imperialism was a “mixed bag." I'm genuinely embarrassed for not shutting him down; yet, considering my newbie status, I wouldn't want any argument to explode and leave me scraping coins from the subway again. Thus the binds of capitalism.

Finally, being a man in a mostly-female office leads to its share of awkwardness, especially around the damned water cooler, which, I've discovered, forces us to retreat into medieval gender roles. Once I was asked to replace the water tank by an unsmiling, bird-like woman who communicates using automobile sounds. “Beep Beep,” she says, meaning “hi” or “excuse me” or “I am censoring a series of two swear words.” Intending to parody her stereotype of male strength, I said something along the lines of “let me know if you need help with anything else He-Man related,” which I followed quickly with, “I’M SORRY THAT SOUNDED INCREDIBLY SEXIST.” I shouted it across the hall. She didn’t care either way; she simply beeped along like a fussy Fiat in a jubilee traffic jam.

Another female co-worker “needed a man” for the same job, and when I happened to overhear her, I stepped-up to the proverbial, masculinized plate. She thanked me a little too profusely for “acting like a man,” "being a real gentleman" and emphasizing my general manliness in general. Did I offend her? Or were my chest hairs a little too visible? I approached her later on and asked whether she was insulted by my help. She was not; as it turns out, she was emphasizing manliness to emasculate the other male coworker in the room who did not help.

Thank goodness for this one person with whom I work - the other fellow leftist in my office. Whenever we talk, she launches a shameless rant about the importance of feminism, her hatred for her daughter’s hipster boyfriend (whom she impersonates with a hilarious, lackadaisical Californian accent) or her love of Ian MacKaye. I knew we were cut from the same cloth when she looked at my Doc Martens and said that, in her days on the New York City punk circuit, they used to call them “shitkickers."

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