For Labor Day, musings on the strange world of white-collar work

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I think it was when I said to my boss, “You arrived early today”, that I realized I didn’t really understand how offices work. She arrived at 9am and interpreted my comment as “You usually arrive late”.

So, this was one thing I needed to learn when I was just starting out as an office drone – what people say isn’t always what they mean, even if those people are you. Another thing I had to understand: an office is an artificial construct with certain rituals, some obvious, some less so.

It was 1984, after I had been hired as an editorial collaborator in an association of people who worked in associations. I was fresh out of college and this was my first “real” job. Frankly, my “unreal” jobs had all been easier. They may have been more physically demanding, but they were obvious and self-contained in a way that none of my future jobs would be.

For starters, most of the time in that first white collar job, I didn’t know what to do. It’s not that I didn’t understand the distinct tasks of the job: write this down; reread it: it was that I did not know how to occupy myself during those times when I was not doing those discreet tasks.

In my previous jobs – waiter, dishwasher, delivery boy – I had always been busy. There was always something asked of me and I knew when and how to do it. When there were dirty dishes on a table, I cleaned them. When the dishes slid down the metal slide in my steamy corner of the kitchen, I washed them. When all the packages were ready, I loaded them onto a vehicle and delivered them.

Things weren’t that clear in an office. Not only was there something called “office politics”, there were deadlines. Deadlines were important, but they were amorphous. Sure, a deadline is realbut it is not physicist. A bunch of dirty dishes is physical. Since two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, that stack must be managed at that instant.

But if your deadline – the time you need to prepare for a meeting, write a press release, correct a brochure – is two weeks away, how should you divide up the minutes and hours before? Unlike dishes, thoughts – the raw materials of the brains employed in the office – always occupy the same space. Plus, they’re elastic, they stretch to fill that space.

And unlike my white apron, my paper hat, and my rubber gloves, thoughts couldn’t be left in my locker at work when I went out every night.

An office job, I soon realized, is like an iceberg. There is the part that is visible above the waterline of a timetable from 9 to 17, Monday to Friday, but there is also the submerged part that gets in the way for the rest of the week: before work, after work, on the weekends. This hidden part is made up of jagged thoughts of work that threatened to pierce my mental hull.

When I worked in restaurants, there were occasional breaks in our shifts, times when we could catch our breath, relax, joke, gossip. But if we looked also relaxed, the hated manager would notice and come up with a horrible task, like cleaning dirty kitchen walls.

As a young 22-year-old just graduated, I wondered: is this true offices should they work?

In my first months of working in an association of people who worked in associations, I kept waiting for someone to comment on the strangeness of it all. We weren’t in the army, but we wore uniforms: dressed smart without being really attractive. We were a family, but where mom or dad could fire you. We were supposed to work 40 hours a week, but that meant we owed eight hours to the boss uninterrupted hours every weekday? And did that mean that we absolutely didn’t have to think about work during the other 128 hours of the week?

In the 38 years that have passed since then, I’m not sure I’ve ever answered these questions satisfactorily. Luckily for me, I eventually found a job that resembled handling tables or delivering packages like all the ones I’ve had.

Either way, happy Labor Day, however you may celebrate.

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