Ode to the Office
Updated: May 7, 2018
Office jobs exercise the social muscles we're breeding out of ourselves.
Pop-science facts make great openers. Here’s my favourite on first impressions:
“We make 11 judgements about a person within the first 7 seconds of meeting them.”
Regardless of Pinterest’s scientific credentials, it’s pretty interesting stuff. Considering what imperfect information we often have on these individuals, it’s amazing how damning, how final, our judgements usually are.
A few of my go-to maxims:
Bad eyebrows - - > probable psychopath
Mixes ketchup and mayo - - > probable psychopath
Anybody I don’t already know - - > definite psychopath whose company I will not enjoy
Our reptilian brain gave us the instincts.
But then, disastrously, our tech gave us the tools.
The sweet tools of avoidance.
Caller ID, group messages with minimal accountability – a parallel world where it is strangely acceptable to cancel last minute, to leave people languishing in digital spam folders.
We practise the savage but delicate art of social topiary – expertly pruning our networks and maintaining focused friendships to make the most of our ‘free play’.
We’re using technology to minimise inefficiencies but in doing so, minimise life’s randomness.
And the result - as if the British weren’t socially handicapped enough – is that we’re breeding a key social skill out of our evolution.
The ability to strike up easy connections with random cross-sections of society.
This is why I salute office jobs. Especially the awful ones, done in those stop-gap moments that occur periodically during your late teens/early 20s.
Because offices are a mad social experiment, where a ladleful of people from the primordial soup of life are randomly thrown onto the heat and basically left unmonitored.
Offices are a Stygian nightmare of mutual suspicion that promise to make functional, integrated adults of us all.
The biodiversity in my first office was optimal – a quadrant tossed randomly onto a perfectly representative square of grass. I had been employed to do something with ‘social’ (never quite worked what) – and because I was a digital-savvy YOOF, I was placed next to Dave the website coder, and Yarek the IT man. This arrangement was met with poorly disguised horror on both sides. Yarek was tall and Polish with enormous glasses. Dave looked like a womble.
Slowly though, an inevitable, irresistible process began to unfold. An organic, slow, sober, unfurling of true nature. Of selves we had mutually disregarded in those first 11 seconds.
Because the thing about offices, spending every day together, is that people eventually have no choice but to be helplessly, touchingly themselves.
With our friends we reserve the right to compose and edit our experiences of the world – to elicit sympathy, laughter, respect. But – to quote Ryan Gosling in every girl’s favourite emotional wankbank film – at work it really is “all of you, all the time”.
Dave free-lanced as a sound designer for video games. He showed me some of the things he was working on – the level of craft was breath-taking. This man literally composed depth into onscreen worlds, building layers of code to make every leaf rustle. He also showed me how to cheat at Black Jack.
Three weeks in Yarek came up to me breathlessly in the kitchen and said “I must tell you – my true passion is pigeon racing. It is everything I live for.” He read Marxist literature, and every day he would peel exactly six grapes into his bowl of porridge. He brought them to work in a little sandwich bag.
Quite sensationally mad, the pair of them. Total psychopaths, and utterly brilliant people. Together, over a series of months, we found ourselves embracing these slow-cooked friendships, made all the more tender and worthwhile by the unexpected, organic nature of their arrival.
As the spirit of camaraderie began to chip away at my cold, cold heart I found myself becoming more permeable to the charm of the communal rituals. This consisted mostly of little set-piece dialogues, sparked by the sub-optimal facilities around the office. “F**king printer” you’d agree cheerily as it heaved out 400 pages of a document you’d accidentally pressed ‘print’ on three times. “Never any f**king cups” we’d all chorus as we edged past one another in the grubby kitchen.
Most humbling was the realisation that I was the biggest psychopath of the lot. After nodding vigorously throughout Dave’s enraptured speech about minimal techno and agreeing that I also “liked all that”, he was understandably surprised when he saw what I actually listened to all day (the Sims 1 soundtrack with ‘Build Mode 3’ on repeat). And things were definitely not the same after I answered my desk phone on speaker and the whole office was treated to my sister’s signature greeting of “HELLO POO PANTS”.
It’s a story as old as time – the begrudging bonds that form between a group of unlikely individuals thrown together by circumstance - and a set up we’re often more familiar with in fiction than in real life. But necessity accesses depths of social resourcefulness we are rarely forced to call upon, reminding us to reach for those threads of commonality that instinctively bring people together – humour, complaining, cups of tea.
So here’s to the office – to enforced cross-pollination, reluctant fondness, and exercising those social muscles we’d rather leave to waste.
Written by Jess Bird
Illustrated by Hortense Bedouelle