How to recognize the typical office worker
“They had sharp penmanship and bad eyes, extravagant clothes but shrunken, unused bodies, back cramped from poor posture, fingers callused by constant writing. When they were not thin, angular and swallow; their paunches sagged onto their thighs.”
These are the lines with which Nikil Saval’s much appreciated book “Cubed: A Secret History of The Workplace” introduces us to the eternally frustrated and forever dog-tired office worker.
Saval gives us an insightful, funny, witty and yet quite depressing account of the office and the history of how it came about.
As a reader always on the lookout for the unconventional, I am inclined to say that this book effectively makes what could have been a dry subject into a highly entertaining read, with pages chockfull of wise yet amusing phrases and quotes.
Noteworthy of the above quote is that while the book journeys from insignificant workplaces located in garages and libraries in the 1800’s, to tall skyscrapers in the 1900’s; the image of the office worker remains constant throughout the book.
The office worker, as Saval goes on to state several times in the book is not very hard to recognize among a crowd.
He/She is invariably someone who is well dressed, but pallid and weak; someone who looks like they have not seen the light of the day in several years.
The Office as a Physical drain
The amusing depiction, though perhaps slightly exaggerated is not altogether false.
Workplaces have come a long way since the 1900’s, office culture has changed tremendously, and office workers have become more individualistic.
The office space itself has become increasingly people-friendly, innovative and welcoming over the years.
A friend was very excited when on her first day at work she found herself surrounded by massive football shaped chairs.
Another was surprised to find a pool table at the office lounge.
Yet another stated confidently that the gigantic basketball court in his office would keep him from ever getting bored.
And yet, all of my office-goer friends, invariably found themselves holed up in cubicles, every single day, even as the days tumbled into months and the months into years.
And they chose to stay on, even as the one with the football chair started complaining of a backache a month into the job.
And the pool table and basketball court remained empty, except during lunch breaks.
And eventually, almost all of them made their way to the optician to find a pair of the most professional looking spectacles, or the physiotherapist to deal with that pesky back pain.
Some things never change.
The office workers constant struggle with an environment that threatens to gradually leech away at their health and a determination to continue in spite of it – because of the stability and comfort that such jobs guarantee – are some of them.
The Office Attire
Another thing that has changed little over the years is office fashion, the next identity tag that the 9 am to 5 pm workers carry around with them, apart from their shrinking physicality.
Taking a crack at the ubiquitous white-collar trend, Saval writes of detachable white collars that workers of the 1800s wore over their cheap shirts, in a bid to maintain their elite office-going status.
“Usually bleached to an immaculate white and starched into an imposing stiffness” the white collar went on to become a dress code in itself, the most important mark of a professional, the biggest tag of the workplace, and a symbol that the whole world of offices identified with.
Who would have ever thought a simple collar could make such an impact?
And yet they did, and continue to do so, as Saval shows us, leading us through the windows of the tallest skyscrapers, flipping through the pages of literary classics with office working protagonist and sifting through unforgettable movies shot on office floors.
We find throughout the book, that the white collar remains a constant and so does the image of the typical office worker.
The Personality Test
Saval chooses to use in his book, a dramatic quote made in 1920 by literary critic, Micheal Gold expressing his detest for the white collar class with the choicest of words.
“I know a hundred gay, haggard, witty, hard-drinking, woman-chasing advertising men, press agents, dentists, doctors, engineers, technical men, lawyers, office executives. They go to work every morning and plough their weary brains eight hours a day in the fiercest scramble for living man has ever known….they become nervous wrecks under the strain of American business competition.”
Gold was perhaps a little too hard on the office working masses, but none of us can honestly argue that he was completely wrong.
It is then, not only the physicality and attire of the working class that is their identity marker, but also their personality.
It is the mental strain so clearly visible in the chaos of their daily lives, the struggle to remain alert in spite of crushing boredom that all coffee chasers dread, the fierce competitiveness for the slightest appreciation and smallest promotions, and the emotional pressure generated from living only for the weekends that separates the office workers so distinctly into a class of their won.
The workplace history is a complex, winded and incredibly amusing story, one that has to be written about and read of by everyone who has ever stepped onto an office floor, and even anyone who hasn’t.
This four-part series will trace Saval’s comical interpretation of the journey of the workplace, office spaces and office workers, putting into perspective everything we have ever known about the corporate sanctuary.
You will read about the history of office space, the birth of cramped cubicles and tall sky scrapers, in Part II of this series!