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In a white-collar working environment, at least a British one, which member of staff would receive the following compliment? “She just runs the place, that’s all!” Or how about this one, which might come with a mock-martial salute. “We serve at the pleasure of this man.”
It isn’t the boss, whose power wouldn’t need stating. No, the object of this studied overpraise will be a receptionist or an executive assistant. When I began office life a generation ago, this behaviour struck me as well-meant. And it was. But over time, something else came through: the awkwardness of credentialed people around non-graduates. Degrees are so cherished among the professional class that we assume those without one must need putting at ease around us. The result is this cringing heroisation of grown men and women. “You’re a lifesaver!”
Without knowing it, I was learning about people: their hierarchies and irrationalities, their unwritten codes. I could cite other reasons why the young should go to the office. Three times in 2023, a corporate executive, each in a different sector, has told me that junior staff who work from home are holding back their career in the company, but can’t be informed of that, as a matter of law or protocol. But that’s another column. I want to major for now on the power of the office to socialise people in a way that families, campuses and friendship circles are too narrow to match.
So what else did the office teach me?
Wearing a suit and tie when it isn’t required is a mark of low status, not high. It is “the south of France”, not “southern France”. (Getting it wrong suggests you don’t visit or have a second home there, you serf.) The loneliest men in the world are married. To establish trust with someone, disparage a third person in their presence. Self-deprecation is in almost all cases an assertion of higher status. The sign of someone who has been bullied is quite often sublime social skill (the better to defang people) rather than shyness. To rattle your boss, remind them of a bad hire, not an incompetent act of their own direct commission. It stings them more.
And then the most useful lesson of all: the averageness of the competition. Except in sectors where the minimum standard is kept high through regulation — medicine, say, or piloting — the standard in a profession is always lower than outsiders would credit. This has to be drummed into young people from less privileged backgrounds, all too many of whom believe that every lawyer is Earl Warren, every trader a Fields Medalist. The office allows them to observe colleagues flail under pressure, utter banalities, or just shamble around. The ultimate benefit of going to the office is the demystification of the successful. You can’t see someone’s clay feet over Zoom.
In my pre-FT days, a superior who was born into the top tier of public life would enter my office to run column ideas past me, at some length and with some convolution. Mistake, son. It was sweet, but I could sense the self-doubt under that expensive veneer. The job had never felt more attainable.
For a graduate, those first few years of office life amount to an additional degree, in anthropology. It is the second-best education in human nature in the world. (The first is dating, where observable behaviour is so consistent, so clockwork, as to make an Enlightenment humanist have second thoughts about free will.)
I know what you are going to say. Janan, you are writing this on a chaise longue in front of South Africa vs New Zealand in the Cricket World Cup. Your office pass gets less use than Elizabeth Holmes’s passport. But I was there in my twenties, when it matters, taking it all in. The little things: if you so much as hint that you don’t like someone’s outfit, they will, however strong in character, stop wearing it, after a proud interval to show they don’t care. The big things: affairs between senior women and junior men are easier to keep secret than the inverse, as people don’t suspect them.
For the generation below mine, who have been able to lose themselves in online realms almost since birth, an education in real-life human foibles is all the more precious. But the course is on-site.
Email Janan at [email protected]
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