The cult of early preserves the sumptuary laws

There’s a complex class aspect to our expectations about circadian rhythms. When you read a lot of 19th-century fiction, you realise that “people who come in the morning” is code for tradesmen, workers, people who aren’t social visitors as leisured as you are. The expectation persists to this day. That’s why so many blocks of flats have a general buzzer that will automatically let you in up to a certain time of day (usually noon) but then stop working. It’s for postal workers, deliveries, people who’ve come to fix stuff: basically modern-day tradesmen. If you want to get into a block of flats in the afternoon, you’d better be visiting a specific person (or unafraid of ringing lots of strangers’ buzzers until you get an answer). In other words, unless you fit the 19th-century expectation that an afternoon call is a social call, you’re forced into antisocial behaviour.

So. The morning is for “real” workers, people who “get their hands dirty” and whatever other bullshit cliches you want to spout. That’s the cult of early for you. Yes, there’s grudging respect for people who do night shifts, but unless you live in a town where night work is very common, there’s no culture of trying to show this respect by keeping quiet in the daytime.

Personally, I have the white-collar privilege of being able to work from home a lot of the time and choose my own hours. Yes, being responsible for planning my own workload is mentally tiring, but I fully acknowledge it’s a privilege. I’m judged and paid on the actual work I do, rather than having a boss who plays power games about controlling when they get to see my face. That is most definitely a privilege, and I appreciate it.

Yes, working from home does involve mental effort and discipline, because there’s no longer an easy, spatial way of separating home stuff and work stuff. I’ve read endless blog posts about how you can get into work mode by dressing in smart clothes, setting aside a room of your house for work (because naturally, everybody’s house is big enough to do that) and performing little start-the-day and end-the-day rituals. That’s fine, but I’m coming round to thinking that perhaps the smart thing would be not to separate them at all, but just to get the most out of both of them.

I recently read a blog post on productivity and willpower that suggests you’d be better off not getting dressed before you start work. I accept what the author says about willpower being a depletable resource. I’m not completely sure that she’s right about willpower being at its strongest first thing in the morning – does that work for night owls? But assuming she is right, homeworkers like me should stop getting dressed and ready first thing. Why use up your precious, depletable willpower on choosing a suit or blow-drying your hair when you could be tackling your actual work – the thing that matters? You can do the face-the-world stuff mid-morning and treat it as a break from work rather than as stuff to be done before your work can start.

Great from a productivity and happiness point of view. But are you strong enough to withstand the cultural pressures telling you to get dressed earlier? If you’re still in your pyjamas at 10am, you will have to withstand loaded comments from every “real” worker you encounter. And no, of course you are not safe from these comments in your own home unless you never receive any deliveries, never have any work done on your house, never have the boiler checked or the meter read, never forget to put the bin out and have to rush out with it when the binmen are already there.

The comments are mostly light-hearted teasing. But the message is: you are a useless, pampered aristocrat and you don’t know what real work is. Those Superman pyjamas might as well be a smoking-jacket and a monacle. Your real income doesn’t matter. Your real working hours don’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done any number of back-breaking “real” jobs in the past. You are the idle rich and that’s the end of the matter. And as with many jokes designed to reinforce cultural pressure, it’s very hard to argue without looking humourless.

In other words, the cult of early has preserved the sumptuary laws. They don’t have any legal force, of course, but un-codified expectations are often even harder to challenge than codified, legally binding ones. If you want the status of a worker, you must put some real clothes on.

Of course, this is about preserving someone else’s right to feel better about themselves by judging you. That’s why there’s not much you can do to stop being judged in this way, short of jacking in the freelance graphic design work and becoming a miner.

A little story to illustrate this: I used to subscribe to the “get dressed early and smartly” school of thought, so one day I opened the front door to a delivery driver in my work-from-home suit. His face cracked into the usual leer of thoroughly relished contempt and his first words to me were: “You haven’t been out, have you?” It took me a while to work out what he meant, which was a bit slow of me given that jokes about my laziness are the main topic of conversation I get from delivery drivers. He’d spotted a spider’s web woven across the front door, which was hard evidence that I was a lazy stay-at-home. With this guy, my smart clothes made no difference. My explanation of the concept of remote working made no difference. He just kept repeating “You haven’t been out”, amused and accusing. The subtext was so very obviously “I’ve caught you slacking!”

I closed the door on him while he was still cackling and then remembered: I had been out that day already. But I’d left the house by the back door, because I keep my bike in the back garden and this journey was by bike rather than on foot.

But the thing is: it didn’t matter. The fact that I actually had been out was no more relevant than the smart clothes or anything I said or the fact that I’d finished a difficult conference call to someone in a different timezone minutes before he knocked on my door. Nothing mattered. When people enjoy judging, they will keep on judging in the face of a huge heap of evidence that judging is not required. This is one instance where the “never apologise, never explain” thing actually applies. Just put on your metaphorical smoking jacket and close the door in his stupid fucking face.

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One Comment on “The cult of early preserves the sumptuary laws”


  1. […] mentioned before, in passing, that being able to work from home rather than going into an office is a privilege. […]


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