Archive for the ‘jokes’ category

A question of etiquette

March 27, 2013

I have an etiquette question.

I was recently in email contact with someone, trying to fix a time for him to come round and drop off some paperwork at my house. He said he was free all day and asked me what time would be convenient for me. So I said: “I’m popping out now […] but I should be back after 3pm, so any time after then is fine.”

I was unexpectedly delayed on the way home, but I still got through the door at 2:40pm…to find the paperwork had been pushed through the letterbox while I was out. He’d apparently interpreted “any time after 3pm” to mean “before 3pm”. I see this a lot with early birds of the older generation: a failure to cope with concepts like “any time after [stated time]”.

A lot of my dealings with early birds end with me asking myself: “Does this person really not grasp the difference between ‘before’ and ‘after’? Or is it just that they prefer to ignore arrangements in favour of doing things when they feel like it? And if it’s the latter, why did they go through the whole ritual of making those arrangements in the first place?”

Or maybe the open-endedness of the time window makes them feel insecure, and of course early birds always reach for extra earliness to make them feel more secure. So they hear “any time after 3pm” and think “3pm! That’s the fixed point here! Got to do it by 3pm! Pedal to the metal!”

Anyway, my etiquette question is: do I have to give the body a proper burial, or is it OK if I just throw it to the neighbourhood wolves?

JOKING. (Probably.)

Forgotten commonplaces

March 26, 2013

“And the next thing, please?”

The ridiculous phrase came unbidden into Iris’s mind and twisted her lips in a wry smile. The glib shopkeeper’s question seemed to represent so exactly her own carefully directed mental processes.

Extract from Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie, first published 1945.

It’s obvious from this that “And the next thing, please?” was what shopkeepers said in the days when they fetched things for you and you just stood there ticking off your shopping list.

I’m assuming that in the 1940s, “And the next thing, please?” was a phrase that nobody ever thought about, because they heard it so often. It would have been part of the wallpaper, part of a customer-service ritual. Now it’s gone from being spoken thousands of times a day (except for Sundays, of course) to being forgotten completely.

Of course some of these ritual phrases end up being remembered after their lifetime, often through comedy. Think of “Are you being served?” (although “Are you being helped?” was actually a more commonly used phrase). Perhaps today’s equivalent is “Unidentified item in bagging area.”

The cult of early preserves the sumptuary laws

May 18, 2012

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.

Early birds v night owls

April 4, 2012

The cult of early isn’t just about deadlines: it’s also about the hours in which we choose to be awake and do things. In fact, I would argue it’s more about our daily routines than anything else.

A fictional example: Luke works 7am-3pm while Tom works 10am-6pm. They both spend eight hours at work, so assuming they take roughly the same amount of break time, they’re equal, right?

Anybody who’s ever worked in an office with flexitime will know this isn’t the case. In terms of hours worked, yes, they’re equal. In terms of smugness about hours worked, Luke wins hands down.

When Tom walks into the office at 10am, Luke is socially sanctioned to make comments about Tom’s “lateness”, whether that’s a jokey “Good evening” or a sardonic “Oh, you’ve finally made it in.” If Tom challenges the comments, on the grounds that he’s not actually late but just working a different shift pattern, Luke will say he was only joking and Tom will look as if he can’t take a joke.

If Tom tries to get his own back by commenting “Leaving us already?” or similar when Luke leaves at 3pm, he will get a self-righteous response along the lines of “I think you’ll find I’ve been here since 8am!” Quite often the early shift pattern is for childcare reasons, which means that criticism of the office early bird is effectively criticising working parents: dangerous territory.

I don’t know where the cult of early comes from. I understand why culturally, we associate the hours of darkness with unwholesome things: crime, witchcraft, antisocial behaviour and so on. But I don’t understand why so many people seem genuinely to believe that being “early to bed, early to rise” makes you a better, more productive person.

There is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. Do I need to say it again? There is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. Whether you are “good” or “bad”, hard-working or lazy, is not about your circadian rhythms. It is about who you are and what you do.

There is a theory that lustratory rituals actually encourage bad behaviour by encouraging a false sense of righteousness, a feeling that you are super-clean and can do no wrong. I wonder if it’s the same thing with early birds. If you belong to a culture that values earliness for its own sake, are you starting your hideously early day with the assumption that you’ve already “won”, that you don’t need to be as productive or as friendly as the colleague who’s currently still snoozing?

Swatting butterflies

January 24, 2012

I used to have a boyfriend who, like many of the people I deal with, had what I call “a hole in the head”. Things that were obvious to others were not obvious to him. Most attempts to point these things out went through his ears and straight out of the hole in the head, leaving his eyes blank and his brain untouched. (Of course, we split up, not because he had a hole in the head but because his hole in the head didn’t match mine.)

He was once stopped in the street by a woman doing a survey about something like satellite telly. As he explained to me afterwards, he stopped to give her a long rant about the survey topic “because she had big tits”.

Now, I have plenty to say about badly-designed surveys that don’t let you get across your real opinions, and about people who stop you in the street when you’re just trying to daydream, and maybe she did ask a lot of stupid questions, but this still bothered me.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re saying that BECAUSE she had big tits, BECAUSE you found her attractive, you decided to stop and give her a big angry rant about satellite telly?” My boyfriend looked confused, but I could tell this was one of the times where I’d got through to him. I think he was confused because the woman, in his mind, was very much secondary to his killer arguments about satellite telly or whatever the hell it was. I followed up with some predictable comments about how she certainly wasn’t going to fancy him back after that display of aggression, and I really think it got through. At least, he’d remembered she was a person, rather than a pair of breasts attached to a clipboard, and that was progress.

I’ve said before, in passing, that wolf-whistling is not about attracting women; it’s about reinforcing dominance of public space. It’s about reminding other people: I am the looker here, I get to judge stuff. Reacting to attractive women by trying to make them listen to your boring opinions is part of the same set of behaviours. You’re using their social conditioning against them, for a start, but you’re also reminding them that drawing any attention is dangerous because it sets up more social traps to avoid. You’re putting yourself in the comfortable role of “inevitable consequence” and them in the uncomfortable role of “person who needs to be careful”. Effectively, you’re punishing them in some small way for their attractiveness.

It’s a similar thing on social media. I don’t get much street harassment these days, and for that I am unambiguously grateful. But on social media, every day, I get micropunishments for being too interesting.

I’m on Twitter. I’ve built up a few hundred followers by being reasonably interesting, and I get retweeted when I say interesting things. But the more followers and RTs  I get, the more attention I attract – and lots of that attention comes in a form that makes my heart sink a tiny bit every time. I can guarantee that if something I say gets retweeted more than ten times, I will get a reply I don’t want. It might be outright aggressive and/or insulting and/or weird, e.g. “Your not only boring but your ugly [sic]” or “Christians like you think you’re helping charity but you’re actually supporting jihad”. But more often than not, it’s just a little “correction”. I’ve done my sums wrong, you see, or I’ve made a general statement that – shock horror! – isn’t true of that particular individual, or I’ve made a spelling mistake, or I’ve shown too much sympathy for a group in society when that group has placed itself beyond sympathy by behaving in an irrational way.

The commenters are saying to me “You’re wrong, you know” but the subtext is “You’re wrong, and I have a right to correct you and have you listen to that correction”, and the deeper subtext is “You’re wrong, but if you weren’t interesting with it then you wouldn’t have to put up with being told so.

Mostly, I think “OK, this person is boring and humourless, they lack both empathy and reading comprehension skills, and they make me tired, but they mean well.” But when it happens over and over again, it has an effect and it does force me to change my behaviour. I think twice, three times, before posting a funny remark even if I know my friends will find it funny, because I can’t bear to see the flurry of humourless responses – and feel my social conditioning tugging on me to deal with them politely. “I think you’ll find the story about the chicken crossing the road is a hoax. Check Snopes.

We’ve heard a lot about the abuse meted out to women for the crime of being visibly female on the internet. I’m not saying that I have it anywhere near as tough as some of the high-profile women who’ve spoken out about this.

What I am saying is that every day, the drip-drip-drip of “corrections” and of drive-by nastiness starts to get to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t get “corrected” about something. And I don’t think a week goes by in which a complete stranger doesn’t seek me out online to tell me exactly why they’re not following me, or to tell me how they think I should change what I say to be more pleasing to them. I don’t know if they think I’ll welcome the criticism; maybe they’ve forgotten that I’ll have any reaction to it at all. Either way, their conviction that their own opinion is too important to suppress overrides any consideration of how I’ll feel. (Needless to say, these are very rarely people who have any interesting, original content of their own.)

I don’t know what to do to stop it. I already know that “I was joking” and “Yes, thanks, already Googled that, see my next tweet” and “I wasn’t asking for your opinion” have very little effect in terms of stopping the flow of micropunishments. And when I don’t know what to do to stop it, that’s usually a big clue that it’s not my behaviour that should be changing.

Good behaviour

July 11, 2006

How could I think of a word worthy of his attention? […] As I leaned beside him, the ache of pride and shyness drove me into the farthest depths of silence.
‘Don’t try,’ Hubert said that first night before dinner. I felt his constraint and anxiety. ‘Just be your natural self,’ he advised. So I was not any more the happy joke he and Papa had invented. Desperation filled me. Right, I thought, I can’t talk. But I can eat. I can be the fat woman in the fairground; the man who chews up iron; the pigheaded woman; anything to escape from hopeless me. So, at that first dinner before the first ball, I wolfed down sensational quantities of food. Almost  a side of smoked salmon, and I ate a whole lemon and its peel as well; most of a duck; four meringues and four pêches melbas; mushrooms and marrow on toast; even cheese. ‘What else can we find for her?’ Richard asked Hubert. ‘She really is a great doer.’ They cheered me quietly. I was a joke again. I was a person. I was something for them to talk about.

From Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (1981).