Saturday, 20 March 2010
What did you get?
Each workplace has its ritual conversations. There are the standard grumbles: “Seems like a long day,” “Feels like Friday,” “Wish I’d stayed in bed.” – even, “I think I’ll throw a sickie tomorrow.” They don’t mean quite what they say. The colleague who speaks most fiercely of gloom will smile encouragingly as soon as the first problem of the day arises. The colleague who threatens to “throw a sickie” never fakes illness and struggles in, a few days later, taking paracetemol to quell a burning head and aching limbs.
Most workplace conversations are like talking to neighbours about the weather. They imply that, however bad things get – and all workplaces are bad from time to time – we’re in it together and can sympathise with one another’s experiences.
Other conversations are less pleasant. Fellow workers jockey for superiority, find ways to imply “I’m more important than you.” The workers who play these games are usually those who never question their employer’s changing values – or, if they do, keep their doubts to the privacy of home. I suppose this lack of thought and adventure will increase as the recession continues – and that workplaces will be filled with a new competitive passivity as workers insist on their importance to the employer. In the new fear, anger and fear will burst out as strikes, usually on the wrong issues and expressing grievances in ways that the – public – especially the fearful and newly-unemployed public - won’t understand.
Not all workplace conversations are about work. There’s “Did you do anything nice at the weekend?”, “Got any plans?” – the conversations that look back and forward to times of leisure if not of liberty. Too often the answer is: “The house needed work,” “The children were ill,” or, simply, “I caught up on sleep.” But they're a chance to remember that work does not define us - we are more than that.
In the past few years, a new question has crept in after fetes and festivals. I was quite shocked when first I heard it, one year after Chrsitmas. A colleague turned to me and said, "What did you get?", following it up with, "Did you get anything nice?"
"It's childish," I thought, recalling on that urge to fierce for possession and experience that adults learn to quell. And it seemed so materialistic - not "did you have a nice time?" but "what did you get?" as though life was no more than a competition about who owned the flashiest possessions. It didn't help that the question came from a colleague who I didn't expect to view the world in that way.
Now it seems as though that was the first time I noticed a change in how people viewed the world. I've got used to the question. I hear them everywhere: at work, on the train, from friends and acquaintances: "What did you get for Christmas?", "for your birthday?", "for Valentine's Day?", "for Mother's Day?" It's a horror. What do people say when the answer is "nothing"? When did intimate family festivals turn into a public parade of acquisition and consumption? I never thought money or posessions a fair measure of value - or love.
Sometimes I think I'll feel more comfortable in an economic downturn.