Vulnerability and the Anti-Work Position

The downside of vulnerability.

A while ago I read a very interesting article entitled, Discretion still matters – don’t ruin your career by sharing too much and today upon re-reading it I also checked out an article that it links to about vulnerability in the workplace. As someone who is fairly authentic in terms of my personality (snarky, sarcastic, lover of puns) when I’m at work or when I’m at my apartment, I find this pretty interesting. And especially as someone who is anti-work, I wonder how vulnerable I can be.

There are some exceptions as Lawrence Krubner (author of Discretion still matters) points out:

Sometimes employers and employees become friends. But this should never be taken for granted.

There’s a reason why even when one of my managers is also one of my best friends I’m fairly guarded in certain areas. When describing certain parts of my day I may be tight lipped about certain details or otherwise not give away all of the details of my slacking. Sometimes I won’t bring up slacking at all, just in case I’m worried about their reaction.

Because although they’re usually good about that sort of thing, ultimately they are still a manager and have different incentives than I do. They have different feedback mechanisms than I do as well as a different set of responsibilities and priorities that they may want to satisfy, even if it may not match up with the people below them.

Of course, I’m friends with this person for a reason. They’re a good person who generally understands why anyone would slack off at the job I work at (crummy retail). They themselves before they were a manager would often be slacking off alongside me or at least in spirit when they were halfway across the store from me. It helped that one of our managers was friends with them and me as well and that we were all fairly inclined towards slacking.

So while I can see why Leah Fessler (author of the article on vulnerability) would say things like:

I feel sad for those who believe emotional numbing is possible … On occasion, I cry in the office. Or rant to my work friends. Or sulk silently, do the bare minimum, then go home early.

I don’t maintain a “work-self” and a “self-self,” and I don’t aspire to. It’s just too much effort (and yet also counterproductive, if you believe the experts).

I find this a sympathetic position given that I also do not have much of a difference between who I am at work and who I am outside of it. Granted there are some things I am guarded about. I’m not out as trans or not straight, or the fact that I’m poly, an atheist and an anarchist. So yeah, just a few small things here and there, no biggie.

But for me, I don’t consider those things major parts of my workplace identity. My identity as being pansexual, for instance, has little to do with my job and I don’t see it as relevant. If a co-worker is talking about personal sexuality for some reason and seems like an open person, I may say something to make some “light” conversation.

Otherwise I don’t see the point of bringing it up. Most folks at work already think I’m weird and everybody has likely gotten the message that I don’t give a fuck about my job. I don’t need to tell them that I’m a writer in my spare time and have published a book and  done this or that with my writings. It just doesn’t matter to me at work.

Partly that’s because being at work means (for me) that I’m here to do my job as early as possible. I won’t sulk silently, but I’ll certainly do the bare minimum. And while there are a few friends I’d definitely rant to, for the most part I’m not interested in meshing my personal life with my work life. I consider these things separate.

Fessler sadly does not:

Then, at our third team meeting, our editor proposed a group exercise. We would each write the user manual to ourself, with specific guidance about our personalities, professional habits, and preferred communication styles, and we would share them with everyone on the team.

I’m going to make sure I don’t overburden my colleagues. But in the weeks since we launched this experiment, they’ve already validated the idea that, done mindfully, personal sharing turns deskmates to friends, bosses to mentors, anxiety to empathy, and work to life.

The whole “work to life” bit actually scares me. I don’t want my workplace to be seen as a place of work. Most folks are miserable while they are working there. Most customers want to get in and out as soon as possible so they can be home and try to relax from the job that they also probably hate. I know not all jobs are as bad as retail but it doesn’t seem like the alternatives are exactly glowing with recommendations either.

And Krubner has a great point to sum up a main issue with Fessler:

Leah Fessler doesn’t seem to get that she is being forced to do this to serve the interests of capital. She is not doing this with a group of friends. A late night session in a dorm room rewards this kind of openness, but an exploitive [sic] economic system seeks this information to gain power over the workers.

Krubner is correct to put out a stark difference between friends and employers. Employers (much like teachers or parents) are often not easily categorized as “friends”. They can act as a sort of friend to you but people with institutional or societal authority over you often have a much more tenuous sort of friendship.

A major reason for this is that the power disparity causes a difference in access to the resources around you. It causes a natural divide between what each of you knows and can use and how much freedom each has. In many cases the student and child has very little power compared to the people who are above them.

In any case, I don’t see it surprising that Fessler doesn’t understand the critique of capitalism that Krubner is leveling at her and the company she’s working for. Many people (up to and including an anarchist friend of mine) think of their workplace as a social space for making friends and even having flings or deeper relationships.

Let’s take a quick look at Krubner’s rules for discretion:

1. it’s often rational to be closed and guarded, because we often have co-workers who want to hurt us

2. it’s often rational to be secretly closed and guarded, while performing openness and vulnerability, so as to sell people on our vision, or our product, or our service

3. it’s often rational to be closed and guarded, because if you are ambitious, all of the top jobs are reserved for people who are closed and guarded

I’m not sure how much 1. holds, even as a heuristic. How do we know that co-workers often want to hurt us? And in what ways exactly? I personally don’t like to presume that my co-workers want to hurt me but that they have the capability to and the system that would make it fairly easy for them to do it. That’s enough for me to be cautious.

2. sounds an awful lot like lying to me (no matter how much Krubner denies it). And whatever, I’m not a Kantian about lying (though I could be mistaken for one) but at least be honest about the lying, I guess. In any case, I agree that it sometimes makes sense to be guarded while still trying to maintain an aura of vulnerability around you.

3. depends on your goals, right? If you want the top jobs (and why would you want to if you’re just serving capital?) then maybe that makes sense, but I wouldn’t recommend climbing the corporate ladder.

A few further nitpicks of Krubner’s article:

I’m a millennial and I can’t get my older colleagues to be vulnerable makes this sound like a generational thing. Maybe it is, but I suspect this is more related to age and ambition.

That sounds like the same thing to me. A matter of “age and ambition” just sounds like a less millennial way to say it’s all about generations. But then again maybe I would think that as a multi-industry destroy millennial…

Can anyone think of a believable scenario for the future where discretion is not rewarded for top level military officers, or world leaders, or corporate officers? While our manners and customs are forever in transition, I can not imagine a world where discretion loses its value for those at the top.

Yes, but who cares about these people? For one thing they aren’t very relevant to Fessler’s article and they serve the interests of capital to quite a larger degree. I mean, if you want to talk about serving capital then you’re going to have to include in that conversation a discussion about military officers and other folks Krubner mentions here.

The white elephant in the room is perhaps, what do I do about discretion?

Well, luckily my employers couldn’t care less and I blog under my real (not legal) name.

So for me, it’s not really an issue. Insofar as it could have been an issue before, I’ve never had people look up my name and I also have the advantage of having a fairly common name. So even if employers wanted to look me up to find something that would work against me, it’s not likely to be a successful venture.

What do y’all think? How guarded are y’all at work?

I’ve got the next few days off so I’ll be enjoying that.

Happy slacking!

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