The Series Philosopher

Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn

S07E05: Pretending to be busy at work

SEINFELD: 7x05 The Hot Tub - George (in the middle) shows Jerry and Elaine how looking annoyed at work makes you look busy.

SEINFELD: 7×05 The Hot Tub – George (in the middle) shows Jerry and Elaine how looking annoyed at work, by sighing and rubbing your forehead, makes you look busy.

This article is a reedition of “Pretending to be under pressure at work” with the TV show W1A.

Mom offered me a tiny book the other day: “50 golden rules to survive in a company”, I have read two rules so far. One of them was: “Always pretend to be busy. Keep in mind that the company is a theatre stage, so don’t forget your part.” And then, it went on with a series of tips like “always leave a jacket hanging on the back of your chair” (which I already did, but not for the same reasons), or saying “ok five minutes” when someone asks you if they can bother you a moment. Why all the fuss? I thought about that on watching the fifth episode of the seventh season of Seinfeld (NBC) where the lazy George Constanza (Jason Alexander, Duckman), who somehow managed to land a great job at the Yankees, tells Jerry Seinfeld (portrayed by himself) and Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep) how he manages to look busy and stressed at work.

JERRY: Can’t believe you write for the J. Peterman catalogue. Get this one, “I packed my rod and reel. Thirty hours later, lost in the fjord… a welcoming smile. Thank God she spotted the epaulets on my Norwegian ice-fishing vest.”

GEORGE: This catalogue is all about how to score in a foreign country.

ELAINE: Yeah, what do you do all day?

GEORGE: Not that much.

ELAINE: Huh huh.

JERRY: I thought that new promotion was supposed to be more work?

GEORGE: When the season starts. Right now, I sit around pretending I’m busy.

JERRY: How do you pull that off?

GEORGE: I always look annoyed. Yeah. When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you’re busy. Think about it. [He pretends to be annoyed by something]

ELAINE: Yeah, you do!

JERRY: He looks busy!

ELAINE: He looks very busy.

GEORGE: I know what I’m doing. In fact, Mr. Wilhelm gave me one of those little stress dolls. [He stands up] All right. Back to work.

George, renowned for his incessant lies, once again plays on appearances. Like the waiter in the cafe that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) describes in Being and Nothingness (1942): “he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.” The existentialists like Sartre also viewed life as a theater stage (no, the authors of 50 golden rules to survive in business didn’t come up with the idea).

Also read the article based on an episode of Dexter:

S06E06: Can you ever be yourself at work?

Last year in Germany, I had the opportunity to meet and listen to an author named Stephan Grünewald. He was presenting his latest book entitled “Die erschöpfte Gesellschaft” (in English, “The exhausted society”). In this book, he claims that nowadays in Germany, working people are exhausted, but they are also proud of being exhausted. He said in an interview by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

“Before, the salesman was proud of his deals, or the carpenter of his furniture. Today, the working processes are so dismantled that you barely get any feedback. That is why many people are proud of the degree of their exhaustment. When it is a workpiece, I am forced to take short breaks, if only because the color must dry, or I need some time to think, or the workshop is closing. Today, we are 24/7 operational and it’s the only way we can have the feeling of achieving something. But at a certain point, you have unrelenting headaches or you are on the verge of a burnout.”

I remember asking Grünewald the following question: “What if  our co-workers were just insisting on showing how tired they are, not out of pride of this tiredness, but in order to get a feedback, a confirmation that they do feel tired?” In The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel (1770-1831) writes that the constitutive Other, the Other Self is like a mirror that tells us who we are, it is the only adequate mirror of our own self-conscious self. And as we’re talking about Hegel, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) writes in The Human Condition that people expect two things from their career or the work the do: either a compensation (money for instance), or recognition (admiration, congratulations, status…) or both.The white collars who do not see the result of their work may count on their exhaustment and the dark circles under their eyes to show people that they actually did work.

But that exhaustment is not always posture. It is, according to the contemporary German philosopher Byung-Chul Han (born in 1959) the pain of the century. The author of Fatigue Society (2010) decries the working conditions in the rich countries. Work has become alienating again, everyone is tired, there is no place for freedom. This situation results in what Han calls an epidemy of “soul infarctus”. People are broken, they do not pretend to be under pressure, they really are experiencing stress and burnout, and sometimes end up killing themselves.  In 1979, the American sociologist and psychologist Robert Karasek established a model to measure stress at work, that is known as the job strain model. That model emphasizes the inter-action between demands and control in causing stress. The notion of social support is key in that model and according to Karasek, the most stressful activities would be those where the worker has little social support.

I used to work in a big company that was known for its high number of suicides among the employees. But in my department, I was more accustomed to high numbers of great pretenders. In a world where faking pressure is beneficial to your career, how can you tell a depressive from a careerist?

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The Series Philosopher is a woman in her late 20s. Not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.

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