This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
I almost feel embarrassed about my preparations for this past week. I was getting my second Pfizer shot, and had been roundly advised to prepare to feel like a garbage truck hit me. I cleared my schedule and maintained strict boundaries around it. “I can’t do an interview then,” I said in email after email, “I’ll be getting my second vaccination shot, and I want to clear the time.” I was ready.
The response to these emails was, without fail, that’s amazing, I’m so happy for you, let’s figure out a time next week. It was like having a get out of jail free card, only the jail was work obligations. Of course, being able to clear my schedule in the first place is a privilege of the sort of work that I do — but with that malleability comes a general expectation of accessibility. Put differently: it’s very hard to actually say no to people’s requests, because they know that your time is your own.
I’ve tried to say no more over the last year — frankly responding that “I don’t have the bandwidth for this right now,” or “I want to do this, but can it happen in four months?” But I still feel weird every time. ‘No’ makes me feel like an asshole. Many over-extended women have told me they find ‘no’ particularly difficult to access: for women, there’s a gendered expectation of even more availability, of receptiveness and eagerness, which makes a ‘no’ read as cold, or standoffish, or bitchy. (Which is why I still dream of creating a second email account that can pose as my ‘assistant’ and say no, repeatedly and firmly, for me).
But I also feel like every ‘no’ is a lost opportunity. My internalized logic, accumulated through years of academic precarity and freelancing and working at BuzzFeed and book writing, is that you never know where a yes could eventually lead you.
This is the conundrum I tried to write about in Can’t Even: the myth of meritocracy teaches you that if you do say no — in or out of freelance life — you are closing off roads to your potential excellence. Or, more bluntly, you are not ambitious, and a lack of ambition (at least in the United States) usually means that whatever financial fate befalls you, you deserve it. Boundaries, in whatever form, are still equated with a laziness, lack of ambition, “not a team player” — even when a manager communicates otherwise.
Of course, much of this ethos can be traced back to Calvinist understandings of a desire to work all the time as evidence of one’s status as Elect, aka pre-destined for eternal salvation. That’s the moral component. It just happens to intersect with the capitalist imperative to recognize and reward continual, preferably exponential, growth.
That’s the backdrop against which we normalize the maintenance of productivity during a pandemic, a mass shooting, police brutality, racist violence, a massive weeklong power outage, or an insurrection. Productivity maintenance becomes a means to prove your fitness for the future, and, as such, your value as an employee: you have the skills, the fortitude, and the control over your immediate environment to work through the inevitable catastrophes and demands of the market. Whatever shit the world throws at you, the work endures. It’s not that you want to be a heartless robot; it’s that the market is hostile to those who aren’t, no matter what your manager assures you. The manager’s crisis refrain of “feel free to take some time, if you need it” is fundamentally a sorting question: are you someone who needs it or are you someone who can ignore that you do?
If you work for yourself in whatever capacity, you get the same question, only it’s coming from inside your brain. Are you a person who needs it, or are you a hustler who prides themselves on getting things done? Are you a person who needs it, or do you recognize times as crisis as a moment to distinguish yourself? Are you a person who needs rest and reprieve, or are have you wholly internalized the worst manager in the world and allowed them to shade every hour of your day?
This is a long way of saying that I wanted the shot to give me the space I struggle to give myself. But of course, 12 hours later, 24, 36, 48, I felt great. And even though I didn’t have immediate work obligations, I filled my time with the things that undeniably needed to get done: dropping off packages, cleaning the house, folding laundry, things that could but couldn’t actually wait, largely because I had been putting them off for so long in favor of work. There was no catharsis of fever, no demarcation between my unvaccinated and vaccinated self.
I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself and others that, as I put it in December, you are beloved and worthy of rest. I cannot tell you how deeply I believe that, how fiercely I want to dismantle this ethos of constant productivity and workism, and how spectacularly bad I am at consistently taking my own advice. I am trying and failing and getting slightly better and backsliding. I have tried to be consistently transparent about that — because that is what unlearning an ideology looks like. It doesn’t mean that the work is bullshit. It means the work is hard.
In hindsight, what excited me about the second vaccine shot was the permission structure that accompanied it. There wasn’t a productive choice I could make within that structure. There was only rest. It wasn’t a boundary, immediately malleable to others’ demands. It was, as I’ve written about before, an actual guardrail against the runaway train of work. At least it would’ve been — if I hadn’t oriented it in a way that required physical incapacitation to work. I clearly needed a less flexible permission structure.
A few months ago, I saw an email signature that read: My working day may not be your working day. Please don’t feel obliged to reply to this e-mail outside of your normal working hours. You might find this is hokey, but I like it, even as a temporary salve on our broken email habits. It’s a legible permission structure: I neither expect nor need you to respond right now.
But even that permission structure can be improved upon. When someone emails me with some stray thoughts and prefaces it with “Absolutely no need to respond, I just want to tell you…,” it transforms my relationship to the text. Instead of an obligation, it becomes a diversion, a set of thoughts to sit with — and, I find, it also means that I eventually do end up responding. The more specific you can be about what you actually need with a communication, the better.
When it comes to taking time off, the more explicitly mandated the break, the better. Instead of “feel free to take some time if you need it,” try “I’d really support you taking the day off.” Instead of a sentence at the end of a meeting about “make sure you’re taking that PTO,” an app that alerts you when an employee hasn’t taken any in a month. For managers, that means modeling the behavior yourself: taking sick days, and personal days, and extended PTO, and being transparent about it — and not sneakily working in the margins. It means having enough people on staff so that a person can actually be sick, or take parental or bereavement leave, without the guilt of pouring work onto their already overburdened colleagues. And it means getting rid of unlimited PTO policies, which are just meritocracy traps masquerading as a “perk.”
Unions can be excellent guardrails. They’re like the fake assistant, but for, you know, everyone. I’ve written about the ways that non-public white collar workers have been historically averse to unions, and a whole lot of it had to do with enduring faith that you could distinguish yourself through commitment to work and rise through the ranks — unions would only get in the way. Unions were antithetical to personal growth. Only people who don’t love their work — or their company family — need unions.
That thinking has benefited a select few and mired millions of others in exploitative work situations. Unions helped codify a distance not just because the worker and their employer, but the worker and their work. They deromanticize employers’ most seductive and manipulative tales of “family.” They distribute the burden of resisting shitty workplace practices. They have periodically failed, and I have no illusions concerning the perfection of unions. But it’s worth thinking about the weakness of relying on others’ assurances that they’ll act in good faith:
Here’s software engineer Emi Nietfeld, for example, writing about her experience with this sort of workplace at Google:
My manager felt like the father I wished I’d had. He believed in my potential and cared about my feelings. All I wanted was to keep getting promoted so that as his star rose, we could keep working together. This gave purpose to every task, no matter how grueling or tedious.
The few people who’d worked at other companies reminded us that there was nowhere better. I believed them, even when my technical lead — not my manager, but the man in charge of my day-to-day work — addressed me as “beautiful” and “gorgeous,” even after I asked him to stop. (Finally, I agreed that he could call me “my queen.”) He used many of our one-on-one meetings to ask me to set him up with friends, then said he wanted “A blonde. A tall blonde.” Someone who looked like me.
Saying anything about his behavior meant challenging the story we told ourselves about Google being so special. The company anticipated our every need — nap pods, massage chairs, Q-Tips in the bathroom, a shuttle system to compensate for the Bay Area’s dysfunctional public transportation — until the outside world began to seem hostile. Google was the Garden of Eden; I lived in fear of being cast out.
When I talked to outsiders about the harassment, they couldn’t understand: I had one of the sexiest jobs in the world. How bad could it be? I asked myself this, too. I worried that I was taking things personally and that if anyone knew I was upset, they’d think I wasn’t tough enough to hack it in our intense environment.
So I didn’t tell my manager about my tech lead’s behavior for more than a year. Playing along felt like the price of inclusion. I spoke up only when it looked like he would become an official manager — my manager — replacing the one I adored and wielding even more power over me. At least four other women said that he’d made them uncomfortable, in addition to two senior engineers who already made it clear that they wouldn’t work with him.
As soon as my complaint with H.R. was filed, Google went from being a great workplace to being any other company: It would protect itself first. I’d structured my life around my job — exactly what they wanted me to do — but that only made the fallout worse when I learned that the workplace that I cherished considered me just an employee, one of many and disposable.
Your manager may be a good person. Maybe you’re a manager and also a good person. But goodness is no match for growth imperatives. Goodness can suffocate and transform amidst toxicity. Goodness is a promise easily broken. If you struggle with your own relationship to work, you understand this: your best and gentlest intentions for yourself are readily compromised.
For various reasons, a union might not currently be available to you — and I think it’s important to recognize as much, especially for people who live in places or workplaces that aren’t just resistant, but retaliatory towards labor organizing of any form. Or maybe you’re a proud member of an organizing committee. What matters, I think, is continuing to revisit why the format of a union is so important, and why it offers unique solutions to the current problem of work.
Personal solutions are so hard, if not impossible, to maintain on our own. Relying on having a benevolent manager is like buying catastrophic health insurance to manage a chronic disease. And what becomes of the freelancers, subcontractors, and contingent workers? How do we recodify the distance between worker and work — while reestablishing the moral obligation of employer to employee?
That’s what labor laws are supposed to facilitate — and, at least in the United States, they’ve utterly failed to acknowledge the seismic shifts in every industry over the last forty years. Whether you’re a software engineer or a freelance writer or driving for UberEats, it’s become more and more difficult to deny that our current way of organizing work in our lives is broken. A lot of people have realized as much for some time, and understood who is best served by our understanding of work. But others, because of age or circumstance, are arriving here for the first time. Sometimes it takes a long time to realize that the way things are doesn’t have to be the way things will be.
Things I Read and Loved This Week:
An Ode to the People in My Workout Video
The desire for “frictionless” employees
A piece that manages to be a real celebration of an unheralded scientific hero and an indictment of the funding structure for medical research
How mom blogs & influencers monetize and normalize the horrible working conditions of contemporary motherhood
The internet never forgets a called off wedding
I can’t believe I wanted this interview to be….longer
This week’s just trust me
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I’m a teacher and I have sick days (I literally have a year’s worth built up) but they are beyond stressful to use this year so I barely have, even though I should have many times (see: your earlier piece on teacher burnout). But I took a sick day preemptively after shot 2 bc I assumed I’d be sick and then... I felt 100% fine!! And it was the most amaaaaazing day. I stayed in bed, as if I was sick, and just... rested. All day. I almost get teary thinking about it now because it was just such a restorative day... that I probably won’t give myself again.
The timing on this is so funny -- I got my first Pfizer vaccine this morning and I've cleared my schedule in anticipation, stocked up on Amy's Kitchen frozen pot pies (my favorite "not feeling well" food), have cozy TV shows ("The Great Pottery Throwdown") saved up, my weighted blanket at the ready, etc. I'm self-employed and almost never take time off, and this resonated so strongly with me: "Of course, being able to clear my schedule in the first place is a privilege of the sort of work that I do — but with that malleability comes a general expectation of accessibility... Are you a person who needs rest and reprieve, or are have you wholly internalized the worst manager in the world and allowed them to shade every hour of your day?"