Morning Ed: Labor {2017.04.12.W}

How to go nomad with your employment. Zapier is offering financial packages to get folks to leave Silicon Valley. For the most part, though, the future of telecommuting is always right there, in the future.

A part of me resents that job training like this is falling to the state to take care, but I’m glad it’s being done.

Oliver Burkeman says that time management is ruining our lives.

Five peculiarities of the American workplace. Also, how we stack up with Sweden.

Peter Waldman on the toll of the southern manufacturing boom. (Or to look at it another way, the cost of trying to compete with foreign manufacturers.) Relatedly, according to Howard Schneider, Alabama is as big a threat to the Rust Belt than is Mexico.

Hidden from Germany’s low unemployment are a lot of unemployed refugees.

Caroline Moss explains why waitressing prepares you for any job. That’s one job I’ve never had, but I can sort of see it.

How apprenticeships gave Europe an advantage.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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52 thoughts on “Morning Ed: Labor {2017.04.12.W}

  1. Time management: I think part of the problem is that these things are presented as one-size-fits-all solutions. One-size-fits-all-solutions ALWAYS suck. Sometimes they suck for most people. But they’re presented as the “norm” people should try to be.

    Inbox Zero is kind of a stupid idea in my line of work (Sometimes I get bizarre or rude-sounding e-mails that, if I replied to them immediately without taking a few hours or even a day to process and contemplate them, I might respond rudely myself). I refuse to be that “can be contacted 24/7 person” (they don’t pay me enough, they don’t pay me remotely enough: I am clear with people that if they e-mail me after 4 or 5 pm, they will get a response the next day). It’s actually more effective for me to leave a little of some kind of “long term” work undone on my desk so I have an easy entry point (“Well, might as well finish this up”) the next morning. Also constantly being busy is terrible for any kind of creative thought – if I weren’t so busy with busywork, I might do more research, because I might actually have some IDEAS.

    A person has to figure out what works for them, and then roll their eyes at the “expert” advice.

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    • I’ve applied zero inbox practices to my work and find that it is a subtle indicator of how well the organization (not I personally) is functioning. When the organization is executing on all of its missions and people know what it is we’re doing and how to get from A to B… the inbox is easy to manage.

      When we launch new products (software), hit development SNAFU’s, lose people, or start dealing with new competitors and markets… the inbox clogs because what used to be one email to Janet to address issue #4, is now an email chain with an ever growing cc list of people who don’t want to be the one to deal with the issue we don’t know how to deal with.

      If email is causing stress and one is not new to one’s role or company, its usually a sign of issues in the organization. Otherwise, delete, file, respond works great. But yeah… I totally agree with your comment about not responding “in the moment” to certain emails. Young Marchmaine always responded as a matter of honor; Old Marchmaine actually deletes a fair number of emails that *could* warrant a response, but don’t *require* a response.

      One of the small things we learn in sales is how to manage (or manipulate) agendas… a lot of emails are agenda hijackers… don’t let other people hijack your agenda. Delete, delete, delete. :-) YMMV depending on your work and role, of course.

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      • Well, it’s mostly student e-mails asking for crazy stuff, like “I was kinda off my game in the exam this morning, could I come in tomorrow and retake it” and it helps me to take a breath (or a couple hour’s worth of breaths) before responding. I mean, I’m still gonna say “No” but I’m gonna say it in a nicer way than I might otherwise.

        Also, yeah, universities are kinda in panic mode right now and I can see that.

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        • heh, if/when I go to a new company my email persona will be totally updated for the mid-21st century; even though I constantly remind myself to respond as if the person were actually there… I feel at my current job the body of work much too large to try to change that now. :-)

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      • I’m an engineer, so your perspective is quite different than mine, and yet I think you are spot on with your remarks about agenda.

        I would say, “you are not made for the time management system, the time management system is made for you”. It needs to serve your agenda. This implies that you need to think about your agenda, and decide about what’s important, and what isn’t. A good TMS ( like Getting Things Done), helps you focus on exactly that question.

        I heard a great story about time management. It goes like this:

        The TMS consultant shows the class a very large glass jar, which is empty. He takes a bunch of rocks and puts them in the jar, up to the brim. He asks the class, “Is the jar full?”

        When they say “Yes”, he takes out a bunch of gravel and pours it into the jar. The small rocks filter around and he gets quite a bit of stuff in the jar. He asks again, “Is the jar full?”

        The answer is a wary “Yes?”. He takes out a bunch of sand and pours it into the jar. Quite a bit of sand goes into the jar. He asks again.

        He doesn’t wait for an answer, the class is silent. He takes out a large bucket of water and pours some into the jar.

        “What does this demonstrate?” he asks the class.

        “There’s always room for more things in your schedule?” is the timid, (and somewhat aghast, I think) reply.

        “No. The lesson is this: If you don’t put the rocks in first, you won’t get them in at all.”

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    • A person has to figure out what works for them, and then roll their eyes at the “expert” advice.

      This. I do the inbox zero thing (I didn’t know it had a name) and it works for me, both for my personality and for the type of work I do. It work worse if I had a lot more emails, but as a rule I don’t. Not everybody is me and not every job is mine.

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  2. The waitress article rings true to me, but I do have some reservations. (Disclosure: I’ve never waited tables.)

    Sometimes keeping a smile on your face isn’t the right thing to do. If a customer is going through a hard time–like someone just died and they’re trying to get travellers checks for their trip to the funeral–a sunny cheery disposition can be grating, especially if the customer service rep knows the situation. The broader point, however, holds true (in addition to the point about one size never fitting all): In most jobs you need to adopt a persona, whether it’s smiling and cheerful or grave and respectful (or something else).

    There is also a flip side to the “keep a smile on your face at all times” thing. It’s “learn how to aggress passively or otherwise keep up your dignity when you need to.” The waitress/informant for this article claims “[s]he never lost her cool in the moment, so she never lost her job.” Maybe she never lost her job, but I doubt she never lost her cool or at least didn’t somehow fight back to challenging customers when she actually waited tables. The article is unclear how long the informant was a waitress and how long she “spent shuffling around in a number of restaurant management positions….”

    The “embrace teamwork” advice seems to be a good idea, and I agree with it: “In a restaurant, the chef is just as crucial as the dish washer….When people focus on carrying out their responsibilities to the best of their ability, everything is harmonious and the job gets done.” I’m very skeptical about how this teamwork gets “embraced” in practice. As I’ve said, I’ve never had such jobs, so I don’t know how tips are apportioned, although I assume that at least sometimes there’s tip-sharing arrangement so that even the dishwashers get a share. I also suspect that the dishwashers aren’t usually treated well by most people in practice.

    I’m not knocking the piece. Everyone I know who’s waited tables would probably attest to its main point.

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    • I also wonder if there are other “non bereavement” times when not having a smile on one’s face is a good idea.

      I caught an extremely serious instance of plagiarism in one of my classes several years ago.I didn’t yell at the class, but I also did not smile: I was very quiet, very controlled, but also very much giving off the sense that “guys this is a really bad thing and it is serious.”

      It got back to me that the students thought I was FURIOUS at them. I wasn’t; I was mostly trying to keep myself from throwing up in front of the class (it was a pretty bad case of plagiarism and I was upset about it), but simply because I didn’t smile and was very, very quiet, they thought I was enraged.

      It was actually a useful thing. When a person who is normally kindly and cheerful, even in the face of idiocy, gets quiet and taut, people know some bad stuff is going down. (It’s kinda like the person who never cusses dropping the fishbomb – you know it’s a big deal, whereas the guy who throws them around like confetti, it’s just a “normal day for Bob.”)

      But yeah: I have smiled and taken more crap on this job than I ever thought I would. Sucks for me that the “student as consumer” mentality started up shortly after I graduated.

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      • I took that tack once in a class and it seemed to work. It wouldn’t have necessarily worked with all my classes. When I taught, every or almost every class had at least 1 case of severe, obvious plagiarism and at least a handful of “it’s a close(r) call, but meets most definitions of plagiarism.” However, it seemed to work in this particular class. (To be clear, I’m not close to 100% satisfied with the way I’ve handled any of the plagiarism cases, including that class.)

        I do think “smile and act cheerful” is a de facto requirement for most jobs. People can get away with not doing it, but doing it (usually) helps a lot.

        When a person who is normally kindly and cheerful, even in the face of idiocy, gets quiet and taut, people know some bad stuff is going down.

        I’ve heard Eisenhower was like that. I don’t know if it’s true or not.

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        • IMHO, there are probably worse people to be “like” than Eisenhower.

          Though I will say I fear I will hit a breaking point at some point where I lose the ability to smile and say “Oh, that’s okay” to something that is really NOT okay but that I don’t have the power to do anything about. (Compassion fatigue for certain students is setting in this semester)

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    • Waiting tables is a really interesting job. I never worked at a high-volume chain or anything like that… but what impressed me about waiting tables in “fine dining” was the relentlessness of the “show” once service started. Prioritization, economy of movement and gratuitous teamwork were keys to success; I disagree with the “smile” stuff… our job wasn’t to entertain or even host… we were more like conductors and negociants than customer service reps.

      The idea was to work with the table to understand their Dining Destination and then navigate and negotiate their way there. So reading people and communicating effectively were absolute keys… and the methods/styles of the people I worked with were astonishingly different.

      But man, once the show started, there were no do-overs, no meetings, no postponing decisions until we could all get on the same page… it was relentlessly reatime all the time. You needed friends in the kitchen, in management, and among the waitstaff to make it through the night… if you didn’t cultivate those relationships you would eventually wither on the floor. It went beyond teamwork into genuine fraternal concern for the rest of the staff. From dishwasher to sous Chef; never the Chef… Chefs aren’t part of the team.

      But I ramble on… I don’t know what its like to put on a play, but I suspect there are more similarities with that than any other type of “job.” I bracket all of this as only relevant in small fine dining establishments… large corporate restaurants that employ various methods of team staffing (I still go to restaurants and unpack their service methods) are very different from what I experienced.

      To this day, my stress dreams are not about $M Enterprise Software deals, but about the timing of table six getting screwed up by wine late from the cellar.

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    • I don’t have a customer service job. I try to be friendly in all of my interactions, but I don’t smile much. Most people want the work part of their work to be serious. You don’t want to come off as glib.

      The twist in my story is that I’m known around the office for my sense of humor. My bosses have relied on me to keep things light (at appropriate times). It’s helped me professionally in some respects, but I fear it’s kept me from being taken seriously by people outside our organization.

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  3. I am still skeptical of work from home because of out of sight and out of mind. Especially for young people, sorry young people.

    American workplaces: Americans are the worker bees of the Western World. I’ve mentioned before that I can do long hours in spurts especially with deadlines and important briefings but remain baffled by people who can seemingly work at all hours and send e-mails at 7 am and 1 am. When do they sleep?

    But since this is America, I wonder if there is also a lean in effect going on and many people need to prove they can work hard because they are not white men.

    I think it can be traced to America’s puritan heritage. We see idle time as bad. Work hard, play hard is good because of the activity and intensity. Downtime is a decadent thing and I’ve encountered the attitude “If you can read a novel, you can read for work” many times. Reading is really an activity done by few Americans unless it is work related or work adjacent. So you will have MBAs always reading the next book on management but never a novel.

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    • I’ve encountered the attitude “If you can read a novel, you can read for work” many times.

      Horrifying.

      And I say that as someone who at least pretends to be a scientist and is supposed to keep up with journals in my field.

      I wonder about connections between the “you could read for work” mentality, the “you need to be available to answer e-mails at 1 am” mentality, and the mentality that would fire people who smoke at home or penalize people with Badthink Dietary Practices or who don’t take part in the Let’s Walk Around The Track Instead Of Eating Lunch brigade.

      (We have a Walk At Lunchtime crew here, and every time a blanket invitation goes out I am tempted to e-mail back – maybe even “forget” and use Reply All – that THOSE OF US IN THE NATURAL SCIENCES HAVE AFTERNOON LABS SO IF WE DON’T EAT AT NOON WE MIGHT BE ON OUR FEET WITHOUT NOURISHMENT UNTIL 5 PM” but I doubt that would solve anything)

      (Starts humming Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”)

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      • I never could “read” an academic work even remotely related to my field, at least not in the traditional sense.

        It’s more, find a point of interest, skim to find relevant information, then dig in and read for the details. Reading cover to cover would make my eyes bleed.

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        • These are 10 or 12 page journal articles (mostly) but yeah – some scientists are TERRIBLE writers.

          I would also argue that reading novels and the like make me a better writer and communicator, so, indirectly, they are “for work” even if I don’t think of it that way.

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          • filly,
            You know what’s worse than a terrible writer? A good scientist with GREAT ideas who doesn’t understand the language of the field, and is really just half-assing the whole “set theory” business. (Applied Computer Scientist Writes Journal Article!).

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          • That reminds me of something Chief Justice Roberts once said when he was giving advice to young lawyers.

            “You develop a lot as a writer the more you read….People lose a lot of writing ability when they get to law school because they tend to read a lot of stuff that isn’t well written, and they tend to stop reading other stuff that is well written because they don’t have the time. They’re focused on some badly written cases, from whenever, or some badly written statute. And they’re not reading anything good.”

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        • Oscar,
          journal articles are designed to be skimmed. You have nitty gritty stuff in the middle that folks really don’t care about, unless they’re looking to nitpick (or want to figure out how in samhill you came to that stupid conclusion that contradicts years of research).

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          • And when you dive deep into them – like I did with my senior seminar class this year – oy, do you see the problems with some of them. (One student: “How did this get published, again?” Me: “Probably the person in question is ‘famous’ in their subfield”)

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      • Do that and I’m likely to e-mail you back a link to granola bars (which, yes, you can eat while walking. I’ve eaten them with 30lbs on my back, hiking the do-dah day).

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    • I’m not sure that you can trace Americans workplace culture to our puritan heritage. The puritans were only part of the American colonial heritage and the areas they settled are some of the most liberal and seen by many conservative Americans as most European parts of the United States today. The American attitude towards work comes more from American individualism and capitalism being America’s unofficial ideology.. Its generally not seen as the government’s responsibility to ensure reasonable working hours and getting ahead to make your fortune is seen as better than a more balanced life.

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    • The other issue is that we need statistics to know how true this is. It might be like Tod’s observations on Vikram’s college cost thread. Most people aren’t that obsessed with what college you go to and most are just fine with the local state university. It could be that a higher percentage of American workers work long hours and forgo vacations compared to their European counterparts but that overall Americans work reasonable hours and don’t forgo the vacations allowed by their workplace.

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    • I haven’t experienced quite the same attitude but I had people wondered why I read novels or history when I could be reading something like a self-help book for self-improvement. The idea that learning about humanity by reading novels or increasing your knowledge is a form of self-improvement mystified them. A lot of people don’t like to read and don’t see it as fun so they can’t understand why people read for fun, especially if it isn’t something viewed as frothy and light like a thriller from Lee Child or some such author.

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      • If I wind up in Hell, my Hell will be one where there are ONLY self-help books to read.

        For me, reading is an escape. It’s a better escape (more complete) than TV, because it seems to engage more of my imagination and helps de-track my mind from whatever I’m worrying about. But only certain styles of writing work for that – literature and mysteries (of course), certain forms of history (early human history, all the speculation, trying to imagine what it would be like to be a Neanderthal), some pop-science stuff (even as my fellow scientists roll their eyes at it).

        I think it comes down to whether a person tends to view reading more as a treat or a duty. (It can be both, but what one views it predominantly as). “Vegetable books” are things like self-help books or those books on budgeting…..some people choke ’em down and figure reading is SUPPOSED to feel like that.

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      • I think overall the culture has moved from reading novels to binge watching TV. Is this good or bad? I don’t know. But I do know that I would rather read a book of fiction than watch the supposedly “good” shows. I generally find them to be in the range of lowbrow LitFic, like Philippa Gregrory. But I have never been a TV watcher, outside of trying to cure insomnia.

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        • The idea that reading is good and something children should do is a relatively recent one in American or even Western culture. Before television, many people believed that if you read to much you’ll hurt your eyes, which was technically true before the electric light bulb, and in many pre-television movies you can hear this phrase spoken. People read a lot during the age of mass literacy because it was often the only available entertainment. When given options like radio, TV, or movies they choose not to read.

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        • I think the market for readers have always been relatively small. Look at what counts as a “best seller” among books. The numbers are shockingly small and would be a bomb if you were talking about a movie, TV show, record, etc. There are some books that sell millions of copies (Harry Potter, All the Light We Cannot See, 50 Shades of Bad Pornography, Twilight).

          But even among the upper-middle class professional set and officially well credentialed set, you have very few people who read novels for pleasure. Partially out of time. Partially because it is harder for water cooler chat. And it can take a lot of concentration that even “prestige” TV does not.

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          • What I am mostly referring too is that before the rise of long plot story arc TV (as opposed to episodic TV) books were a more common form of entertainment. This is noticeable in the rise of book clubs such as Book-of-the-Month, Readers Digest and such. No, they weren’t University Presses, but the did move a lot of product. (This is why club books are much more common then actual copies of most older books) And due to the shear number of titles published every year (over 60K fiction titles published in the US alone) that tends to dilute the amount of readers for any “bestseller”. Also, there may not have been as many bookstores as we would like as readers, but people acquired their books from many different places, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, airports, churches etc.

            Reading was much more common than watching old films (a competitive field) would show. Literally, old books that no one wants are so common that used book stores have to refuse them.

            Also, having a character say reading will hurt your eyes is simply a way of showing an archetype, nothing more, and certainly not a measure of how much people read.

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        • Binge-watching is (as far as I know) an under-discussed phenomenon. I’m always hearing about the decline in our attention spans, but then how are people plowing through a season of one-hour dramas in a weekend?

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          • Pinky,
            5 episodes per binge, max. 2.5 hours, just like a long theatrical release.
            People do NOT plan on people marathoning their shows.
            (Yes, I know someone who writes for TV).

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          • Horses for courses, I guess. I can’t sit still long enough (even with knitting) to sit through 2.5 hours or more of a show.

            (I don’t read for 2.5 hours at a go, either, which is why it takes so long for me to finish a fat novel).

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    • In my experience, there’s a type of person who wants to be seen as working 24 hours a day. They may email you at 1am and 7am, but they don’t put in a good 8 hours. That’s not true of everyone who works extreme hours, but it does happen. I don’t know if they’re show-offs who are trying to get by working as little as possible as long as possible, or if they’re guilt-ridden about how little they got done during the day and try to make up for it off-hours.

      I knew a guy who put in crazy hours, and had terrible productivity because he was so sleep-deprived. No one could convince him that he just needed a good night’s sleep to get his thoughts more organized. He tried to push through it. You could have made a successful career just on the projects he failed to complete.

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      • I think it is a combination. I think there are people like you describe and that co-worker who adamantly refuse to believe in the powers of a good nights rest. I also have known people who used work business as a sign of self-worth and because it makes people care for them. This usually comes in the form of “So and so told me to go home and get rest” or “So and so made me sit down and eat something.” So and so is usually a higher-up.

        But there are also people who really live to work and seem to find “I did my hobby once every other year. I’m fine.”

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      • There’s a Terry Pratchett quote about that, about managers who always get in early to leave post-its on your desk just to let you know they were already working hard before you got up.

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    • Well, its a cheap multimeter, which contains an ohmmeter as a function, although the are using the voltmeter function. But yeah the cell is dead, and they have the leads backwards on the device, as it is reading negative volts, but it is reading low at 1.3vdc. Staged photography is pretty sad when you have no idea what you are photographing.

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  4. The observations in the American workplace article are well-known and Saul’s observations are generally correct even though I think he isn’t quit right about the origins of it. Americans work more than Europeans but tend to work less than the Japanese and South Koreans I believe. My personal take its more from free market capitalism as an unofficial American ideology since the 19th century and strong respect for private property and contracts in American government despite the protestations of some people. Its also from American individualism. The European work place is a result of many decades of working class activism and governments more willing to intervene in these matters because of ideology, socialists have a parliamentary majority, or pragmatism, got to offer workers something so the real radicals don’t come to power. American market advocates never really went for the Bismarkian compromise and always said its private negotiation on contracts for all.

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  5. The observations about hierarchy are interesting compared to Japan. Maybe everything is on a first named basis in American companies but Americans were long a first name people and we also generally don’t like to be reminded of how old we are. I hate it when baristas in coffeeshops call me sir.

    But you generally know who is boss.

    Also from what I hear from my Asian girlfriend, the Asian company way is to do exactly what you are told and nothing more. In American companies if you are told “Do A, B, and C,” you get points for figuring out that “D, E, and F” also need to be done and taking the steps to do so sua sponte. Not so much in Asian companies.

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  6. Also American geography makes it much harder to determine the casual level of the American workplace.

    The East Coast (especially the Northeast) is still much more formal than say the West. There is a famous Oatmeal cartoon where on the East Coast wearing a suit means you are prestigious and have a fancy job but on the West Coast it means you work at JC Pennys or some such.

    http://theoatmeal.com/pl/minor_differences5/suit

    Even in law on the West Coast, the options are wildly different depending on the firm and the boss. I’ve worked at firms that were cool with me wearing jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers as long as I did the work and had something to be “court ready.” Colleagues from law school work at firms with old-school bosses who still adamantly refuse Jeans Friday. The first firm I worked for instituted Jeans Friday via a coup d’etat basically with all the associates and partners basically overriding the managing partner finally.

    Interestingly, I’d bet the Midwest (sorry) is more traditional and conservative than the East Coast* and from what I’ve read it is not uncommon to have 7 AM start times in the Midwest even for office work but that might be time zone stuff.

    *Or maybe just less stylish (sorry), I got into a debate with a rust belt denizen about whether you could wear brown shoes with a gray suit or pants (you can). Said rust belt denizen insisted this was a firm no and only black shoes went with gray pants or a suit. Brown shoes was too fashion forward. FWIW I rarely wear black shoes and boots and when I do, it is usually with jeans.

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    • Paging Tod Kelly to this thread for a discussion of “question the story, wait for the data” versus “solve the problem NOW CAN’T YOU SEE THAT THIS IS A PROBLEM THAT NEEDS SOLVING RIGHT NOW

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  7. RE: “American Business Quirks”

    “always on their phones but rarely make calls” that’s because in an American office, “on a phone” means “at a meeting”. It’s becoming a lot less common for “meeting” to mean “everyone go into a room and sit while someone makes a presentation”.

    Also, they’re damn right that we prefer an email to a call, because an email can be saved (or put in a “deal with this later” category) whereas a phone call is both ephemeral and immediate.

    “Americans leave millions of vacation days on the table every year.”

    Where I work, if you’re not in the office, then generally not only does your work not get done but neither does anyone else’s. If a stress analyst takes a day off, then everyone who depended on the results of that stress analyst’s work can’t do anything.

    “European employees tend to hide from their employers what’s happening in their personal life,” he says. “They don’t like to expose so much of their private life to their boss or the person who manages them as part of a team…”

    It’s easy to think of this as “Europeans are cold and impersonal, Americans are happy and friendly”, but it’s probably just as much “American bosses want to know everything about you so they can guess whether you’re lying when you say that you’re sick”…

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