Missing Work Stories

In my culture, most stories are not about work life, and the few stories that are focus on a narrow set of unusual jobs like soldier, detective, politician, artist, doctor, lawyer, or teacher. Why?

One explanation is that work is usually boring. But this seem weak to me. I’m often fascinated to read business-book stories about work teams and firms competing (I’m enjoying The Innovator’s Solution) and Horatio Alger type stories were once more popular in my culture. Furthermore, a recent New Yorker article (quotes below) says similar stories are now very popular in China.

The author of that article seemed displeased by this trend, and what it says about Chinese culture. She talks of “get-rich” “Darwinian” “combat”, “manipulation and deceit”, and a loss of “morals”. And this seems to me a clue about why we don’t tell such stories – they push realism on topics where we’d rather stay idealistic.

Consider that we avoid telling young kids stories about corrupt police and teachers taking advantage of their power, since we are trying to get kids to respect and trust such authorities. Similarly, we avoid telling kids stories about selfishness and betrayal in romantic and sexual relations, as we push idealized accounts of marriage, love, etc. Similarly, we may as adults avoid stories that threaten other ideals.

Stories need conflict. For stories about soldiers, detectives, politicians, artists, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, we know of socially acceptable types of conflict, which do not challenge key ideals. But stories about conflicts in ordinary jobs more easily violate key ideals, and trigger moral outrage.

We don’t mind stories about independent professionals competing to please costumers. But the foragers inside us hates hearing about team members who don’t work entirely for the good of the team, and especially about bosses insisting that things be done their way. Foragers are ok with being “lead” covertly, by someone who has gained their respect and agreement. But taking orders just to get material goods, that seems immoral. The moral priority of war, or of medicine, may make it ok to take orders there. But otherwise, no!

We sometimes have stories about heroic employees resisting an evil boss. But overt moralizing gets boring fast, especially when we realize these employees could just quit their jobs. Worse, we know that most of us don’t resist bosses – we obey them, mainly because we like getting paid. We don’t like admitting that that while we are returning to forager ways in our leisure time, we have become hyper-farmers in our work life. And so in our story worlds, we mostly try to pretend that work doesn’t exist. Props to the Chinese, for facing reality more.

Those promised quotes from that New Yorker article:

What do the Chinese, some of the hardest-working people on the planet, read in their spare time? Novels about work. … Workplace novels, have topped best-seller lists in recent years. … The “commercial welfare novel” pits sales teams against each other in mortal combat over a large order. The “financial novel” wrings drama from stock prices. The “novel of officialdom,” which dates to imperial times, trades in the secrets and scandals of the bureaucracy. …

They include rules for getting ahead in the workplace: Socialize with rich people. They know more than the poor. Avoid unpromising work assignments by feigning illness. … If your boss makes a pass at you, smile and flirt back. Hire subordinates who are barely adequate or they’ll make you look bad. When bribing an official, have your business partner deliver the money so your hands stay clean. … “It takes many incidents to establish a reputation and only one to ruin it.” …

In America, writers might feel pressured to add romance and sex to a novel; in China they’er told to take it out. … Most workplace novelists do not have a literary background. … I asked Zhang Bing if the series had a moral. “Maybe professional writers stand on higher ground and look at things from that vantage point,” he said. “But I write about very real, very practical things.” … Chinese authors rejected the sunny self-actualization message of the American self-help movement. … A favorite … preached how to get ahead through manipulation and deceit. …

Competition in the workplace is a new experience. …Promoting oneself in meetings and interviews still feels unnatural. … Workplace novels present white-collar jobs as as form of gladiator combat, because to most people that’s how if feels. … This Darwinian view of the workplace is widespread. …

China was once a country governed by morals. .. Today the focus is on zuoshi, how to get things done. … Lao Kang … rejects the get-rich and boldface success tips advocated by his own book. …”This will change,” he said. “A lot of people [now] …. want to spend time with their loved ones, and to travel. They don’t need too many material goods.”

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  • Mark M

    “Props to the Chinese, for facing reality more.”

    You mean Props to the Chinese government publishing policies and the censors who enforce them, right? Fiction that glorifies day-to-day drudgery rather than glorifying escape from that day-to-day drudgery is certainly a useful way of placating the masses. Way to go China! Why didn’t we think of that? I guess we made the mistake of granting freedom of speech in our bill of rights. I look to you, Robin, to propose the constitutional amendment that nullifies freedom of speech and allows us the luxury to soak in the beauty and wonder of modern Chinese workplace literature that we’ve been missing for so long, absent the corrupting influences of sex and romance that poison our culture today.

  • Douglas Knight

    Horatio Alger stories were pretty idealistic about work, weren’t they? Why don’t we have such stories today? Chinese novels are not like American novels 100 years ago, but yet a third thing.

    Stories about teachers may be idealistic, but teachers show up a lot more often in stories about students, where they are usually depicted as hapless, if idealistic. That doesn’t seem optimal for promoting respect and trust. They seem to be catering to the students, not trying to indoctrinate them.

    Our stories are idealistic about their heroes, but I don’t think they are afraid of showing the existence of corrupt cops, so long as they are the bad guys. Similarly, the most popular show today about school stars an idealistic teacher struggling with other teachers.

  • Ely

    Consider that we avoid telling young kids stories about corrupt police and teachers taking advantage of their power, since we are trying to get kids to respect and trust such authorities. Similarly, we avoid telling kids stories about selfishness and betrayal in romantic and sexual relations, as we push idealized accounts of marriage, love, etc. Similarly, we may as adults avoid stories that threaten other ideals.

    My youth experience was vastly different than this. All around me, adult figures pushed the idea that the world is a corrupt oligarchy at every level, from local issues (your teachers just has it out for you) to federal issues (the Federal Reserve was created by an evil cabal of bankers) to relationship issues (most people will cheat on you; most marriages end in divorce). All of this was in a fundamentalist Christian community in southern Ohio; and the experiences of most of my peers scattered throughout Ohio and Indiana were very similar (except for the relationship one, there was a higher variance of taught relationship values).

    But overt moralizing gets boring fast, especially when we realize these employees could just quit their jobs. Worse, we know that most of us don’t resist bosses – we obey them, mainly because we like getting paid. We don’t like admitting that that while we are returning to forager ways in our leisure time, we have become hyper-farmers in our work life.

    Again, my experience strongly departs. Most of the people I know who find these types of overt, moralizing, overthrow-the-evil-rich-people plots entertaining are people who (right or wrong) simply believe that they physically cannot quit their job. I’ve spoken with many people about sunk-cost fallacy, urging them that life is short; find a set of circumstances that you are vocally happy about.

    Most of them are utterly and truly convinced (as convinced as they are about the sun rising tomorrow) that everything about their life would fall apart at the seems if they quit their jobs; that they do not want to need their current job but in fact do need it and that bosses leverage this need to intentionally mistreat and underpay them.

    I’m not trying to justify their views; I follow a lot of your analysis on future worlds being at nearly subsistence level and as much as I intrinsically want to fight that, I agree and also agree that I’d rather live in a world like that than not live. The folks I know who seem to {seethingly hate their job circumstances, believe there is literally no physical set of actions they can adopt to remedy job situation} are frankly still in the top 15-20% of world incomes by far. Their stressful office life probably seems like an amazing vacation world to huge numbers of other people on the planet.

    But you can’t decouple the realities of their cognitive state from their situation. For most people, quitting literally isn’t an option. They would need debiasing and deprogramming therapy before actually quitting the job would even be a tolerable idea to discuss. And if people happen to have that cognitive block, and are suffering cognitively from the way that block disconnects from reality, that suffering is still real and policies (if intended to reduce suffering) should still consider it. Shaking a finger and saying “you should see everything differently than you do” isn’t going to do any good.

    Anyway, this is all just to offer up the opinion that, to most folks who feel very trapped and mistreated and are not willing to consider that they might be incorrect about that, overt moralizing is endlessly entertaining, really does make them feel better, and there really is a reason for that.

    • KPres

      “Most of them are utterly and truly convinced (as convinced as they are about the sun rising tomorrow) that everything about their life would fall apart at the seems if they quit their jobs; that they do not want to need their current job but in fact do need it and that bosses leverage this need to intentionally mistreat and underpay them.”

      They’re pandering for pity. Unfortunately, our society is so apt to reward them for this, that it has become a successful strategy. That’s why their behavior appears to be so irrational on the surface. Why wouldn’t they quit the job they’re so unhappy with? Because they’re not really unhappy, but they know the more unhappy they can convince others that they are, the more ‘mistreated’ and ‘underpaid’, the more likely they are to leverage the power of the state on their behalf.

      • Ely

        I agree, but at the same time, most people in these environments are brought up to believe that the narrative of the malicious boss and the squelched lower-middle-class is as true as the Jesus story. So to a large extent, this is a correct analysis. But the problem of resolving it and getting these people to appreciate/feel happy in their circumstances is way harder than just blaming them for recapitulating the worldview that their parents parents and on down have been propagating. I consider it something of a small miracle that I didn’t adopt their views myself, although in some respects I still fight with it.

    • Noumenon

      I’m one of the people you’re talking about. I have enough in the bank to live nearly ten years without income, yet when I think of quitting my job I think “I just don’t have the skills to get a new one, and the working conditions will probably be worse.” So I take my annual 20-cent raises and keep working.

  • Evan

    Stories need conflict. For stories about soldiers, detectives, politicians, artists, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, we know of socially acceptable types of conflict, which do not challenge key ideals. But stories about conflicts in ordinary jobs more easily violate key ideals, and trigger moral outrage.

    We don’t mind stories about independent professionals competing to please costumers. But the foragers inside us hates hearing about team members who don’t work entirely for the good of the team, and especially about bosses insisting that things be done their way. Foragers are ok with being “lead” covertly, by someone who has gained their respect and agreement. But taking orders just to get material goods, that seems immoral. The moral priority of war, or of medicine, may make it ok to take orders there. But otherwise, no!

    There is one very popular type of story in modern Western media that doesn’t fit with this: stories about sports teams. These stories are about conflicts at what, is from the point of view of the team, essentially the workplace. They have low stakes and low moral priority, at least compared to stories about war, medicine and crime, all that will happen if the heroes fail is that they will lose a ball game. They tend to have domineering coaches who act tough and give lots of orders. They often have “problem” team members who won’t contribute until the coach whips into shape by being even more domineering than usual. Occasionally they try to give the conflict a moral dimension by making the opposing team rude, snooty, or otherwise unpleasant, but that has begun to fall out of favor in recent years.

    I’m guessing the reason that sports is so popular in spite of its lower stakes is that sports conflicts, being physical and against explicitly defined opponents, feel a little more “foragery” compared to office work. However, the article you pointed to indicates the writers in China may make the office conflicts more “sports-like” and that office work in general seems more “sports-like” to the Chinese:

    Competition in the workplace is a new experience. …Promoting oneself in meetings and interviews still feels unnatural. … Workplace novels present white-collar jobs as as form of gladiator combat, because to most people that’s how if feels. … This Darwinian view of the workplace is widespread.

    Emphasis mine.

    I wonder if the Chinese writers use the same “cheats” that sports stories sometimes use and make the antagonist coworkers rude and unpleasant to the protagonists. Did Horatio Alger? I’ve never read anything by him.

  • Wonks Anonymous

    Like most people today, I’ve never read Alger. But I heard in many of his stories the protagonist succeeds because a Daddy Warbuck’s figure intervenes and provides a great reward for a very small good turn. So not exactly a by-the-sweat-of-your-brow workplace success story.

  • david

    Darwinian and manipulative? Is this new? The Chinese do have this epic called the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which takes scheming and manipulation to a whole new level.

    Ancient (and actual) Chinese Proverb time: 少不看水浒,老不看三国 – the young shouldn’t read Tales of the Water Margin (think Robin-Hood type idealism), the old shouldn’t read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Because it glorifies sneakiness too much!

  • http://omicron-theta.blogspot.com/ Ari T

    I think generally in Asian culture there are elements that I don’t know are objectively desirable which I think are someway related to the topic of this post. Generally when I’m dealing with people from other countries, I prefer people who come from Nordic welfare (plus Canadians?) states as I am, even if just a little more. Paradoxically I think many of such countries’ public policies seem highly irrational, or at least inefficient. The reasons are roughly: I trust them more, they seem more moral, we’ve little value disagreements, and generally there’s less “craziness”. This kind of unity also helps to solve certain coordination problems (higher level of trust = less gaming + less transaction costs).

    This could be just a cultural thing, placebo or observation error but I’m not sure. Smart people know how to play the signalling game much better, if just intuitively. Also such people seem to care less for morals, and more easily sacrifice them in favor of personal gains if they can get away with it. Maybe this just has to do with higher IQ because I’ve observed such behavior in very smart people, and I’m not talking about Robin here.

    I’m not just sure I like the trend towards what I’d call “cynical realism” in all cases, and what it can cause to society’s behavior as a whole. Maybe I like people being personally idealistic about their own values and those of their peers. However I’d like to say I don’t like the idealism that is present maybe in stereotypical US culture such as having more faith in DIY science, overconfidence, paranoia and such. Here the idealism is more on morals and value -level rather than having screwed up perception of reality (although having wrong perception of real motives of others is such). Respect for science or scientific opinion is probably a bit higher here which stems from higher authoritarianism.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say on some holistic level I’m not sure I like policies , even if I on more reductionist level they seem desirable (efficiency-basis for example). I guess welfare state is such. I don’t like what it does on eg. work ethic but there’re some positive externalities that I think are unique.

    I hope I didn’t offend anyone’s sensibilities, but I just thought I’d like to say what I honestly feel about this issue. I didn’t much imagine writing this since I’ve never considered myself “left-wing” even though this is probably what some left-wing intellectuals are worried, if just intuitively.

    Also typo in the original post: consumer not costumer?

    • KPres

      ” I trust them more, they seem more moral, we’ve little value disagreements, and generally there’s less “craziness”. This kind of unity also helps to solve certain coordination problems (higher level of trust = less gaming + less transaction costs).”

      This is probably because you share the same value systems, and so you find their behavior PREDICTABLE. Many people think “nice” = trustworthy, but that only works with shallow relationships. Competence and consistency are generally far more important in more meaningful relationships. That’s why business relationships tend to be easier to navigate and less chaotic than personal ones. The parameters of the relationship are usually well-defined, and within those borders, both parties know the other will consistently act in their own self-interest, making the other’s behavior, again, predictable.

  • KPres

    “She talks of ‘get-rich’ ‘Darwinian’ ‘combat’, ‘manipulation and deceit’, and a loss of ‘morals’. And this seems to me a clue about why we don’t tell such stories – they push realism on topics where we’d rather stay idealistic.”

    It’s not that we want them to be ‘idealistic’ topics, it’s that those values (expressed here with the negative connotation) lead to easily controlled and manipulated people. Neitzsche explains all this in the duality of his master/slave morality.

  • lemmy caution

    The US sells a lot of non-fiction business books. They are generally written to be as readable as possible. Putting business info in novel form just seems weird. As discussed above, the alger books were more like business fantasy books.

    • Finch

      HBS cases are a sort of business short-story. They’re quite popular, but not among the lay.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    I’ve read hundreds of stories about work life. They just appear as nonfiction in business magazines, not as fiction. (Who reads short stories anymore of any kind?)

    Business tends to be very complicated these days. People aren’t that interested in understanding all the background necessary unless they think they are going to learn true lessons about how somebody got rich.

    The movie “Moneyball” made about $75 million at the box office. “The Social Network” made about $96 million. Both are classic nonfiction business journalism. However, the amount of skill that was devoted by the moviemakers to making the background comprehensible was off the charts. Aaron Sorkin is really, really good at making complicated stuff comprehensible. Both of these movies were big hits with people with, say, IQs of 115 or more, but were still largely incomprehensible to people with 2 digit IQs. The same amount of skill devoted to, say, a murder mystery movie would make more money more easily.

    A good but not superb fictional business movie, “Margin Call,” made about $5 or $10 million.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    In Tom Wolfe’s serialized first draft of Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone, the main character was a writer. Nobody found it very interesting, so Wolfe took time off to research Wall Street and changed Sherman McCoy to a bond trader. It was a huge hit in 1987.

    But Michael Lewis took the lesson — Why should a journalist go to all the trouble of writing a novel, when he could just write journalism? So, he had a big hit around 1990, with Liar’s Poker, which was marketed as giving you the real inside true gossip behind the fiction you read about in Bonfire of the Vanities. If Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell marketed their stories of business life as fiction, would anybody buy them?

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  • Brian Moore

    If you’re looking for missing work stories in American sitcoms, may I recommend “2 Broke Girls”?

    It’s not the best show ever, but it definitely puts employment and small-business ownership front and center.

  • Michael Wengler

    I read this a few days ago and thought “hmm.”

    Then yesterday I found myself watching a show about people renovating houses to “flip” them for, they hope, a profit. I also thought of another show on a major network where each week a CEO is followed as he does different jobs in his own corp. in disguise. Then numerous shows about bakers and bakeries, and restaurants.

    I’m not sure your thesis that we are missing stories about work is true at all!

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