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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