The Temp

Tribal groupings often seem to break down those of race - many people's first friend of a different colour is made through the workplace - but not gender: women and men still gang up on each other; the gay people in a building will always find each other ...
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The Independent Culture
It's a tribal thing. Offices break down into tribes; the bigger the office, the more tribes. An office of up to, say, eight people will generally work as a single tribe. Unless a new member is a leader type, in which case a power struggle ensues, he or she will generally slip into the speech patterns and general behaviour of the group. Once a room gets large enough to prevent colleagues communicating without walking, tribes start to split off, show differing group characteristics. People, on the whole, have a need to belong, to define the space that defines them; it's comforting, in an over-large world.

In the wider world, this tribalism shapes the way we all think. We belong to the big tribe of Europe (threatened by America, Asia, the Pacific Rim and, less so, by eastern Europe). More emotively, we're British patriots, and members of the sub-British tribes. After that, we're employed or unemployed.

Within the workplace, the tribal thing gets heavy. Most people stick within their own stratum of seniority, and after that more or less within their common task group: creatives with creatives, IT with IT, secretaries with secretaries, editors with editors. Funnily enough, these tribal groupings often seem to break down those of race - many people's first friend of a different colour is made through the workplace - but not gender: women and men still gang up on each other; the gay people in a building will always find each other and make pals. Why do wine bars exist? So women can go for pasta and mineral water rather than beer, chips and beans.

So which tribe do you belong to? Remember, it may be more than one. The fourth floor tribe? The tribe that lunches every day, or the tribe that makes a virtue of never taking lunch? Suits or smart-casual? Young, middle- aged or nearing retirement? Married (call the kids to say goodnight) or single (call your mates to plan the night)?

And which of these two relatively new tribes do you belong to: smoker or non-smoker? This is an interesting one, because there is always friction between the two and, though the non-smokers were the ones to create the tribe, ganging up to ban the smokers, it seems to have backfired. Non- smokers don't recognise themselves as a tribe, because it's hard for tribes to cohere around a negative ("anti"-smoking). Smokers, meanwhile, however hard it is for non-smokers to understand, have a powerful positive in common: their love of the weed. The exclusion of smokers has created the embattled circumstances within which group unity thrives, and invented the smoking-room.

The smoking-room, or stairwell, or front steps, depending on how far the others have pushed it, are where all other tribal differences break down, where executives and postroom operatives become privy to information they would never have known if they'd stuck to their personal stratum. Ever had the experience of bouncing in with some hot gossip, only to have a colleague say, "Oh, didn't you know about that?" There's a two-to-one chance that they smoke. Ever asked someone how they know the art director, only to have them say something like "Oh, I've just met her around"? Same thing.

The threat of tribalism, of course, is tribal wars. This us-and-them- ness resulted in the unions-vs-management wars of the Seventies and their bloody resolution in the Eighties. And the antis are beginning to catch on at last; hence the rumbles about people having Too Much Fun in the smoking-room, and the widespread refusal to install telephones or computers there so that no one can smoke and work concurrently. Where will it end? Bloodshed? But remember: the full frontal attack of the last decade has honed the minority's guerrilla tactics, and, as anybody with experience of Palestine, Afghanistan or South Africa knows, guerrillas often win in the end.

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