Friday, April 11, 2008
A hierarchy revealed
Isn't it funny how a seemingly innocuous conversation can sometimes reveal attitudes that are.... well... different?
At work, due to the usual corporate shuffling and petty empire-building, I was compelled to move from one office to another, two doors down, in the same hallway. (Anyone who contends that private enterprise is somehow more efficient than government hasn't spent much time working in corporate America, but that's another topic.)
So, when I arrived this morning, the facilities people (two movers and a cleaning lady) were still finishing up the move, getting my desk, table, computer and other things in order. The facilities people at my company are hard-working and dependable and they really go out of their way to do a good job. So, I made it a point to tell them so. "You guys always do a great job," I said. "I want you to know I appreciate it."
Everyone likes to hear things like that, of course, and I could see each of them light up just a bit when I said it. They responded with "No problem," and "You're welcome," and I was rewarded with smiles.
All well and good. They finished up and went on to their next task somewhere else on campus while I settled in to my new office and started to work.
I hadn't been at it long when my coworker from across the hall poked her head in and said, "You did something that I really admire."
"Oh?" I said, clueless.
"I think it was very nice that you thanked the facilities people, that you said those nice things to them," she said.
I was puzzled. "What do you mean?" I asked.
She tilted her head for an instant, considering. "I think it's important to remember people below us deserve respect, too," she said. "Sometimes I forget that."
The conversation went on a little longer, but I can't really recall what was said beyond that point. I was taken aback by the attitude revealed in just that little snippet. Keep in mind, my coworker is a very nice woman: professional, courteous, likable, and friendly. But her remark was shocking to me. People below us deserve respect? What could that possibly mean?
On reflection, it seems obvious that my coworker has established a hierarchy within her mind that she uses to determine the amount of respect that each person is due. Apparently, my coworker thought that by thanking the facilities people for their help, I was engaging in some kind of noblesse oblige. After all, social decorum did not require me to show the facilities people any respect. They are "below" me.
That this social hierarchy exists in the mind of my coworker (and one can be reasonably sure that she is not alone) is a rather revealing tidbit, no?
First of all, how is this hierarchy structured? What attributes must one possess to be at the top? What attributes must one possess (or lack) to be on the bottom? Is it a matter of money? That is, does the amount of one's paycheck determine one's position on the ladder? Surely, the facilities people at my company are paid less than the "professionals" who sit at computers all day. Or, is one's rank determined by the nature of one's work? That is, does a person who performs "white-collar" work outrank a manual laborer? And, if so, why?
Beyond that, if one accepts this social hierarchy, then one must also accept that there are others who are higher up in it. Just as there are people "below us," surely, there are people "above us." And, since my coworker seemed impressed that I had afforded the people she deemed "below" me respect, should we then be grateful when someone "above" us in the hierarchy treats us with courtesy and respect?
I don't get it. Maybe I'm just a hopeless egalitarian dreamer, but, you know, when I go home at night, the CEO of my company is just another schmo on the road, no more or less worthy of respect than anyone else.
Adherence to some unwritten hierarchy would seem to lead to meek submission to authority. It seems to me that the mentality revealed by my coworker is exactly what is required for authoritarian power and totalitarian government, exactly the mentality that allows for monsters like Junior Bush and Cheney the Beast...
....and if that is true, well, then maybe one thing we can do to work toward an egalitarian society is to simply be respectful to others, regardless of their social class, profession, income level, appearance, or whatever other criterion we might invent.