The workplace can feel a lot like high school

“The message is about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries.”

    The above comes from a work by Mary Douglas entitled “Deciphering a Meal”, a paper in which she studies the socially constructed boundaries associated with food and meals.  Of course, these type of boundaries can be found in all aspects of society.  One place where almost everyone deals with them on a daily basis is the workplace.
    Whether you work at an academic institution, in retail or foodservice, on a production line within a factory or in an office setting, all of us are faced with various dos and donts regarding social interactions at work.  Some of these are attributed to the official rules of the workplace, but often times they develop through the understood, unspoken rules of that particular job.  You can often find lines drawn between various groups within a business.  Front-of-house and back-of-house in a restaurant,  sales floor and stockroom in retail, production floor and administration in factories.   
    Whenever you enter a new social situation, you begin to pick up on the expected rules of behavior.  The same thing happens when you start a job.  Perhaps your position as a frame welder on an automobile assembly line means that you are not supposed to interact with the workers in the paint booth.   You may not even understand the restriction and have no personal ill-will toward the other group, but it’s still a distance you maintain in order to be accepted by the group you work most closely with – the welders.   As you put in more time at the job, these boundaries can shift and different levels of inclusion and exclusion become more noticeable.  
    And even when we are on the other side, as customers to these same types of establishments, there’s an understanding of where we are allowed and who we are allowed or expected to interact with.  Even without an ‘employees only’ or ‘private’ sign we know not to walk back into the kitchen when going out to eat or not to stroll through the stockroom at a store.  
    Boundaries exist within every aspect of our lives.  Certain interactions are considered off limits at certain times, and these instances of inclusion and exclusion can even be useful tools in maintaining our social positions and our places within the hierarchy.

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2 thoughts on “The workplace can feel a lot like high school

  1. I think workplace interactions are an interesting topic. One thing I find interesting is the difference between interactions and boundaries between individuals at work and how those boundaries change if the individuals have some sort of social bound outside of the workplace. In every instance I’ve witnessed, particularly if there’s a difference in the level of authority between the individuals at work, the dynamic boundaries maintained in the workplace tend to manifest themselves in the outside relationship.

    Much of this has to do with the different etiquette requirements depending on what situation the individuals are in; for example if coworkers are out for a drink the boundaries between the bosses and those under their authority at work tend to relax somewhat. Things that would normally be inappropriate to discuss at work become acceptable given the situation. Although blurred, the boundaries still exist and often times crossing them in an outside-of-work social environment can often have, in my experiences, more negative impact on the perpetrator than if the boundaries were to be violated at work. Often times the encroachment of a person’s boundaries in a recreational setting can lead to ostracism both within the workplace and within that external social circle.

    1. I’ve also noticed several people in manager positions who have struggled to maintain and enforce certain boundaries with people they feel they have more of a friendship with – either at work or moreso in their private lives. This is especially true of people who have been promoted from lower levels. It’s a no-win situation for them a lot of times. If they suddenly try to respect the worker-boss boundary that many jobs promote, they’re often ostracized from the friendship. If they maintain the relaxed relationship, they’re seen as playing favorites and often not capable of doing the job.

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