The Pursuit of Wackiness

Managers hope that a “fun” work place inspires productivity, but Whitney Carpenter finds mandatory wackiness distracting.

Photo by Philip J Beyer

At the first of the month people in my office are supposed to get wacky. Not the kind of wacky that’s dangerous or provokes legal action but wholesome, productive wacky. Randomness, that harbinger of all things kooky, was the only real rule — that’s what my boss said at the weekly staff meeting — besides, of course, all of the usual rules, which would still be enforced. The traditional pecking order, too, was staying, with zany headwear offered as professional equalizer. After traveling hundreds of miles by way of Powerpoint slides and managerial seminars, the doctrine of workplace wackiness has finally reached the squat office park where I work. And if “radiating cheerfulness” wasn’t listed in my new job description, I might have something very snarky to say about it.

Random may be the new watchword, but it isn’t surprising that my business-casual employers are suddenly keen on silly hats. The hats, along with the emphasis on desk décor, are a reaction to the corporate culture of zany behemoths like Twitter, Zappos, and Google (whose offices house pool tables, volleyball courts, and assorted video games). With such notable endorsements, the philosophy of the unorthodox work environment is downright marketable, a fact which hasn’t gone unnoticed. Zappos, which hosts a video blog showcasing the relentless happiness of their staff, began offering seminars in 2009 for professionals interested in adapting their workplace-wackiness regime. The two-day seminar retails at about $4,000, which, coincidentally, is far less than the raise I’d need to work in an office where the staff acts as entertainment for public tours.

I’m aware that this level of sass in the face of good, clean fun is only possible for someone who used to cut pep rallies to hang out in their parked car. And I should be clear that I have nothing but respect for the kind of wackiness that crops up organically when people work together closely, especially when lack of sleep is involved. Nor do I have a problem with people expressing themselves or having fun at work — I’m always in favor of conference room gossip sessions. But there’s something about the goodness and cleanness of this particular fun — to say nothing of its mandatory nature — that brings out the worst in me.

As it turns out, the worst in me is a decidedly adolescent facet, an entity that rears its shaggy-banged head at any mention of cubicle costume contests. While unfortunate, this manifestation actually makes sense in the face of all this randomness. Likening the corporate workplace to a high school isn’t a particularly original observation, but I won’t sink to the level of discussing the way your boss looks just as scandalous in shorts and sandals as the vice principal used to. The thing about this trend that speaks most pointedly of teenagers isn’t its implementation — it’s the idea that randomness is the best and highest form of expression, a cure-all for boredom, misery, and dissent. I know this much from experience. When I was a teenager I used to eat toaster strudel, not because they were good, but for the sheer joy of eating something called a strudel.

Your boss wearing a sombrero and cupcake suspenders isn’t any different from the kid in your calc class who wore the same outfit. Sure, one drives a luxury SUV and the other a Razor scooter, but they’re both fibbing about their sartorial motives. Your boss says he wants you to be comfortable and zany, but he really wants you to stop calling in hungover. And although that kid from your calc class was advertising profound indifference (he totally didn’t care what anyone thought), he was trafficking in defiance a la Hot Topic. But the most pressing similarity between the two — besides, of course, your reluctance to take either party to the prom — is the transparency of their efforts and the effect on those of us with deep-seated emo tendencies: I’ve got a sudden desire to dig out my Shins albums and smoke a pack of clove cigarettes.

For most high school students randomness is key. It glorifies disorientation; doing something pointless acts as protection against the looming expectation to do or create something meaningful, an expectation that many of us later obsess over as young adults. For teenagers, every mismatched pair of toe-socks they own is another reminder that nothing is serious — at least not yet. Wackiness stands in beautifully for complicated and half-baked feelings of irony, rebellion, and plain irreverence. When you factor in how direct expression — whether satirical or earnest — requires taking an honest look at your circumstances, it’s no surprise that teenagers tend to express themselves through randomness. Back in the days of braces, curfew, and enlarged nose pores, I tried not to take an honest look at anything.

These days, however, I can’t help but look closely when I see a poster advertising a Spring Fling for meeting sales goals. But I don’t intend to protest this call for wackiness; I plan to be quietly apathetic, a strategy I perfected when I was 15 and couldn’t be roused by anything short of a boy with messy hair and a deviantArt account. Randomness is an awesome thing, but to emphasize arbitrary symbols — the unseasonal Christmas trees, the cube décor — instead of the creative, innovative work that these spastic acts are supposed to reflect, is deceptive. For the average worker in a non-creative industry, this is a mandate to think about cute nicknames and plastic vomit in the water-cooler, not about improving workflows or products. Without context, randomness provides a distraction and a bandage. It’s mental ergonomics.

Then again, the violence of my distrust might be more generational than dispositional. Maybe it’s just my age; maybe I still struggle too much in affecting grown-up hair to be excited about the chance to wear a fake mustache while typing. Or perhaps it’s a matter of timing. I grew up in the ‘90s, when we were taught that guys in suits were not to be trusted. It was the post-Wall Street, post-Office Space, and post-Wayne’s World era, a period when depictions of corporate life were unsweetened by the American version of The Office. We knew that no good news came from a wingback chair behind a shiny desk; we knew that stockbrokers were just lawyers who did cocaine, and that every lawyer was just Emilio Estevez before he started hanging out with the Mighty Ducks.

And just as we’re emerging into the professional sphere, boss types everywhere have decided to turn to entry-level workers with the ultimate practical joke: they’re farming for quirks and institutionalizing acts of petty rebellion. But I think they’ll find that like most good teenagers trapped in adult bodies, we’ll pull the opposite direction. We’ll roll our eyes and pop our gum, because we know that randomness is fleeting and transient by nature — sort of like being a teenager.

Photo by Philip J. Beyer

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.