24 Apr 2013

Corporately social

I am the least sporty person I know. I don't play sport, watch sport or read about sport. I tune out when people talk about football, I start fidgeting if there's a game on a TV in a pub, I have been known to rant about how much of a news broadcast is taken up by reports of a sprained ankle or a disappointed manager. I'm overweight, uncompetitive and not particularly physically adept. These things, along with the utter, utter boredom I associate with sport, don't tend to make me a great contributor to the near-mandatory involvement in the vastly tedious organisation known as the Work Social Club. Which I am beginning to learn, is not really about socialising, it's about sport. And drinking. And more sport.

My firm recently decided it was time to start a Social Club. We've more than doubled the number of staff in four years and such rapid growth is starting to breed the inevitable 'silo' effect of departments not communicating, cliques forming and gossip rumbling. So the bosses felt that social events would get people to meet in a non-stress environment, bond and strengthen their working relationships. Nice theory.

One of the girls in my team was put in charge of setting up said Social Club. She's about to turn 30, she's bright, vibrant, healthy, enjoys a glass (bottle) of wine, goes to the gym every day, rugby on the weekend and dressed as a Playboy Bunny or Sexy Lady Cop for at least three hen parties last year. So, after the meeting with the new Social Club Committee this afternoon..

Me: So what activities did the social club decide on?
Organiser: Oh loads! Cricket, softball, boules, rowing, sailing, hockey, football, rugby, korfball...
Me: Anything for non-sporty people, like me?
Organiser: Of course! You can come and watch!

When I (gently) pointed out that spectating was not exactly an inclusive activity for non-sporty folk, she sniffed and said 'Well, what else is there?' A few minutes later, she piped up with 'Oh, someone suggested pottery classes. GOD, I can't think of anything more boring!'

If I'm honest, I was stuck for responses at that point. Mostly because I don't actually care, the idea of spending any more time with these people than I have to makes me a little nauseous. But on the way home, I came up with: film club, book club, chess club, music night, opera night, theatre night, photography shoot day, art classes, cooking classes, sewing club, glass blowing, singing group, talent show, craft club, model railway club and hell yes, pottery classes. I considered giving her my list, but as I'm not even vaguely interested in being the one to organise such things, I'm not going to put the idea out there.

Which brings me to my point. My bosses wanted to set this up to encourage people to ge to know each other in a non-work environment. To get people to open up, share, bond. But by making the 'social' aspect entirely about competitive sport (and, as a byproduct, drinking), the people who will want to be involved are those people already engaged at work: the fit, active, extroverted, confident, competitive, socially competent ones. Those of us who are physically less secure, introverted, shy or just plain bored, are not going to express any interest in joining in and, from my point of view at least, will avoid it like the plague. And I think the rest of the sporty types could be missing out on an opportunity to get to know us.

One of the girls in my office, let's call her Mabel (not even close to her real name), is one of the great Socially Inept. She's in her late 20s, but dresses like a 50-something librarian. She is slim, but in an ironing board way, doesn't style her hair, or wear makeup. She works hard and my guess is that she's a genius at what she does. When I speak to her, I get the impression she's not really interested in small talk, but indulges me because it's polite. I'm not a finance geek, so can't engage her on that topic and don't know anything about her to engage her on other subjects. She comes across as stiff and aloof, but I suspect it's either shyness, or, like me, just plain boredom.

A couple of years ago, however, I had a brief insight into what might be going on under that tight ponytail and those dowdy print dresses. I didn't go to the firm Christmas party (never have), but saw some photos of the event afterwards. It was a fancy dress party (one of the reasons I didn't go) and the theme was animals (the venue was the London Zoo, get it...?). Mabel turned up dressed in a skin-tight leopard print catsuit. No makeup and hair in her standard ponytail, flat-chested, flat-bottomed Mabel, in a cat suit. And no-one had explained about appropriate underwear for such a tight outfit either, ouch. She's been the talk of the firm every Christmas since then.

But what made me wonder was that, even though it was a terrible outfit for someone shaped like her (I can't do catsuits either, but I rock a vampire beer wench outfit), she had wanted to show everyone that she was interesting. Exciting. Scandalous. Sexy. She was more than the person they saw at work every day.

I suffer from it occasionally too, the ego-trip of 'wait, there's more to me than pie charts and telling you the font is wrong!'. But I kerb that instinct more and more often now, as people are unnerved, confused, taken aback and sometimes downright shocked at anything outside what they consider the norm. I think about how they talked (talk) about Mabel and her catsuit and clamp down the urge to start a discussion about Amanda Palmer's (who?) latest (naked) video, how much I fancy Benedict Cumberbatch and just how badly I want to write TV shows the way Mark Gatiss does. Because that kind of talk in a corporate environment will get you Labelled As Weird.

The downside is I struggle more at my job because I'm not 'bonding' with the other staff over Fantasy Football (really?). There are moments where I can garner a glimmer of a connection - brief opinions on the Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate, an Oxbridge English Lit graduate noticing I'm reading Cormac McCarthy, someone wondering why I haven't been watching Game of Thrones (I don't have Sky). But for the most part, I bite my tongue, push down the passion and keep it to myself, or risk dilution, derision, confusion.

I like the work I do and I really like the money I earn from doing it, but after nearly five years in an increasingly corporate environment, I find myself questioning my reasons for spending so much of my life in an environment that's slowly excluding me. And it does make me wonder if I'm not the only one.

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