I remember it the way a criminal might remember a crime, the where and when more accessible now than the why. The worst part was that it took place at work. Not in the dignified confines of a bathroom stall or my cubicle, but in front of a male colleague. We can call him Tom. The crying took place in Tom’s office, a modest space that seemed to amplify the sound of my sobs. With its nondescript decor, void of personal effects on the white walls, it could have well served as the office of a middling therapist. The door was closed, or maybe it wasn’t. There were magazine proofs in my lap. It was deadline week, a monthly occurrence. We were discussing something involving those proofs when it happened. These weren’t just a few elegant tears of gentle ennui; this was a full-on combustion of the wretched, my body wracked by guttural sobs so primitive my own mother would have been taken aback.
Sitting across from me, Tom might have leaned back and clasped his hands, letting me have it out. He might have said something vaguely comforting, like, We’re all feeling the pressure. He might’ve looked away, to give me some time to collect myself. Though he was not much older than my 28 years, he had been hired in a position senior to me. It was imperative that he strike a balance between light sympathy and appearing completely unruffled. If you’ve worked long enough in corporate America, you know that the opposite of power is not powerlessness — it is emotion.
From 2009 to 2012, I worked in the Chicago office of Playboy Enterprises. So actually, the worst part of crying at work was that my place of work was Playboy. I was a woman crying in the offices of Playboy magazine. If this were someone else’s story, I’d think, That’s a bit on the nose.
The upper echelons of the Playboy masthead were predominantly staffed by men. In its lower echelons, my name was listed with the title of Research Editor, which is a glorified term for fact-checker. The fact-checking work ranged from the serious (like clearing investigative articles of legal liabilities) to the trivial (like confirming whether someone was, in fact, truly a “nightlife impresario.”) “That’s not a Jeff Koons sculpture, it’s a cookie jar,” is a phrase I have actually uttered about a wrongly captioned photo of some bachelor pad, perhaps belonging to a nightlife impresario. I was good at my job insofar as there were very few fuckups.
The thing about being a fact-checker is, you’re only noticed when mistakes slip through. If you’re good at your job, your work is not meant to be noticed. You’re supposed to disappear into the background. I often preferred it that way, or so I told myself: to take the bus and to come into the building, negotiating a lobby filled with pregnant women (the fact that the building also hosted a prominent fertility clinic was an irony not lost on Playboy employees), to drink my coffee, to allow the hours to slip by with reasonable productivity, to resurface for lunch, to engage in small talk and jokes with coworkers, and, eventually, to take the elevator down and go home.
I’ve held other jobs, worse jobs. The worst job was at a firm where I was routinely fat-shamed for my lunch options by a colleague. What are you, a Chinese mother? was a thought that I had, but kept to myself, so that I could eat my chicken pad thai in peace. Another time, I ended up helping a supervisor create a Match.com profile for herself. How I ended up working with said supervisor on her online dating persona so late at night, well past office hours, probably had to do with being complimented: “But you’re so good with words.” The ability to speak up for myself, to demarcate my time, my labor, my skills as my own, eluded me. It took me years to understand that the responsibility of enforcing professional boundaries often falls to the less powerful party. It’s not in the interest of the powerful to adhere to those boundaries. As almost anyone who has worked in an office knows: People can be awful and they can use their power, however limited, to belittle or pressure others in subtle or not-so-subtle ways that are psychically bruising but technically not illegal.
What I’m trying to say is: The crying at work was not about the work. The source of stress is never the specific litany of tasks and duties one is paid to do. The work, I could control. But I couldn’t control the bullying campaign by an older superior, who seemed to target me and another coworker on staff. Though my coworker and I had both devised ways to avoid the staffer beyond professional interactions (I had taken to strategically wearing headphones), there was something about the daily drip of passive-aggressive jabs, the unnecessarily personal remarks, the pointed, belittling questions interrupting our workflow — all under the thin guise of professionalism — that just added up for me that day.
So when I cried in Tom’s office, I cried because I was pissed. Not at him, but at the superior, and at the circumstances that made it difficult to actually work. The anger I felt could have burned down the entire building, could have scorched city skylines, but there was nothing I could do in a professional capacity to address the source of that anger. The proper HR channels had been swum, records had been made, but nothing had really been done. You were just expected to suffer in silence, absorbing the blows and aggressions of others. You walk around seething, trying to appear like the agreeable, credible employee you have always been, wearing Nice Face. When Nice Face dissolves, it is terrifying to yourself and terrifying to others.
For at least one moment, Tom did look terrified. It wasn’t his fault. He had nothing to do with it, yet he was placed in the impossible position of looking neutral in the face of extreme emotion. I wasn’t a crier, and often I envied those who easily teared up. Had I been alone, I would have been impressed by my emotional display, even encouraging. But in this context, the crying only signified my failure to self-compartmentalize.
I don’t remember how long I stayed in his office that day, whether it was 5 or 30 minutes. I probably apologized profusely.
People file things away. They collect observations, rumors, and assumptions, and this lint composite becomes their perception of you.
I couldn’t help but feel that by crying, I had confirmed every old-school cliché all these male colleagues entertained about women, but kept to themselves. That I couldn’t handle the stress, or that I was too fragile for bigger responsibilities. And perhaps the crying communicated that the detail-oriented, nitpicky, cleanup work so often allotted to women was all I was ever cut out for. Never the jobs that entailed “big-picture thinking,” never the managerial roles, never the positions for designated visionaries.
In the days and weeks following such an emotional display, you’re more observant than usual. You can’t help it. If a colleague speaks sharply to you, is it out of a sense of newfound superiority? If a supervisor dismisses your idea, is it because he no longer takes you seriously? Maybe they’re just gossiping about you to other coworkers over after-work drinks that you weren’t invited to. Or maybe you’re just being paranoid. The fact that you don’t know for sure changes your mentality. You live in a state of heightened uncertainty. You tread lightly at work. You’re quieter and more withdrawn. You don’t crack jokes. You don’t engage in too much small talk. You wear Nice Face tightly; like armor, it becomes a part of you. You moderate your mannerisms so that they become unnoticeable, and you, in turn, become unnoticeable. Because you’re not a person, you’re a professional.
If you were to see this pattern of behavior to its end, to its vanishing point, you would, yourself, vanish.
My father has sustained a long and fruitful career in a different field. Once, he was selected as a featured employee for the company newsletter. Ostensibly as a way for employees to get to know one another, the selected employee submits to a questionnaire, published alongside their picture. One of the questions: How would you like to be remembered? To which he responded: I would like to be forgotten.
The answer raised some eyebrows at the company, and my mother would periodically tease him for it. The curtness of his response gave the misleading impression that he didn’t, in fact, enjoy his job or derive satisfaction from his career. But what my father meant was that the work self and the private self are two different things. And that he didn’t owe the company his private self, even for something as innocuous as a corporate newsletter.
I was born in China during the 1980s. In every family, the Cultural Revolution casts a heavy shadow. I won’t go into the particulars of my family history — of who was publicly castigated, who was sent away to labor camps, who was separated from their families — in part because I understand the stories only piecemeal, in offhand references, through secondhand sources. They’re a part of family history that no one wants to fully acknowledge.
What I will say is that, for years, between the ages of 3 and 5, my grandmother would put me to bed with stories of children being abducted or lost or killed. Because my life was safe and boring at the time, I relished these tales of peril, and incessantly asked for more of them, in the way that someone might binge on Law and Order episodes.
In retrospect, the stories served as vehicles to impart my grandmother’s lessons. The children often ended up in dangerous scenarios due to the same set of follies: They were too adventurous, or too overzealous, or too curious. A bored child, running off from his parents at the street market, ends up getting kidnapped and sent to a labor camp in the icy purgatory of Siberia, living off patchy tundra grass. The survivors in these stories were the ones who learned how to be obedient and to negotiate their own releases by subjugating their wills and impulses with apparent cooperation. The takeaway: In order to survive, one must hide the self.
I don’t know how long I have carried this understanding, but it has been there for all of my life: The self can be compressed. The self is infinitely divisible. As in Zeno’s paradox, if the self is cut down and continually halved into smaller pieces for eternity, it can still exist. You may act like a completely different person — ingratiating yourself to higher powers, publicly holding political views you don’t believe in; in other words, completely subjugated to the system around you — but the self remains. You can be a feminist and still work at Playboy. You can object to the objectification of women but still attend employee parties staffed by lingerie models passing out Playboy Energy Drinks. You can dislike working with certain difficult coworkers, but still wear Nice Face around them. You can be a professional at work, but still retain your personhood.
Is this a depressing outlook or an inspiring one? Are you a hypocrite or are you a survivor?
It is better to be underestimated by others than overestimated, is something I used to tell myself at work all the time. I would invoke it like a mantra whenever something bad happened. Sometimes it worked. It sounds wise and clever, as if I could transcend the shittiness of the situation, like a spirit moving outside of a body, looking down from a remove.
I get home from work. I take the express bus, mostly because taking the subway underground depresses me. At home, I make something to eat, a sparsely dressed salad. More often than not, I get takeout from the corner taqueria. I wash the leftover dishes in the sink and finally do laundry. More often than not, I don’t. I do some writing on my laptop, working on some vague project that will finally elevate my life. More often than not, I watch Netflix. I watch Netflix for so long that it grows dark and I move to close the blinds so that pedestrians can’t look in. More often than not, I just fall asleep, my sleeping expression an open book to all.
A year after I unceremoniously cried at work, Playboy Enterprises closed the Chicago office, consolidating it with its office in LA, known as Playboy West. The office closing did not come as a surprise. For several months, rumors had been circulating. Employee benefit plans had been cut. The employees on the magazine staff braced themselves. We knew that the magazine was not the most lucrative division of the company. Ultimately, there were mass layoffs of employees across most divisions, some of whom had been with the company for decades and were on the cusp of retirement. (A longtime employee, in fact, sued the company for wrongful termination, heralding a landmark payout.)
My own layoff happened like this: One afternoon, Tom tapped the back of my chair and asked me to come with him. I knew what was coming, as I followed him — his stiff walk — down the halls. All day, each employee had been called individually to the office of the creative director, who either offered them a position in the LA office, or laid them off.
In the creative director’s wide, sweeping office, I sat down at the table, along with other company representatives. The creative director, sweat stains on his shirt, seemed shaken by having delivered news to so many employees already. He stumbled over his words, seemingly reciting a script as he faced me, looking at my face but not quite seeing me. The script didn’t include the words “lay off” or “terminated,” but the message was conveyed.
They — the creative director, the HR representative, Tom — waited for me to speak. Tom’s face was alert, but willfully neutral, void of emotion. It reminded me of his expression when I cried in front of him. He was watching me carefully. It occurred to me that perhaps he was afraid of me, or of my feelings. I didn’t feel anything. Looking down at myself as if from a remove, I acted out some idea of my father. I asked specific questions. I looked everyone in the eye. I took some documents they gave me. At the end, I stood up and shook their hands. I thanked them.
After work that day, a handful of magazine employees gathered at a sublevel bar in a Gold Coast apartment building, decorated with pink Christmas lights. Though I was not directly invited, I went with them anyway. The mood was somber but celebratory. Somehow, I ended up sitting next to a group of editors, those from the upper masthead, in an upholstered booth. Rounds and rounds of car bombs came to the table. It was like I was crashing a college frat party.
Tom came over, sat next to me. He was softer, friendly, offering me drinks from the open bar. It was all on someone else’s tab, maybe the company’s. He was slightly sentimental from the rum and cokes he had nursed throughout the evening. He leaned in, trying to speak over the din of others’ conversation. “I was very impressed with your conduct today,” he said.
“With my conduct?” I asked, before realizing that he was referring to my behavior at the layoff meeting that afternoon.
“Yes. You handled yourself with dignity and class,” he said, with the solemnity of bestowing upon me some grand award, the Nobel Peace Prize for Not Crying.
“Thank you,” I said. And I did resent him, in the way that you resent anyone who has seen you at your most vulnerable and misjudged you based on it.
I went outside, where a few employees shared a hand-rolled joint. Someone said it was weed cut with tobacco, but it was mostly just tobacco.
Only later did I realize that the bar was located on the next block over from the original Playboy Mansion, where Hef once lorded over notorious bashes from his rotating circular bed, where girls once swanned around a glass-bottomed indoor pool. The sublevel bar had probably been chosen for its proximity. We were always partying in the shadow of Hef’s fabled parties. His mansion is now a condo building.
It had been raining lightly and intermittently that night, but not enough to get anyone wet. Instead, the rain was more like a mist, a clarifying tonic that swept everything away. None of this mattered. This job was not me. No job ever would be. The loosely packed joint burned quickly in the cold weather, losing its fire as it was passed from employee to employee. Some of these employees would move to LA, and continue to work out of that office. Others would move for the company, only to be laid off in a few years time. There are only a few I know who remain there now.
I can’t fully explain why I went to that gathering, knowing that most everyone who attended were those who had been spared from the layoffs. Perhaps it was to convey that it was okay. It wasn’t personal. I drank on their tab. I partook in their weed. I was doing my job. And having done what I came to do, I left the party not too long after that. I have always known when it is time to leave. ●
Ling Ma is the author of the novel SEVERANCE, out Aug. 14.