Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Office Hallway Smirk

A few posts ago I talked about the American Shrug--where actors in commercials often put on a "don't blame me for being lucky" act. Today I am pointing out another behavioral tic in America, but this one is played out in what passes for "real life" for many of us--in office hallways and in elevators.

It's the Office Hallway Smirk. In the feudal state of Corporate America, millions labor anonymously from one another though pulling for the same profit margin. Most participants know its a sham existence but have not figured out how you get out of it without turning into a homeless person. From this stoic recognition is born the Smirk.

You'll encounter it on your way to the copy machine: as you pass your office-casual counterpart, you see their lips compress but without a smile; you see their eyes widen just slightly and their gaze very briefly meets yours as they go by. That's the whole thing. This minimalist gesture stands in for a greeting today among colleagues.

Careful analysis reveals that it signifies "I know we are both more or less trapped here and while I neither know you well nor feel any special sympathy for you, I am forced to acknowledge both your presence and your struggle to exist, like myself, as a fully realized human being inside this impersonal machine. Furthermore, please don't blame me for I have struggles of my own at which you would not care to guess."

An emotionally repressed people, Americans have mastered the art of the Smirk; probably most folks would prefer to ignore their colleague utterly. But the Smirk is a guilt-based reaction, and we find it useful to assuage the fact that we view our colleague as an inconvenience to our solitude.