Comfort, despite the insidious effects of globalization (Mexico got rid of national naptime in 1999), is a cultural changeling, and what is warm weather to a nuclear family of pasty Newfoundlanders who've set upon Disney World in March wearing nothing but Hawaiian shirts, jorts, and rosy smiles, is probably frigid weather to someone from Antigua. That's because living amid a diverse range of temperatures and landscapes has acclimatized people to different levels of comfort. Globalization, i.e. the rapacious corporate desire to swaddle every human, no matter how blithely equatorial, in a Forever Lazy, has gone a long way towards obliterating cultural nuances about comfort and creating a uniform standard of what is comfortable, a standard, thanks to the sideways crab-shuffle of social progress, tailor made for male office workers.
Boing-Boing's scimitar-sharp science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker went for a little jaunt over to the New York Times on Friday to ask, "Why Does It Mean to Be Comfortable?" Well, it depends, because science people, unlike their theological steadfast counterparts, can't give a simple straight answer to anything. Jeez, can't it be as simple as, "Comfort means letting Jesus hold you in his wiry arms and whisper stories about how the dinosaurs were really pagan demons that God wiped off of the planet with a celestial Nerf gun in 3 B.C.E."? No, it can't — Koerth-Baker tells us all about how people in Oslo, Norway need to have way more light bulbs and space heaters than people in Fukuoka, Japan, but that such differences in domestic homeostasis are changing thanks to the most devilishly seductive technological innovation of all time: air conditioning. And who determines the optimal air condition temperature that will be set in offices around the world? The fucking suits do:
Along with air-conditioning, globalization has also helped popularize something called Ashrae 55: a building code created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, to determine the ideal temperature for large buildings. The standard, which has set thermostats across the globe, is hardly culture-free. It's based on Fanger's Comfort Equation, a mathematical model developed in Denmark and the United States in the 1960s and '70s, which seeks to make a very specific worker comfortable: a man wearing a full business suit.
Consider the impact on office workers in hotter countries, where a thobe or a dashiki might be perfectly acceptable business attire. They might start dressing differently, which makes them less comfortable outside and at home, which in turn makes them more likely to seek out air-conditioning. It also affects women. "In spring, it's socially expected that women will wear thinner blouses, skirts, open-toed shoes," Mazur-Stommen says. "But the building temperature is set for men, who are assumed to be wearing long-sleeved shirts and closed-toed shoes year-round. If everyone just dressed appropriately for the weather, we wouldn't have to heat or cool the building as much."
In other words, when you have to wear a sweatshirt over your work clothes in August because the air in your office is cold enough to preserve wooly mammoth steaks, you can thank this strange custom the corporate world has of requiring its male denizens to wear Men's Warehouse duds sold to them by an aspiring online poker player named Franco with fingers so smooth they make measuring a middle-aged accountant's chest look like a passionate tango.
What Does It Mean to Be Comfortable? [NY Times]
Image via VVO/Shutterstock.