“Secretary’s Day” And Social Control

Illustration for article titled “Secretary’s Day” And Social Control

How does "culture" control us? In her book Talk of Love, Ann Swidler argues that culture has the power to shape our behavior even when we do not internalize the cultural narratives to which we are exposed. She uses Secretary's Day, or Administrative Professional's Day if you're being politically correct, as an example.

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Secretary's Day is a rather recent faux-holiday that conveniently (for florists, card makers, and candy and cookie bakers) falls between Easter and Mother's day and mostly serves to bolster capitalist cashflow. Need a product to show your appreciation? We've got ‘em:

Illustration for article titled “Secretary’s Day” And Social Control
Illustration for article titled “Secretary’s Day” And Social Control
Illustration for article titled “Secretary’s Day” And Social Control
Illustration for article titled “Secretary’s Day” And Social Control

Like Mother's Day cards suggest that families would fall apart without mothers to do EVERYTHING, Secretary's Day cards suggest that an office would be helpless without its administrative assistants.

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The holiday is meaningful, of course, only because (like with mothers) we take for granted and devalue what administrative assistants do everyday every day. In that sense, the holiday is disingenuous and actually exposes that which it claims to resolve. So there are good reasons for administrative assistants to think it's bunk, too.

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Let's say that you had a secretary, but you thought that Secretary's Day was stupid. Would you still mark the day?

Swidler says you would.

You would if Secretary's Day was being so ubiquitously advertised and promoted that everyone knew it was Secretary's Day. And, if everyone knew that it was, including your administrative assistant, then it makes a statement NOT to mark the day. Marking the day is the path of least resistance. Not "showing your appreciation" tells a story about you (you're not a very nice person) or your adminstrative assistant (who must suck and be a crappy employee). And there's nothing you can do about that.

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Here's how Swidler tells it:

…the difficulty is that even the most skeptical, who recognize the trumped up, commercial origins of the occasion, may find themselves trapped by the wide publicity of the code. If one's boss won't even spend a few dollars, does that signal that he or she doesn't ‘care? Both bosses and secretaries, however distasteful they may find the holiday, may nonetheless worry about the signal their actions will send. Indeed, that is the key to semiotic constraints on action. One is constrained not by internal motives but by knowledge of how one's actions may be interpreted by others (p. 163).

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We don't just get to act according to what we think and feel. We have to make decisions about how to act based on how others will interpret our behaviors. And, often, it's easier to go along and make the right moves than it is to buck the system that gives our choices meaning.

Images from here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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Illustration for article titled “Secretary’s Day” And Social Control

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images. Republished with permission.

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DISCUSSION

stoprobbers
stoprobbers

When I was a receptionist at a law firm all the admin staff was bought a nice lunch, our office manager (who was a wonderful and badass lady) and head accounts administrator (one of the firm's founder's former secretaries who, after over a decade of working for him, had gotten a much-deserved promotion to oversee all the moneys for the firm) got taken out to lunch by all the partners to the restaurant of their choosing, AND on top of all of that, the Office Manager and Accounts Admin bought the support staff (myself, two administrative assistants and two legal assistants — it was a small firm) $20-$40 gift cards to appropriate places — Best Buy for our guy tech geek, Starbucks for me as a total coffee addict, a video store for one of the admin assistants who is a total film buff, etc.

It was really sweet, really tasteful, and made us feel appreciated in an office environment that was already very appreciative. It just felt nice. Maybe it's social control but fuck it — no one bought into the industry of flowers and cards, and at the end of that day we all felt very much part of the firm's family. It was great, especially in a job that can really wear on patience and faith in humanity (good god, people are terrible on the phone).