Sunday Feature: Why do corporations speak the way they do?

Photo: Sam Edwards/Getty Images

By Molly Young | Vulture

In January, a very good memoir called Uncanny Valley was published. The author, Anna Wiener, moved to San Francisco from Brooklyn around 2014 to work at a mobile-analytics start-up, and one of the book’s many pleasures is how neatly it bottles the scent of moneyed Bay Area in the mid-2010s: kombucha, office dog, freshly unwrapped USB cable. Wiener talks about the lofty ambitions of her company, its cushy amenities, the casual misogyny that surrounds her like a cloud of gnats. The book hit me in two places. One of them was a tender, heart-adjacent place that remembered growing up in San Francisco, with its fog-ladled neighborhoods and football fields of fleece. The other was closer to my liver, where bile is manufactured. This was the part of me that remembered working at places much like the one Wiener describes — jobs that provided money to pay rent in a major urban area while I freelanced for magazines and websites that did not. Writing, it turns out, is an economically awkward skill. Despite the fact that it can’t yet be outsourced or performed cheaply by robots, it isn’t worth much. In the case of Anna Wiener (and maybe only Anna Wiener), this is a good thing, because it forced her to embed in a landscape that cried out for narration and commentary.

The status pyramid at most start-ups is roughly this: The C-suite sits at the pinnacle, followed by senior data and tech people, followed by non-senior data and tech people, followed by everyone else except customer service, and then, at the very bottom, customer service. Which, by the way, has been rechristened “customer support” or “customer experience” at most companies — as though the word service might remind the college graduates recruited for these roles that they will in fact spend their days pacifying irritable consumers over phone, chat, text, and email. Wiener worked in customer support.

Being the lowliest worm at a company offers observational advantages in that it renders a person invisible. Wiener describes watching her peers attend silent-meditation retreats, take LSD, discuss Stoicism, and practice Reiki at parties. She tries ecstatic dance, gulps nootropics, and accepts a “cautious, fully-clothed back massage” from her company’s in-house masseuse. She encounters a man who self-identifies as a Japanese raccoon dog. She’s a participant and an ethnologist; she’s impressed and revulsed.


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February 2020