with a theory of how we landed in this impersonal mess in the first place
by brittany taylor | October 12, 2017
My dad is an old-school business man. Every time he cajoles me into sharing new business idea with him, the conversation devolves into a lecture about scale and mass production, all of which are valid but also distinctly not how I think about businesses I personally want to run.
To each his own, right?
Dad came up through the ranks the hard way. He’s worked in sales his whole life, first in department stores, then driving samples across a sales territory that spanned the Blue Ridge Mountains, then as an executive managing a first cost (re: wholesale) business. Dad knows his shit, and we both know this, so when he sits me down and gives me his lecture on business best practices, I may roll my eyes, but I listen.
One thing I’ve learned from my dad is that business has always been personal. This idea that you don’t bring life to work? That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, nor is it a long-held one.
Humans aren’t automatons; aspects of our home lives have always seeped into our work spaces. My dad has been working since 1962. He can tell me about coworkers’ girlfriends from the ‘60s and the store owner he met in 1972 who was the only one who bought a pair of butterfly-embroidered boots that he remembers so well, he can sketch them decades later. He knows who is sick, who just had a grandkid, and who just converted to Buddhism.
The transference of these personal details is a side effect of building relationships with people. It’s a consequence of spending time together, and it’s a good thing. It binds you to others in a way that calendar invites and invoices do not. It builds empathy. It fosters an emotional interest in making a particular business relationship work. It gives you a driving interest in doing a damn good job not just because you have a reputation to uphold but also because this individual trusts you to do it.
That means something. It means a lot more than follower counts or pageviews, from where I’m sitting.
Where the idea of not sharing personal stories at work (might have) come from
I’m gonna Google this is half a sec to see if I’m right, but my hypothesis is this:
Sometime in the last few decades, when big businesses were becoming increasingly focused on productivity, some well-paid consultant with an impressive list of credentials floated the idea that employees would get more done if they talked less to their colleagues.
So, that’s what businesses started pushing: a heads-down system that suddenly made personal relationships—platonic ones—taboo at work. I’m not going to argue that personal relationships can’t be troublesome in the office; best friendships and cliques are the stuff of HR nightmares. Exchanging stories while sipping coffee in the breakroom, however, is not, and anyone telling you otherwise is peddling a crock of shit.
Note: The theory remains a theory after a brief Google, but I did find this interesting article on the history of productivity.
After living with this (OK, theoretical) gag order on sharing personal stories at work for, say, a generation, we’re starved for personal contact. We want to know the people we work with. We want to understand their backgrounds. We want to have conversations that go beyond small talk.
We, as a workforce, crave more honest interactions. Not team-building trust falls, not platitudes, and not political diatribes while we’re reheating our tea in the microwave. We want to bring a dose of friendship and community to work.
Now, thanks to the internet, thanks to social media, we can do all that without the weird cone-shaped cups at the watercooler—and we can do it really well. We can make connections with people we would not have been able to meet two decades ago.
When it comes to forming new relationships across companies, industries, and continents, personal elements are what make you stand out. You need to give these strangers a reason to remember your name. Personal details, whether it comes from stories or catchphrases or tone (or, ideally, all three), does exactly that.
When I mention personal stories at work, I’m not talking about bowel movements or sexual encounters. You don’t have to go TMI when you go personal. So, you know, breathe. It’s gonna be OK. We’re gonna get used to this brave new world together.
Here's a handful of resources from the blog to get you started: