Over the course of the last 10 or 20 (or 50) years, a surprising observation has begun to take shape. As it turns out, corporate office jobs suck. Seriously?! Who knew? Sarcasm aside, the machinations of the “typical” office aren’t all that different than the “typical” high school—there are cliques, mean (and often stupid) authority figures, drugs, and plenty of crying fits in the bathroom. The comic, absurdist vision of the modern corporate workplace began with Dilbert, continued with Mike Judge’s brilliant film, Office Space, and lives on in our televisions thanks to the British and American versions of The Office (shows which, in both cases, sport some of the more hilarious moments on television today).
Now, if Lois Beckwith has her way, the next link in that formidable chain will be a dictionary; specifically, The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit.
As one might guess, The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit is not lacking for snark. Ms. Beckwith has obviously spent a lot of time studying the environment of which she writes, as the completeness of the Dictionary is quite impressive. Think of any one of the typical office clichés that you’ve encountered in the corporate workplace, and it’s in this book. From benefits (”...pays for your weekly shrink appointments and monthly psychopharmacologist visits…”) to Zyban (”...might aid you in your attempts to not go ballistic…”), it’s all in there.
In fact, the presence of Zyban is indicative of one of the defining undercurrents of The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit. Many of the entries point to an overbearing feeling of utter hopelessness, that feeling that the young executive gets when Saturn comes around again, the feeling that says “this is the rest of your life,” fading into the background with the evil laughter of the most comical supervillain. It’s the feeling that causes 45-year-olds to buy Corvettes. Antidepressants get lots of face time, whether they be Zyban, Zoloft, or nicotine. Crying jags in the bathroom make frequent appearances. There is a constant emphasis on being fake in a fake world. For a book that is so flippant on its face, it certainly has dark undertones to it—this is a book whose dedication tells the workers of the world that “we shall overcome someday”, and then gives every reason why that will never happen.
Another of the defining features of The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit is the pervasive confirmation of common stereotypes. For example, there are the constant appearances of the “office flirt” (”...very adept at concealing whorish nature…”) and the “office slut” (“The chick who sleeps with everyone…”), who are respectively male and female, it is pointed out, because of a natural office-wide gender bias. Yet, both have long, drawn out definitions that continue to use the “biased” pronoun after said bias is pointed out. Women are catty, men have too much testosterone for their own good. Aside from the gender stereotyping, it is also pointed out that bosses suck, the Human Resources department is “incompetent”, and the idea of diversity in the typical workplace is a joke.
It all begs the question: Did we really need a new book to reiterate everything that the previous office satires already laid out for us? It’s as if Ms. Beckwith is sitting us down and explaining the punch line of every single joke Dilbert ever told.
Still, even if it’s true that most of the humor to be found in The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit is comprised of jokes and observations that we’ve heard before, Beckwith’s tone is what sells it. She genuinely comes off as someone who’s been there, someone who has either experienced or seen first-hand all that she writes of, and her willingness to relate her experiences allows the reader to like her immediately. Some of the entries in the book read a bit like inside jokes—for example, acronyms like “CTNTSCWLWEL” make appearances, and while the characters they describe do tend to occur in the office, no account of office life I’ve ever seen (including my own) has ever employed these particular acronyms to describe those characters. Even so, it’s just this sort of inside look that endears Beckwith to the reader. We are getting a glimpse of someone else’s office hell, and that makes it engaging in that car crash kind of way, for even as humankind is capable of empathy, most of us still take some guilty comfort in knowing that some problems are the exclusive domain of somebody else.
At the end of the day, it is what it is: A lateral move in the modern canon of office satire. And if you happened to recognize that I said something very close to absolutely nothing in the previous sentence, The Dictionary of Office Bullshit just might be the perfect book for you.