National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Limit the damage on office battlefields

by Michael Hoffman

What a nest of vipers an office is! Tens, hundreds, thousands of people, supposedly united in a common enterprise — yet if looks could kill, how many would make it alive through the day?

Office life seems to present one harassment after another. To pawahara (power harassment), sekkuhara (sex harassment) and mata/patahara (maternity / paternity harassment), add sumehara (smell harassment). “Don’t underestimate it,” counsels “human quality” specialist Yumi Higuchi in an essay written for the business magazine President. Smells are more toxic than looks.

Pity the poor manager, whose task it is to mold into a functioning whole the separate, often irreconcilable elements that make up the seething mass of characters, agendas, personal circumstances and ambitions (or lack thereof, verging on sloth) that compose an office staff. It used to be easier. Managers were respected because they were managers, obeyed because they were respected and took no nonsense because there was little nonsense to take. Now there’s a lot. President gives us a bird’s-eye view of some of it in a feature titled “Capable women, risky women.” The point is not to blame the nonsense on the rise of women to responsible positions. But it does complicate things. It poses a challenge to which managers, still mostly (though no longer exclusively) male, are rising, gamely if clumsily.

What should a department head do if a female subordinate comes to him complaining, “So-and-so has such pungent body odor my head reels, I can’t concentrate!” Ninety percent of the time, says Higuchi,it’s a woman lodging a complaint against a man, or men. There are other forms of smell harassment — perfume, tobacco, food — but BO is the most persistent, and surely the most awkward.

A boss might well regret the promotion that raised him up, if the price he pays for power and prestige is the responsibility to confront a staffer over how he smells. His first inclination might be to dismiss the complaint, more or less brusquely. He’d be wrong to do so, Higuchi says. Odors do take their toll. He’d better ask around, see if others are similarly offended, and if they are, it’s up to him whether he confronts the offender, or posts a generic name-no-names notice about personal sanitation, or something — something as opposed to nothing, which won’t do if he cares about the performance of his department, on which his own future rides.

An office is a mini community, if not a mini prison or a mini junior high school — an involuntary association of individuals in a confined space. Members have to not only tolerate each other but also work together, be a team. This means sheathed claws, most of the time, but tensions seethe, felt if not seen. President focuses, as its title implies, on women — possibly because it thinks their feelings are rawer, possibly because, relative newcomers to the career track, they’ve had less time to learn to master them. Perhaps women would advance faster and farther, President suggests, if they were not perpetually at each others’ throats. There are among them generation gaps, lifestyle gaps, work-style gaps. Childless women fume when colleagues take time off (apologetically or as a matter of right, as the case may be) to nurse a sick child — someone must pick up the slack. Part-time women resent full-timers drawing better pay for the same work. Older women who advanced by sacrificing their private lives to their careers cannot understand younger women for whom work is one part of life among many, and not necessarily the most important.

The despair of male managers is the “landmine woman.” She may rank high, or she may rank low. Either way, you never know when she’ll explode, or over what. Sometimes it’s over nothing, or what seems nothing. Maybe she never explodes at all, only projects the dreadful possibility that she might.

For example — a woman approaches her department head: “So-and-so is having an affair with so-and-so.” The department head who knows no better might say, “So? What’s it to you?” That’s liberal in a way, reactionary in another. Extra-marital affairs used to be cool, but the masculine culture that sanctioned them is fading, and the culture replacing it sees them as more victimizing than empowering. So one answer to “What’s it to you?” might be, “It poisons the office atmosphere.” Another might be an explosion, whose reverberating message, fatal to a manager’s authority and future prospects is, “This guy’s anti-woman.” How a manager should handle the situation is again not spelled out in President, but the underlying prescription is tact, tact. More and more, more than ever, tact is a managerial prerequisite. To be a manager is to walk on eggshells.

You’re a manager. A female subordinate dresses inappropriately. She’s a “landmine.” Do you speak to her? She’ll cry sekkuhara. Not speak to her? That’s sanctioning unbusiness-like conduct. It’s a dilemma. Not insoluble, but decidedly a dilemma.

President ends its feature on a somewhat pessimistic note. There’s the blunt old proverb danson johi — respect for men, contempt for women. It summed up an ideal and a reality — vanished, one would have thought, but essayist Junko Sakai, updating it, alters only one syllable. Her danson joshi changes the final character, “hi” (“contempt”) into “shi” (“child”). Contempt is no longer felt, or admitted, but respect remains a masculine prerogative and women, the suggestion is, are not deemed quite grown up.

Even executive women, Sakai tells President, tend to pour the drinks, toss the salad and sit far from the head of the table at meetings. Why? Partly, she says, it reflects habits absorbed by the women themselves in early childhood; partly it’s what clients, especially older clients, expect, and businesswomen, like businessmen, defer to clients in the name of an ideal higher than respect — namely, business.

A third reason Sakai invokes has to do with marriage. It’s a fading institution nowadays, no longer a met or a missed destiny, as it once was. That’s more of a problem for women, who generally want to bear children, than for men, who can live without them. The relative indifference of men lately to marriage and reproduction means women must court men somewhat as men, in the Western tradition, once courted women. They must compete for men. To compete means to be popular. To be popular means to be agreeable; to be agreeable, deferential. Women’s magazines, Sakai says, are full of advice on how it’s best done.

She hopes that’s not the last word, but offers no grounds for presuming it won’t be.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”