October 18, 2005
BENEATH OUR COSTUMES
Last year I walked into a library on Halloween and found Glinda the Good running the circulation desk and the library director masquerading as a Mad Scientist, complete with bloodstains on his lab coat.
It wasn't that long ago that the only grownups who wore Halloween costumes at work were daycare workers, but these days you can't walk through a store or office building on Halloween without seeing Darth Vader, Dr. Doom, Hermione, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A third of American workplaces allow or even encourage their employees to dress up for the occasion, and sales of adult Halloween costumes are beginning to rival sales of children's costumes. Some workplaces even sponsor competitions between departments for best costumes, seeing them as valuable teambuilding exercises.
What's going on here?
My own suspicion is that the baby boomers and the Gen X kids have never been all that comfortable in the costumes of the workplace, the overalls or three piece suits or lab coats or high heels that signify our roles at work.
These costumes are designed not for our comfort but for workplace efficiency. After all, if they make others see us solely as doctors, electricians, accountants, they will prevent the kind of unbusinesslike chitchat that lets other people discover that we are more than our roles. Halloween has become an opportunity to force people to see another side of us.
I see a lot of other signs that people want to express their private selves publicly. E-mail names, for instance, can be statements of philosophy -- my own correspondents include a "whatever" and a "whynot." But they can also reveal surprising self-images. Who would guess that a mailing list of librarians would include a HarleyDude, a BikerBabe, a Diva, a Spiderman, and several "grrl"s? Better rethink that "mild-mannered librarian" stereotype.
Another interesting sign is the new market for temporary tattoos that allow people to spend their weekends sporting a slightly dangerous heavy metal look, while still looking like an IBM sales representative during the work week. There are temporary tattoos for women, too, that convey a kind of daring, even sexiness, that would be inappropriate on the job.
Truckers' CB names are also intriguing self-revelations. You have to wonder about the accident records of truckers who call themselves "Barracuda" and "Captain Chaos" and "Mad Dog." Which trucker would you appeal to for help in a road emergency, "Wise Old Owl" or "Conan the Barbarian"? And don't you suspect a trucker who called himself "Pipe Dream" or "Beach Comber" would rather be doing something other than rolling down the highway?
Vanity license plates are another place where we can reveal personal things about ourselves, like attitude, for instance. "RTFM" appears to be the license plate for a tech support guy who has come to despair of human intelligence. I would take "BIG BUX" and "RAW POWR" to be values statements. Some license plates are pure expressions of ego: "IQ 180," for instance. ("GR8 BUNS" would fall into this class if it weren't used for a bakery truck.)
Other plates seem to be warnings for other drivers; at least I wouldn't try to pass any drivers with plates reading "B AFRAID" or "VICIOUS." There are self-image plates, like "WLD THNG" or "RED DVL." Some are ambiguous: is "DR TEETH" a dentist, or a mad musician like the keyboard player from the Muppet Show's Electric Mayhem?
What all of this makes me think is that the REAL costumes we wear, the ones that hide our true selves from the world, are our workday uniforms. And that increasingly, we find them as confining as straitjackets.
There's a rock song that says "I tell you stories. That doesn't mean you know me." I think what many of us are saying to the world, in every way we can, is, "I do this work. That doesn't mean you know me."
What you see is NOT what you get, folks. Try looking past our workday costumes every once in a while. You just might find the real people -- the surprising people -- inside them.
This is an updated, revised version of a column I wrote for Fox News Online, October 17, 2000.
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