One of the things I didn’t know when I was a child, and that I have learned the very first hand, is how certain kinds of poor group dynamic – things that every so often slot neatly into sexual harassment, mobbing, workplace harassment, bullying, even poor management and groupwork, to even include certain kinds of peer pressure and fraught relationships of all kinds, but also tend to hover uncertainly between these categories as a generalised, undefinable interaction malaise – translate into actual assaults on one’s health.
I mean, the relationship between workplace harassment and lack of career advancement, sure, that never needed much explaining; and the relationship between bullying and not having friends, of course. But it was only between 2007 and now that I realised that all such behaviour tends to somehow, first and last and primarily, have an effect on one’s health; physical health. That it firstly and predominantly exists as a sort of tension, like permanent indigestion or effects of long-term insomnia, a tension that sends one’s body into slowly accelerating overdrive; yet it is a tension that cannot go anywhere, because it is combined with an acute paralysis, a perceived inability to do the right thing which translates into hesitant inaction. But what it really is is the load of long-term strain (like trying to do complex verbal tasks in a language one doesn’t speak too well, or fine handiwork if myopic) without any sense of upcoming relief, of it ending, of there being an exit ahead.
Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be fuelled so much by the anguish, mentioned above, of one’s career decelerating – it is not the lack of personal gain that creates this psycho-physical torture. It is, literally, the sense of failure at a task (writing a memo), due to being structurally unequipped (not speaking the language). Added to it is the concurrent and oxymoronic sense of letting the team (organization, department, friends, school, partner) down, due to being unable to get assistance from the team (organization, department, friends, school, partner).
And here people split according to self-esteem lines. Those who think highly of themselves see the oxymoron and do any number of things: partake in the game; try to circumvent the game and rise to the top with personal charm/efficiency/sleeping with the boss/sudden and inexplicable high achievement; bypass the group and complain to HR/manager/school teacher; or opt out. But those who think lowly of themselves blame their own intrinsic shortcomings for their paradoxical problem, often along the lines of: I am not able to do the job properly because I lack the knowledge/education/intelligence/goodness of heart/listening ability/good looks, and I am only in this position because I tricked someone to hire me/befriend me/partner me, and now it is my responsibility to rise to the challenge. This road is, of course, the road to self-torture and defeat and immense suffering, and eating disorders and chronic fatigue and premature hair loss and early retirement and long-lasting unhappy relationships and whatnot, and I have not seen it work yet. (This is, thus, also the only instance I can think of, in contemporary life, where high self-esteem has a functional use.)
Because, for whatever reason, such stories of poor group dynamic have been presented (in literature, particularly children’s literature (!), films, particularly children’s films (!!), and the general upbringing ethos) as stories of individual courage and persistence in overcoming adversity (there is always a boy who has to prove himself in order to ingratiate himself with the group), I had come to think of them as great challenges on the individual of our time, situations in which the better man triumphs only if brave and hard-working, situations inevitably coming up in the future, the outcome of which will tell me whether I am this or that kind of person (good/bad, brave/cowardly, hard-working/lazy, productive/dead weight on the taxpayer).
The assault on one’s health went unmentioned, and came as a total surprise. That the first impact of poor group dynamic would show itself not as poor career outcomes or honourable defeats in clear-ruled battles, but as insomnia or vomiting in staff toilets, that shed a slightly different light on the entire proposal, and made it look understandably less as honourable coming-of-age battles than as back-stabbing or booby-trapping, some sort of passive-aggressive guerrilla warfare of unspoken manners. The glaring inadequacy of all advice I had at hand (usually involving some dealing with it and not whining and thinking about what one can do to make one’s situation better) when dealing with someone whose digestion was syncopating because of a nasty colleague/partner/member of friendship circle became quite apparent. Early in 2009 I changed tack and started dispensing all kinds of other advice: to leave jobs, to sleep with bosses, to notify next level of management – but largely to leave. Friends, relationships, jobs.
My particular sectors of employment, academia and (in particular) architecture, which are unstructured, ego-driven, with a very inequitable labour distribution between the low-paid casuals and the well-paid permanent staff, and driven by a hyper-masculine let’s-see-who-has-the-biggest-cock-in-the-room ethos (I am not joking), are particularly rich in this sort of behaviour.
But once I have come to recognise a certain kind of stomach pressure as a sign of health problems to come, it has become possible to discern the same patterns in all kinds of places: customer service, relationships, supposedly innocent conversations among supposed friends. And in each place, there is someone trying very hard to succeed at a task of being nice, being funny, having friends, being a friend, being loving, receiving love, treat a person well in public, and falling into some casually perfected trapdoor of polite nastiness in the process. Nastiness so well-mannered that I sometimes wonder if the perpetrators themselves would recognise it as such; or if they would, if quizzed, claim that they were driven to the brink, that they had no other way of making something clear to the other person, that they were simply trying their hardest not to cross the line. Which, I suppose, they always are.