In 2012, at the age of 35, I got my first white-collar job. It was in an office and it was salaried, and every day I’d be going to an enormous glass-encased building in the city’s most affluent neighborhood. Prior to that, I’d cobbled together a living from my graduate student stipend, working in doggie day cares and writing and editing on a freelance basis. Securing this job was a huge accomplishment.
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As the second person in my rural, Southern, working-class family to go to college and the first to go to grad school, I had absolutely no frame of reference for what success in a white-collar environment might look like. People in my family support themselves with manual labor jobs that require clocking in and out at rigidly scheduled times and working long hours for low pay. The freedom that comes with white-collar working — relatively flexible hours, no clocking in or out, taking breaks and lunches whenever you want — is only one foreign element for folks like me.
Contrary to what many of us grew up being told, professional success depends on much more than just your work ethic and performance: It’s important to fit in with your coworkers and the workplace culture. I’ve routinely struggled with how to comfortably relate to my coworkers because what is very normal for them has never been an option for me. This can be alienating, and it can even hurt your success — think impostor syndrome on steroids.
Moving on up in the world requires us to learn the ways of a culture that might be unfamiliar to us, and that includes even the most seemingly banal, innocuous workplace conversations. Put simply? Talk, and its implications, are not always cheap. I've noticed there are certain topics white-collar workers tend to discuss. This has helped me fit in and feel comfortable discussing things I haven’t experienced without sharing aspects of my personal life I’d prefer to keep private or pretending to be someone I’m not.
Here's how I deal with "white collar" topics that often feel unfamiliar to me.
Travel and Vacations
In my first white-collar job, I was shocked by the number of coworkers who regaled me with stories of travel: a weekend getaway, European trips planned for months, an annual excursion whose only seeming restriction was that it be somewhere they hadn’t yet visited. Fortunately for me, my mother won a week-long trip to Italy when I was 18, and I went with her. I learned early on that when the topic of travel inevitably came up that I should invoke tales from that trip. Regardless of your experience, it’s useful to rely on things others have said. When in doubt: “I’ve heard it’s incredible! What’s it like?”
As for what you do with those two weeks off every year? If you haven't taken a vacation in years (or ever), discuss what you might do or where you’d like to go. If you're asked why you haven't made the trek yet, you don't have to disclose that it's been a financial impossibility — you can simply say you haven’t had the chance. If the whole topic makes you uncomfortable, just ask some questions about your coworkers’ vacations. You’ll engage them and will likely come away with ideas for future vacations of your own.
Food Trends and Popular Restaurants
I may not be able to visit many restaurants, but I can talk food — even when it has nothing to do with what I grew up eating, like pork and beans, bologna sandwiches, and government cheese. I ask questions about the food, the ambience, the drink pairings, and the chef/restaurateur. If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s the fact that we all have to eat. Some people’s meals may be much fancier or more expensive, but food is still just food. If you cook, you can always pivot the conversation to a favorite recipe. Or just talk about how great tacos are. Everyone loves tacos.
The latest apps and gadgets seem to be de rigueur for middle-class life and white-collar work. I learned this at my first office job, where my non-smartphone regularly drew comments from coworkers who couldn’t make sense of the fact that I didn’t have an iPhone. (They were also shocked to find out I didn’t have an iPod or iPad, either.) While my phone is no one’s business, I’ve learned to sidestep it altogether by asking how newer versions compare to older ones, as well as the practical benefits they bring to people’s daily lives.
It’s become normal to have professional pictures taken for every major life event, from engagements to pregnancies. My coworkers were shocked to learn that the only pictures I had of my (incredibly tiny, nearly free) nuptials were taken by attending friends. If the person two cubes over asks for your opinion about which engagement snap would be best for their save-the-date magnet (some people’s fridges are covered in these now), go ahead and weigh in. And then politely get back to work. No one will blame you for not caring too much about pictures of a coworker posing in a meadow with their betrothed.