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.