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Ethnographic Musings of an AAA Intern

Today’s blog post is by one of our two summer interns, Susannah Poland. This is the second year of the AAA Summer Internship Program. Learn more and support the program today!

Thoughts on DC work and environment

I have a few anthropological musings. When I arrived in D.C., it was a record-setting 110 degrees (with the heat index). I was both overwhelmed by the heat, and struck by how much time everybody spent in air conditioning. In the past few weeks, I have been wondering about the effect of climate upon work culture. In my daily travels from apartment to metro to work, and occasionally to stores and restaurants in between, I estimate I spend 1 hour or less per day in un-air conditioned environments.

Washington DC is oppressed by humidity. Up on Capitol Hill the frantic politicos and desperate interns look suffocated and resentful in their tight gray suits. We race from one climate-controlled space to another, resenting the dampness that builds under our fitted synthetic outfits when we must walk from the car to the metro, the metro to the office.  DC’s verdant parks and shaded nooks look nice in guidebooks, but we clutch our briefcases and slump under the thick yellowish- gray haze that hangs low breathes hotly on the back of our necks.  In public transit, men scowl and re-check the heat index on their phones, women frantically smooth their frizzing hairstyles. Safely in our cool, dry, bright offices, we return to the professional life dressed for. We straighten up and our suits fall into place, moisture evaporates from our composed brow, and we are once again masters of our busy schedules. Professionalism and efficiency require bright lights and controlled climates; dim humidity just saps our energy and motivation. In a culture of air conditioning, we love our big cubic man-made ecosystems.

Having just moved from the San Francisco Bay Area, I am not accustomed to this indoor living. Californians smugly flaunt their “California cool”– it’s a fashion, a work style, a design process, a business model, a persona, a philosophy. Their arid, sunshine-drenched, nouveau-Mediterranean climate of the Bay Area is more than the perfect backdrop for the image young, fit entrepreneur. The perpetually pleasant weather enables a fantasy which the Californians themselves consume. They are flippantly anti-business suit, anti- cubicle, anti – centralized air. Top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs drop out of school to start their dream companies. They forego the 9 to 5 workday to program on laptops in coffee shops, then go for a 50 mile bike ride on the coast. Outdoor fitness is integrated into the work day because healthy living increases work efficiency and creativity (and keeps you thin and tanned). This is the cult of youthful ingenuity: seventeen year old tech nerds make millions overnight, then go surfing the next morning. And somehow the lack of seasons erodes the sense of time passing. Aging seems unnatural in this paradise.  And though they work round the clock in their boundless workspace, the Californians are always smiley.

Forgive my overgeneralizations – I do not justly portray the individuals who live and work in either locale, and my descriptions are imaginative. But, at the risk of exaggeration, I hope to convey a few, very partial observations.

Frankly, I don’t know which culture I prefer. I grew up in Massachusetts, and as a somewhat stubborn New Englander I was distrustful of the California ideology. I defend the value of a winter, which halts our self-centered busyness. The snow storm comes, we’re ploughed in, the power goes out, and everything just stops. We make stews from vegetables stored in our cold basement, light candles, and take care of our home. The harshness of our environment is humbling, and people become weathered, so to speak. People say that New Englanders are harsher, blunter, “realer” – but I suspect these characteristics have become equally constructed, so that, in our pride and romanticism, we become caricatures of ourselves.

California entrepreneurs seem too shiny and happy to be real, and D.C. politicos seem to be held hostage in their big white buildings and gray suits. Both embrace artificiality in their own way. I feel compelled to return to Boston with a more critical eye, and question the “sensibility” I attribute to our seasonal trials.


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