Work Friend


            Heerlen           There are many columns in the Times and of course other papers that I frankly refuse to read anymore.  Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman are maddening examples.  I would rather read the conservative columnists without pretense, rather than these apologists for neoliberalism, self-delusion, and general whining.  One column that I have read more religiously than any other over the years is called “Work Friend.”  It’s a by the number’s advice column.  In recent years, it has been written with plain commonsense by Roxanne Gay.  She was given an inordinate amount of space not long ago to write her “so long” column, as she signed off and turned it over to a new friend.  I read it with interest to see what her last shots were going to be to workers, largely office-based, this is the Times after all, that had written to her.

Her piece started with her own work history, which was lengthy, forthright, and depressing.  It was also personal.  Turns out that her family was Haitian from Nebraska.  That was interesting.  Who would have guessed?  I looked her up on Wikipedia.  Turns out she has been not only the job jumper she described, but has also bounced from one educational institution to another, some elite and others unknown, both for her own schooling and in teaching before walking away once her own writing took off, and she got this gig.  Who would have ever guessed?  She should have gotten additional credit for all of that, as well as her bad job empathy.  Just saying.

So, what was her final advice?   You can judge for yourself, but here are some highlights:

  • …most professional questions are also personal questions. We do not leave who we are at the door when we walk into the office or log on to the company Slack or clock in at the warehouse.  Wherever we go, there we are with our triumphs and failures, our families and friends, our identities and political affiliations, or faiths – everything that makes us who we are.
  • To work, for so many of us, is to want, want, want. To want to be happy at work.  To feel useful and respected.
  • …frankly, a fulfilling and equitable professional life should not be the stuff of utopia. That should be the reality.  It is astonishing to see how many people are so deeply unhappy at work, so trapped by circumstances beyond their control, so vulnerable to toxic workplaces and toxic cultural expectations around work.

That gives you the flavor.  At the end, she wishes she could have been franker with her readers and those who asked for advice, as she said, “…I wish we lived in a world where I could offer you frank, unfiltered professional advice, but I know we do not live in such a world.”

Her admission there was surprising and disappointing.  I felt like I had stumbled on an unresolvable contradiction.  Her advice had been sturdy and clever, but it was perhaps not what she felt or believed.  It had chafed that she always seemed to position her advice as something the individual could do to live through it or exit.  I never remember that she urged collective action or reaching out to organize coworkers in a union or otherwise.

Now looking behind the screen, her advice in fact seems to contradict who she really is, and everything she really believes.

In 2023, Gay was one of more than 370 New York Times contributors to sign an open letter expressing “serious concerns about editorial bias” in the newspaper’s reporting on transgender people. The letter characterized the reporting as using “an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language”, and raised concerns regarding the newspaper’s employment practices regarding trans contributors.[32][33][34] The following year, Gay published an essay in the New York Times decrying—despite the worthy tradition of Émile Zola‘s J’Accuse…! and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—the open letter as a form that “Should End,” as it allows writers to “hold fast to [their] deeply held beliefs without having to question them or grapple with doubt” and to “mitigate… helplessness with performance rather than practice.”[35]

She ends her piece saying, “…my hope for all of you is to be given the grace of spending your finite life, both professionally and personally, without compromise.”   It seems she has taken that advice in her own career and work life, but not in the advice column for the last five years.  What kind of a work friend is that?  I now like her better as Roxanne Gay, but feel a bit deceived by her column, and the advice she gave so many.  I guess that is also the world that we live in, and certainly the one we read about in the Times.