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Why America loves its office culture

As Labor Day marks the close of another vacation season, those who are gainfully employed in this shaky American economy, return to their cubicles and 'second family.' Office culture, so long derided for its conventions and constraint, has become a source of national nostalgia.

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Employees converse in a cubicle at the offices of Ernst & Young in Boston Nov. 19, 2009. Op-ed contributor Danny Heitman observes: 'It's the proximity of so many personalities within the narrow geography of an office building that gives workplace culture its strange and sometimes comic energy....and it's that density of social interaction that can get lost in the wake of business downsizing, clerical outsourcing, teleconferencing, and the rise of the telecommuter.'

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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With the arrival of Labor Day and the close of another vacation season, America's office workers will be migrating back to their native habitat – the hive of cubicles and corporate suites that, for those who are gainfully employed in this shaky economy, constitute a home away from home through much of the year.

This doesn't seem like a scene worthy of Norman Rockwell, who would have been hard pressed, one gathers, to find much pastoral charm in banks of desks bathed in fluorescent light. But what seems striking these days is the degree to which office culture, so long derided for its conventions and constraint, has become a source of national nostalgia.

That sentiment is evident in "The Receptionist," Janet Groth's recent memoir recounting her two decades answering the telephone at The New Yorker. On the surface, at least, Ms. Groth's lovely book reads like one more addition to the considerable shelf of books taking us inside America's most famous literary magazine.

She depicts a typical day at The New Yorker as a kind of perpetual block party, with the staff divided between unbounded eccentrics and the managers who try, with varying success, to keep them grounded. Name-dropping gives these histories a glamorous appeal; not every workplace, to be sure, can boast James Thurber in the hallway or A.J. Liebling in the elevator.

Yet what impresses me about The New Yorker's office politics isn't its singularity, but the universal chord it often strikes with workplaces everywhere. The figures here – office libertine, prim grammarian, shy secretary, and reticent boss – often seem like stock characters from the 9-to-5 landscape of white-collar employment.

It's the proximity of so many personalities within the narrow geography of an office building that gives workplace culture its strange and sometimes comic energy. An ineffable quality of corporate life thrives when a critical mass of brains and bodies works at the same address, and it's that density of social interaction that can get lost in the wake of business downsizing, clerical outsourcing, teleconferencing, and the rise of the telecommuter.

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