Sometimes my current work life feels like a strange alternate universe to my feminism-focused past. I still work on women and gender issues, but because of where I’m doing the work these days, I’m almost completely surrounded by younger white dudes. That’s right. I work with a few women, but the vast majority of my closest colleagues are young men in their twenties. If you’d told me a decade ago that after working at six different women’s organizations and taking on two advanced degrees in women’s issues, I’d find myself loving an office full of young dudes… well, I would’ve laughed in your face. But here I am…
The most pleasant surprise about this dude-heavy environment is the growing role humor plays in my workday. Look elsewhere for a post comparing men and women’s senses of humor. Of course I laughed with fellow feminists working at women’s organizations. And I’m lucky to celebrate deep friendships with incredibly funny women. And men—most of my coworkers included—make great feminists. Funny ones, even.
But I have come to respect my guy coworkers’ senses of humor in a way that has distinguished this experience from past funny times. Perhaps because of how well we know each other via time spent, and how unprofessional political environments can be, my office culture is incredibly familiar. We all know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and we’ve all tripped over our personal landmines through conversations where nothing is off limits. For the guys I work with, our office culture involves a lot of joking—often, they put each other down or “burn” each other through witty remarks meant to hit at the underbelly—extra points for wit, never points for only meanness.
We’ve also evolved a sort of collective game out of “trolling” each other. My best guess is that the term trolling comes from Internet comments sections—like an online version of fly fishing, where people post inflammatory comments to see if they can make the opposition bite—riling them into losing their cool and acting crazy. Urban Dictionary provides a pretty solid definition:
The art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off, usually via the internet, using dialogue. Trolling does not mean just making rude remarks: Shouting swear words at someone doesn’t count as trolling; it’s just flaming, and isn’t funny. Spam isn’t trolling either; it pisses people off, but it’s lame.
The most essential part of trolling is convincing your victim that either a) truly believe in what you are saying, no matter how outrageous, or b) give your victim malicious instructions, under the guise of help.
In the context of my workplace, trollers need to know their victims and their soft spots—what will set them off. For example, my coworkers are not blind to the fact that I’m passionate about women’s issues and regularly loudly outspoken about sexist themes (fun for them, no?). Successful trolls of me have included:
Me: “I just saw a sign in the Capitol building that said ‘men at work’ – how ridiculously sexist is that! It’s 2013—where’s the ‘people at work’ sign? I’m calling to report this.”
Coworker: “Well, it kind of makes sense because all of the ‘women at work’ signs are in the kitchen.”
Me: “You know, typing can really hurt your hands.”
Coworker: “Yeah, I don’t know how you women do it all day.”
After each troll lobbed with a deadpanned tone, everyone looks to gauge a reaction and assess if the humor attempt was successful. True to definition, the best gotchas happen when you can’t quite figure out if your coworker really just turned into a despicable asshole. But that’s the definition of a good troll—and in my office, when it’s done right, we pass over a little troll doll (like this guy) as a temporary trophy for the quick wit and good collective laugh… until the next troll hits.
I think the reason this type of humor works for me in an essentially all-male environment is that the trolls have become very celebrated opportunities for my coworkers to show they understand larger issues of oppression, sexism, and homophobia. In order to troll me well, they can’t just make a “feminazi” reference and call it a day. Rather, the focus has to be on an issue, the joke has to be relatively smart, and the delivery has to be believable.
Thankfully, my younger dude coworkers do engage in intellectual conversations about feminist topics, though typically I’m initiating and managing these discussions. In a sense, our trolling culture is a way for these guys to acknowledge these issues themselves. They’re definitely not shimmying up to my desk to ask how I understand white male privilege at work in the current media coverage of Hillary Clinton’s possible 2016 presidential bid. But an effective troll can capture the essence of this issue with clarity and wit. Better still, these young men are initiating this thought process themselves and relying on a collective feminist lens in order for the troll to make sense to everyone—and thus succeed at being funny.
As in life, lines and wires are sometimes crossed. But for the most part, I’ve been deeply appreciative of this incredibly collegial environment where I am a lone lady. I’ve got to say, it’s funny to me that I’ve helped create a custom of rewarding young guys for making the wittiest joke about sexism by saying something completely sexist to my face. But I say, pass the troll doll.
The Pleasant Progressive