Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why things are unravelling

Yesterday I received an email from a friend, rather upset about a letter he had received in response to a letter he had sent. In his letter he had asked two questions, only one of which was (insufficiently) answered in the letter he received in reply. He assumed that this meant the sender was not interested in his second query. These were business letters.

I started composing an email in reply to my friend's email, which got longer and longer as I developed a theory that has been lurking in the back of my mind for quite some time. As I was writing, the theory developed further, and it had become almost fully fledged when I accidentally deleted it.

Thus the world came very close to losing yet another of my wonderful theories.

But then I thought that perhaps I could try again, and this time explain it to a wider audience. So, here it is: an almost but not quite complete explanation for the world's current economic crisis.

The short version of my theory goes like this: IT'S ALL BECAUSE OF FEMINISM AND COMPUTERS.

The long version is . . . well, longer. Sit back and prepare to be enlightened.

Once upon a time, back in the early days of the modern business world, women were considered (by men) to be suitable only for breeding and for menial secretarial work. This meant that they either stayed at home and spent their time raising boys to become businessmen and girls to become secretaries or housewives, or they went to secretarial school and learned, ostensibly, how to type and do shorthand. I say ostensibly, because in fact what they were learning was how to be the severely underpaid brains of a business organization while taking none of the credit when things went right and all of the blame if things went wrong. Managers did not need to have brains, or to know what they were doing. That was what secretaries were for. In reality, managers were just decoration. Managers had long lunches with one another while secretaries ran the business world. Managers mumbled drunkenly into dictaphones after their long lunches, and secretaries read the mail and composed sensible replies for the managers to sign. Secretaries from different organizations met in tearooms after work and discussed who pinched whose bottom at the latest office party and the finer details of running the business world without anybody else noticing. Everything worked smoothly, and babies had warm feet.

With me so far?

Then feminism came along, as indeed it needed to, and women said, hey, why am we doing all the work and getting none of the credit (or, more importantly, the money)? So they stopped learning how to be secretaries. At around the same time, computers also came along. Unfortunately, since everybody (men, actually) thought that all secretaries did was to sit around filing their nails or knitting baby booties, and since secretaries were paid peanuts, nobody rushed in to fill the sudden void in the brains department of business organizations. Women started to do other things instead, for which they could actually get real money and even some respect. And men were not interested in becoming secretaries because what self-respecting man cared what his nails looked like, or knew how to knit? Also, computers could do the job just as well, right?


Sadly, a business world without secretaries does not work well at all, and gradually, as the last properly trained secretaries began to retire and leave the workforce, everything began to unravel, rather like a half-finished baby bootie that has slipped off its needles. Recently this unravelling has been more dramatic. It seems likely that there was a 'secretary-boom' at some point in the past which has resulted in a recent mass retirement of secretaries and a sudden catastrophic loss of brains in financial circles. Secretaries were the only ones who actually knew what was going on, and now that most of them have gone nobody has a clue.

Even more sadly, nobody saw this coming. Even now, hardly anybody has figured it out. (Except me, of course.) Managers thought that with the advent of computers you could hire any school-leaver with fingers and put him or her in charge of answering letters and faxes (and, later, emails), and things would be just fine. After all, it's just secretarial work, right? Women used to do it all the time, and still managed to look pretty and have nice nails and/or knit booties for babies. It MUST be easy. Who needs training?

Who needs secretaries?

WE ALL DO. That's who. Feminism is not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is that nobody noticed women were ALREADY doing an extremely valuable job, but were not being valued or respected for what they were doing. And who wants to stay in a job where they are not valued or respected?

I told my friend, in the long email I accidentally deleted (because I do not have a properly trained secretary to take care of these things for me) that his mistake was that he asked two questions in one letter. Asking two questions in one letter was far too much for any organization that does not have a secretary and therefore has no brain. The rule these days is ONE QUESTION PER QUERY, AND KEEP IT SIMPLE. I have learned this from many years of occasionally writing business letters and emails in English for Japanese business people. If the Japanese person has two questions they wish to ask, I need to send two emails, and the second one should not be sent until the first is answered. Most people who are in charge of answering these things cannot cope with more than one question at a time. You need a properly trained secretary for that.

My most memorable experience with the dire results of the world's secretary shortage was the time I foolishly asked THREE questions in one email. It was rash, I know, but I honestly thought that since they were easy questions, it might work if I numbered them clearly. I numbered them clearly.

It did not work, of course. It took exactly fifty-three additional emails (I keep these in a special folder as a reminder to myself) and nearly three months to sort out the resulting confusion, and my Japanese client ended up with the impression that all foreigners are idiots.

So there you have it. If you need fifty-three emails and three months to achieve one small business transaction, imagine how unwieldy really large transactions must have become, and how long they must take! No wonder the world is falling apart!

Everybody has a theory about what has caused the world's current economic crisis, but my theory is the only one that makes sense. If there were still properly trained secretaries, this would not have happened.

Also, there would be fewer babies with cold feet.


Hana said...

Genius theory!

kenju said...

Sounds good to me.

Kay said...

Brilliant---makes perfect sense. Yep! Now, back to "Mad Men",,,,, which all the guys who made the current mess should have consulted; then they would have known your theory was spot on.

Lia said...

I think you're dead on. Feminism did lots of good things, but I think it may have done even more not-so-good things.

Nil Zed said...

Having been a secretary in a large organization as it transitioned from lots of support staff to lots of desktop computers about 20 years ago, I must say, you have this spot on!

Michael said...

Agreed regarding the secretaries.
The field of Engineering suffered particulary from 'modernization'.

They are still around though, but they are now called "Personal Assistants", and feel far more important(better paid) because of that.

With regards to your email problem, have you considered that you aren't that good at writing business emails?
Business communication is an art, requiring an inate ability to protect your reputation, the company from litigation and appear to be worth your salary. Often the answer of, "I hadn't thought of that" is so throroughly obfuscated that the combined brains of mensus couldn't find it. Hence the follow up phone call that must follow such emails. On the phone you can say "I don't know", because a phone call is less easily waived under the bosses' nose by a co-worker.

How to ask a question so that the reply does not infer responibility is the important skill. Something that secretaries knew very well.

Keera Ann Fox said...

As a former secretary (I keep my former secretarial ninja skills honed for my own sanity and safety), I applaud you for your brilliant deduction.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Love it!

The Editter said...

My god, you are brilliant!