Is office culture in England really as lewd as portrayed in The Office?
December 18, 2014 10:22 AM   Subscribe

Of course I am referring to the BBC version of the show here. I am currently rewatching the series and a few scenes stuck out to me as kind of bizarrely sexist and lewd, in a way that goes above and beyond the usual bounds of a comedy. If there wasn't some bit of truth to these scenes I can't imagine they would have worked that well as jokes in the first place, so I ask thee who have worked in that culture...

Of course I am referring to the BBC version of the show here. I am currently rewatching the series and a few scenes stuck out to me as kind of bizarrely sexist and lewd, in a way that goes above and beyond the usual bounds of a comedy. Plus, if there wasn't some bit of truth to these scenes I can't imagine they would have worked that well as jokes in the first place.
The scenes I am referring to are....

• New girl is being introduced to assembly of coworkers and its jokingly mentioned that her dad is a cop so out loud and in front of everybody, dudes start saying things to her like "would you like to receive some swollen goods, love?" and "I've got something she could take down in evidence!" etc.

• Brent takes the big boss lady down to the warehouse where warehouse workers joke right to her face about her having sex with a dog.

• This exchange between Brent, Chris Finch and (shockingly since he's presented as a sensible good-guy) Neil:
She's looking for a job.
- If it's a blow job, I'll help.
- She's not desperate.
- I'll take her up the dole office! - Dole orifice!
- I've got a vacancy she can fill!

I get that they have a different office culture over there with alcohol and remnants of the class system at play but this stuff all seems baldly inappropriate and I would think illegal, no?
So was this stuff just exaggerated for effect? Meant to show how dysfunctional this one office was?
posted by Senor Cardgage to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't really watched either version of the Office, but isn't it a show that is explicitly about a toxic workplace?
posted by sparklemotion at 10:26 AM on December 18, 2014

Yes and no. The toxicity seems to be centered on one man's poor management while the rest of the place tries to get on normally. At least in my read of it.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:27 AM on December 18, 2014

Yes it's unlawful. No it wouldn't be acceptable to openly say such things in most offices.

Within a small group of known friends in private, maybe, which is likely where this kind of joke springs from. I would guess the humour comes in bringing such private "banter" and makebelieving that somebody might actually say it to the person concerned.
posted by Thing at 10:32 AM on December 18, 2014

For the American show, there was a blog by a workplace litigation specialist who would do a post-mortem on every episode and estimate how much Michael Scott's shenanigans would have cost Dunder Mifflin in fines and settlements and the like. So no, I don't think the idea was to present a realistic view of office culture.
posted by Naberius at 10:36 AM on December 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think this sort of thing probably would have happened frequently two or three decades ago, but I would be seriously shocked to hear it nowadays.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 10:38 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's meant to show how little control David Brent has and how little he's respected, but also how much he tries so hard to be "one of the guys" and not a manager-type. The joke is he thinks he's cool and funny when everyone actually thinks he's pathetic. So in the scene where his superior is in the factory, it's playing firstly on the stereotype that the "working men" (as opposed to the office workers) would be sexist and vulgar. The joke is they do this in front of the female boss and he is clearly torn between wanting them to stop - because it's unacceptable - and not being able to reprimand them because a) he doesn't want them not to like him and b) they clearly don't give a shit about the fact that he's the boss and they're supposed to be on their best behaviour around him.

Likewise when the guy shouts out sexist remarks when he's introducing the cop's daughter, it's a throwback to what might have happened years ago (not now). But it's also highlighting that it takes someone to go way too far before he puts a stop to it because he has no authority and wants his reputation to be built on how much fun he is, so he'll allow some inappropriate jokes as "banter" whereas in real life a good manager wouldn't tolerate them.

Much of the humour of The Office is the cringe-inducing attempts of Brent to remain "cool" when he's just a laughing stock. But no, it's not common office culture here, not that I've ever experienced anyway.
posted by billiebee at 11:18 AM on December 18, 2014 [17 favorites]

While billiebee's analysis is spot-on, I have worked in factory and office situations in the UK far worse than those displayed in The Office.
posted by scruss at 1:28 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

None of The Office is unbelievable, that's why it's so good and also sometimes very painful. There is comic exaggeration. But there are a million workplaces in the UK: this would not be your average experience.
posted by alasdair at 1:50 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think any scenario involving David Brent should be discounted immediately, because that's the entire conceit of the show.

Re the other people mentioned, I don't know, it seems inappropriate, but not beyond the scope of comments you might hear from people who are particularly asshole-ish in a particularly insensitive workplace. (I'm speaking from experience in the US, but I'd be surprised to hear that it would be beyond the pale unheard of in the UK.)

It also reminds me of a lot of the stuff leveled at Jane Tennison in early series of Prime Suspect. Those take place quite a bit earlier than The Office does, but if (as in the American version of the show) Dunder-Mifflin is meant to be a bit of a stodgy throwback type of office in a less cosmopolitan and more conservative part of the country, I could see the same social mores still being around from a decade or so previous.
posted by Sara C. at 2:16 PM on December 18, 2014

When I worked in the UK I noticed that younger blue collar women were pretty routinely subjected to stuff that would be unacceptable in the US. But not professional women, which was my workplace. We had a couple of professionals with "local" accents and they were definitely treated differently by men. It was pretty lame.

I think if you're looking for it you can see it in cop shows and in UK written books too, a kind of assumption they're slutty. Sherlock actually really annoyed me with the way they presented the young female detective Sally Donovan in the first season compared to how they presented female characters with posher accents. It seemed like a throwback to the 60s.
posted by fshgrl at 2:29 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

a qualified, historical, yes. i never could truly like the british version of the office, primarily as i found it too close to the bone. this is based off my experiences of working in various offices during the period between 1989 & 1998 approx. but, as others have indicated, this is not really the "norm" anymore (even if it ever was).
posted by iboxifoo at 1:11 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes and no - it depends where you work (and your position in the company). My experiences in mid-90s office in northwest England would include a lot of this stuff, passed off as 'banter' - especially in the one instance where we did have a warehouse and an office, and this was in a working class area. When I was working for an arts charity in London, which was very middle class and where we dealt with many CEOs and once even received the royal family, none of this would have been appropriate. Then, in 2007 I went to work at an ad agency staffed largely by working class Essex men, and suddenly everyone was openly cracking crude 'jokes' (explicitly demeaning sexual stuff) at the only lesbian woman in the office and talking about which celebrities they'd "bang", talking about bukkakke, talking about how they'd "do" the girls from the dance class next door (who were a class of 14 year olds).

In 2008 in a law office in Harley Street I was repeatedly asked to sit on my boss's knee. I think that was partly because I was temping; a receptionist isn't in the position to make a fuss because they pay you so badly you're barely making ends meet so are an abuser's ideal employee.

This stuff does go on, but not everywhere. The English Office is set in Slough, a notoriously depressing dead-end cultural car-park of a place that is the perfect setting for the crushed dreams, mediocrity and parochial attitudes of every first-graduate-in-the-family's satellite town (see also Gervais' Cemetery Junction and how he deals with wanting to aim for more and how that alienates his characters from their working-class roots). It's way more believable that this would happen in some out of the way regional office staffed with people who don't care and are just clocking in than it would be in a Central London headquarters, for example.
posted by everydayanewday at 1:48 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

My friends mothers response to it "this isn't a comedy at all.. that's exactly what it is like".
posted by tanktop at 1:30 PM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Grant Management from the Granting Agency side?   |   Let Me Gladly Google That For You Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.