Book Review

March 14, 2007
From The Wall Street Journal

The Best Way to Labor Away in Our Little Boxes

Office humor is an oxymoron. At least that was the prevailing view until Scott Adams's "Dilbert" comic strip and, more recently, British television import "The Office" opened up this fertile ground for mainstream ridicule. The latest entry in the growing corpus of workplace-whacking is "The Cubicle Survival Guide: Keeping Your Cool in the Least Hospitable Environment on Earth," by first-time author and Web-site production coordinator James F. Thompson.

Mr. Thompson's target: the cubicle, or "cube," as it is not so fondly known. It's surprising to learn that this ubiquitous steel-and-fabric prison was not invented until the 1960s, the dubious brainstorm of a Colorado fine-arts professor named Bob Probst. His goal, according to Mr. Thompson, was to encourage co-workers to "freely exchange ideas and inspiration" -- and not, as commonly believed, to breed a legion of the undead who feel they are somehow unworthy of, say, a door.

To call the cube the "least hospitable environment on Earth" is an insult to deserts, not to mention deep-sea hydrothermal vents. But there is little doubt that the 40 million or so of us who are consigned to cubicle life have a love-hate relationship with our workspaces. Mr. Thompson says his aim is "to empower the cubicle inhabitant with information."

That information is divided into sections on topics such as phone etiquette ("never raise your voice"), decoration (leave the "hilarious" keg-party photos at home), hygiene ("How can you not know you smell? It's like being on fire") and in-cube exercises ("put down your beer"). Adhering to the self-help book template, each section includes case studies, "Cube Tips," illustrative dialogues and a quick-quiz self-assessment.

Here's a quick quiz: How seriously are we to take any of this?

The book is labeled "Humor," of course, and an author's note points out that all the characters are fictional. There are some amusing comic bits -- such as a faux-scientific profile of a life form known as the "Office Lamprey" (a "parasitic, eel-like land mammal" from the family "Petro-intrudus uninvitus") and a cube-farm maze titled "Bathroom Run!" But going for flat-out Dave Barry-style yuks is not really what this book is about.

More common are straightforward observations such as, "There is no substitute for washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water." And: "It's also a good idea to clean your desktop area routinely with a fresh cloth and antibacterial cleaner." Good advice? Most definitely. Good office humor? Not unless you grew up thinking your mother was a comic genius.

The book is at its most affecting, oddly enough, when it drops the humor-and-advice shtick and shows a soulful side. From time to time Mr. Thompson reveals a touching sympathy for the people who live in this adverse environment, reminding us that, at the end of the work day, we are all only human. "Love yourself and others," he says. "Take risks. Call your family, even if you hate them."

Just remember, if you call them from your cube, do not raise your voice.