In Monday's Washington Post, Monica Hesse revisits an annual conundrum: how to dress for the D.C. summer in an air conditioned office that often feels like winter. "Air conditioning and the space program are perhaps humanity's two greatest assertions that the laws of the natural world no longer apply to them. Yet somehow we have still ended up sitting around a table wearing giant felt wizard costumes," Hesse writes, referring to the snuggie blankets cold workers sometimes wear. It's a complaint as regular as the changing of seasons. But is it valid? We discuss.
Chill, Baby, Chill!
A 2004 Boston Globe article on this same phenomenon called it a "battle of the sexes," because often it is women who complain the most about summer air conditioning. Writing in the Post, Hesse notes, "While it would be a stretch to say that all frozen office workers are women, please feel free to count how many of the summer cocoa-clutchers in your office are men. None. There will be exactly no men, swaddled as they are in the suits and the neckties and the socks." Put another way, this is a zero-sum game. There will be losers in this battle of the sexes, and sorry ladies, but I think it should be you.
First, a look at what causes us to divide along gender lines where glacial office spaces are concerned. The New York Times's Phyllis Korkki notes that if the tables were turned, "the workers who are required to wear suits and socks or nylons would probably be miserable — especially the active, well-muscled ones." (That's because muscle generates about a third of the body's heat.) "And even with a relaxed dress code, there is a limit to how much you can take off, whereas you can always add layers of clothing."
As it is now, women have devised all sorts of odd outfit add-ons, cardigans around their knees, snuggies around their bodies, fingerless gloves on their hands. That's pretty annoying. But if the tables were turned, where would a besuited man turn? How could he customize his outfit to beat the heat? Imagine arriving to a meeting in an 80 degree office sporting an undershirt, boxers, and the flip-flops you along in a bag. This kind of outfit customization is beyond impractical. It's forbidden. Maybe the expectations we place on women and men for office-appropriate garb are unreasonable or sexist, but that's a cocktail crossfire for another day. For as long as offices allow us to add on but don't allow us to take off, we should err on the side of cooler work spaces.
Finally, I often find my colleagues at the Wire complaining about the frigid temperature at moments where I remain quite comfortable. (Let's just attribute that to all my muscle mass, you know, because of science.) Yet even on the days when I do feel the chill, I'm not sure I mind. There are studies that suggest productivity improves as the temperature gets warmer, but I actually find that heat makes me sleepy. Maybe it's that I drink more hot coffee on cold days, but I definitely sit up a little straighter and type a little faster.
Down with the Tyranny of Wool!
There are thousands of reasons why the air conditioning situation in millions of American cubicles is an abhorrent and disgusting problem, one that we've gotten ourselves into via inertia, waste, intellectual laziness. But here are three of the most important.
Human rights. "The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror," then-President George W. Bush said in March of 2008. "So today I vetoed it." What was that valuable tool? Enhanced interrogation techniques -- including the most infamous method, waterboarding, but also "exposure to extreme cold." That's right: America's employers use a method of torture on their own employees. Further, that very same method was deemed ineffective by many interrogation experts and officials, because detainees will say anything to make the pain stop. So not only are America's bosses torturing their employees, they're torturing them in a highly unproductive way.
Productivity. The extreme temperature situation is compounded by the fact that office drones sit at their desks all day. Ever notice how much easier it is to jump into the freezing cold ocean after you've played a little beach volleyball? Well office drones have no opportunity to move around and get the blood pumping. That means they don't get their blood circulating, and the tips of their fingers turn blue. It's extremely distracting. Plus the time spent rubbing hands together and shouting expletives at fellow frigid co-workers could be better spent doing anything else.
Fashion absurdity. The British had some good ideas, sure. Monty Python, for example. The Office. But they also had some terrible ideas, many of which were on display during the Queen's diamond jubilee. One of their most horrible: wearing wool suits in July. This may have made sense in England, where it's rainy and cold basically always, but not in the warmer climes of almost anywhere else. It's absurd to waste energy and money and pollute the Earth just so American men can dress like old-fashioned English men. It's even more absurd that some American women must adapt to the tyranny of wool by putting space heaters in their offices. Climbing energy prices, Mideast conflict, smog -- all these sacrifices the entire world is being asked to make for the sake of men's fancy fashion. And women are supposed to be the vain ones! It's true: Beauty is pain. That pain is supposed to be suffered by the beautiful, not by everyone else. Men of America: it's time to suck it up, get over yourself, and wear some shorts..
Want to add to this story? Let us know in comments
or send an email to the authors at
ereeve at theatlantic dot com or erandall at theatlantic dot com.
You can share ideas for stories on the Open Wire.