Is your job like a 17th century French court?

I’m reviewing Shosana Zuboff’s new book — The Support Economy — and she has the most excellent quote from Jean de La Bruyere, an observer of 17th century society at the French court. The life he describes is straight out of Dilbert, and matches with creepy accuracy the inside of pretty much every office I’ve inhabited:

Life at court is a serious, melancholy game, which requires of us that we arrange our pieces and our batteries, have a plan, follow it, foil that of our adversary, sometimes take risks and play on impulses … A man who knows the court is master of his gestures, of his eyes and his expressions; he is deep, impenetrable. He dissimulates the bad turns he does, smiles at his enemies, suppresses his ill-temper, disguises his passions, disavows his heart, acts against his feelings …

Life in this circle is in no way peaceful. Very many people are continuously dependent on each other. Competition for prestige and royal favor is intense … The sword .. is replaced by intrigue, conflicts in which careers and social success are contested with words … Continuous reflection, foresight, and calculations, self-control, precise and articulate regulation of one’s own effects, knowledge of the whole terrain, human and non-human, in which one acts, become more and more indispensable preconditions of social success.

Every individual belongs to a “clique,” a social circle which supports him when necessary; but the groupings change. He enters alliance, if possible with people ranking high at court. But rank at court can change very quickly; he has rivals; he has open and concealed enemies. And the tactics of his struggles, as of his alliances, demand careful consideration. The degree of aloofness or familiarity with everyone must be carefully measured; each greeting, each conversation has significance over and above what is actually said or done. They indicate the standing of a person; and they contribute to the formation of court opinion on his standing.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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