March 7, 1995 in Features

Humorist Finds Gold Mine In The Workplace

Mark Leibovich San Jose Mercury News
 

MEMO

TO: Office Dwellers

FROM: David Graulich, Office Anthropologist RE: Complaining About Your Jobs

Don’t worry, you are not alone.

It might be the shortest memo you receive all year.

It’s also a certainty.

People complain about their jobs, from chief executive officers on down. Call it a central tenet of modern American employment: I work, therefore I complain about it.

“Even people who seem to kind of like their work complain about their jobs,” says David Graulich, a commentator on the National Public Radio show “Marketplace” and author of the recently published “Dial 9 To Get Out,” a collection of essays on professional life.

Graulich, a 40-year-old San Bruno, Calif., resident, has spent much of his adult life gathering tales from the office. Such a rich source, too: The office, he says, contains “an inexhaustible supply of humor, sentiment and poignancy.”

And, of course, carping.

So what does it say about our species that we will inevitably complain about the place we spend a third of our hours?

“It says,” says Graulich, “that psychologists and psychiatrists have a lot of money.”

Graulich does not have a lot of money, but he’s a dead-ringer for Microsoft’s Bill Gates, which should count for something. He has the trademark Gatesian mop of brown hair, the wire-rim glasses and the pouty mouth. He’s been mistaken for Gates often enough to have contemplated mischief.

“I should walk into the First National Bank of Seattle and apply for a loan,” Graulich says.

Graulich culled his workplace expertise from his own professional experiences: in the buttoned-down offices of the Wall Street Journal (where he spent a year as a reporter), Squibb Corp. (a pharmaceutical company) and McKinsey & Co. (a management consulting firm). He also collects stories from other officedwellers, in a range of industries, lowtech to high-tech. He published his findings last June.

In his book, Graulich quotes a friend:

“There (are) three great themes in human life - love, war and work - and … while artists, musicians and writers have devoted immense energies to the first two, they had left the third relatively untouched.”

Until now.

Graulich writes on a variety of office phenomena, from the feared “off-site meeting” to the dreaded “company picnic” to the despised “Rudolph the Red-Nosed FastTracker.”

He has his favorite workplace pet peeves, like the distinctive catchphrases adored by personnel managers.

“‘People are our most important asset,”’ he says, “should be banned from the English language.”

Or the concept of the “office family” promoted by some corporations.

“The office and the family used to be separate,” Graulich says. “But now, people try to blur the distinction, and that’s wrong.”

Think about it, he says.

“Your mom doesn’t lay you off. She doesn’t say, ‘We’ve had 30 great years together, but it’s time to let you go. We’re downsizing the family.”’

“David has a great kind of awshucks eye for all this stuff,” says Chris Barnett, a San Francisco writer, whom Graulich calls his “professional mentor.”

“I think he could emerge as one of the great writers in business journalism.”

So it’s of some irony that David Graulich, office expert, does not actually spend his days in an office. He works in the cramped den of his San Bruno home, accompanied by Buddy, his 4-year-old bouvier des Flandres, who (as we’ll see later) sings a mean show tune.

When he’s not commenting on NPR or culling office anecdotes for his next book, Graulich offers consulting to corporations on public relations matters.

But he’s very much an office animal, if not an office dweller. He spends a lot of time at the San Francisco office of CSC Index, for whom he does consulting work.

Chuck Quenette, the firm’s Pacific Rim director of marketing, says Graulich arrives early for his meetings so he can get in his requisite schmooze time.

It took Graulich a while to adjust to a life without co-workers.

“Working alone was a bit of a culture shock,” Graulich says. “After all, you go to work. You don’t stumble down to work in your pajamas.”

He misses the jokes most of all, the daily banter among co-workers. He first realized this in 1988, just after he left McKinsey and struck out on his own.

“I missed out on all the great political jokes of the 1988 presidential campaign,” he says. “I didn’t start hearing the Lloyd Bentsen jokes until three years later.” (Lloyd Bentsen jokes?)

When the Federal Express man came to his house, Graulich would cling to his leg, begging him to stay.

“Getting a dog was key,” he says. When he’s not playing with Buddy, Graulich procrastinates on his piano or on the Internet (depending on his mood).

His wife, Rebecca, is a supervisor at Genentech in South San Francisco. They met in 1986 at a hot-tub party in Palo Alto.

“And I’ve been in hot water ever since,” he jokes.

Graulich was never an ideal fit for corporate culture. He had the unfortunate knack for falling asleep or laughing at inopportune moments.

Graulich is an avowed night owl. He stays up late, is a slow starter in the morning and struggles in extended meetings.

When he was working at McKinsey, Graulich once dozed off in a meeting with “a high-level government type” and was duly “taken to the woodshed.”

When he was working for the Wall Street Journal, Graulich was interviewing a guy who was marketing a soft-drink called “Yabba Dabba Dew.” The product was not doing well.

“Here we were, two adults talking, and he’s telling me about this thing called ‘Yabba Dabba Dew’ with a totally straight face,” Graulich recalls. “I just burst out laughing.”

The Yabba Dabba Dew guy did not.

“Humor is my basic personality,” Graulich says. “And in general, corporate comedian is not the path to the corner office.”

Which is just as well, given how well he’s settled into the home-office routine. No boss. No personnel people. No elevator buddy. Just Buddy.

About Buddy and the show tunes: Yes, Buddy sings them. Music from “Oklahoma.” “My Fair Lady.” Whatever Graulich happens to be tapping out on the keyboard.

Buddy would make a great Stupid Pet Trick on David Letterman, but Graulich doesn’t want to fly him to New York. But he will demonstrate here.

While Graulich plays “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” on the piano, Buddy, sitting a few feet away, yelps forth at the appropriate moments. He hits all the high notes flawlessly.

As Graulich sings the lyrics “has anybody seen my gal,” Buddy harmonizes, an Art Garfunkel among canines. He brings the tune home with a flurry, evoking wild applause from two guests in the living room. Nice moment.

But alas, a caution: Do not try this at the office.


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