Career, Chapter 6: Who's On Top? Dear Habermas Logo and Site Index Link A Jeanne Site

Theory, Policy, Practice of a Career

by Susan R. Takata and Jeanne Curran
Revision of Text from 1993
Copyright on Revised Text: Summer 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: September 29, 1999
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Chapter 6: Who's On Top?

In our fiercely competitive world, individuals are constantly fighting to be #1. Why is that so important? Is there anything wrong with being #2? Then, why was one car rental company boasting of being #2? Why do we need to know our rank or where we stand in relationship to others? What does this mean? Sociologists call this "social stratification." In other words, how society is layered. Who's on top? Who's on the bottom? And finally, who is in between? Different societies use different criteria for determining who is #1. VanderZanden (1993:164) defines social stratification as "the ranking and grading of individuals and groups into hierarchical layers." All societies engage in stratification - even animal societies seem to need some kind of hierarchy to order their social interactions.

In this chapter, we will examine the question, "Who's on top?" by focusing on status, class and power. More specifically, we will look at how this relates to the workplace. Within the career world, the phenomena of stratification offers a rich background for language, with organization charts, communication flows, titles, patterns of spatial layout and so on. We examine first the most elementary forms of stratification - membership boundaries. We then analyze the effects of communication of stratification within the organization.

Where Do I Stand?

The Ubiquitous Concept of Status

Status is the concept by which each society (including some animal societies) rank order their participants. Those with the highest status receive privileges. Which privileges will depend on what the society values. The top dog, acknowledgement of leadership by the other dogs - none dare to attack him. We have not yet learned how to create a society without status. Thus we have not learned how to create a society in which access to and possession of the goodies is equal for all. That is philosophically and practically different from a society where all have equal opportunity to pursue the goodies and/or equal representation in the government. We have not achieved the latter either. There are two obvious ways to break out of constricting roles, one external power, the other internal power.

Ascribed Status -- There are two principal kinds of status in all societies, ascribed and achieved. Ascribed status is based on your position in the social system. That position may have come from birth - the family into which you were born, the country into which you were born, etc. Both ascribed and achieved status are essential to every social system. Ascribed status represents the stability and security in the system; for example, civil service tenure. If one has seniority, based merely on the fact that one has been there longer, one has security. Along with that security goes a stake in the social system. The greater the stake in the social system, the more conservative the group member is likely to be. Young members have little seniority, little security, and are therefore more willing to challenge the system.

Another function of ascribed status is to permit group members to achieve a kind of immortality. The family which has wealth and power can pass this on to their children, giving their children higher status in the group. The family can thus maintain its status even after the older members have died. Perhaps one of the best examples of this "passing on" of status can be found in the Medici family. The Medicis were one of the most powerful families in Florence. This family, which had passed its power down through generations, began in the 17th Century to build the famous "Chapel of the Princes," in what was essentially the Medici family church. The chapel is immense and overpowering by its decoration as well as its size. The ability to pass on ascribed status is one of the ways in which we combat meaninglessness in our lives. We have achieved something durable, something can last even past our death. It is this type of ascribed status that gives security and stability to society.

Achieved Status -- The second kind of status is achieved. We obtain this status through what we have done, not through who or what we are. This is the status on which meritocracy is built. It is of this status that we speak when we speak of equal opportunity. The problem is that some of us earn more status and the symbols of status [such as money] than we can spend. Money most of us want to continue to accrue. We want to "bank" the excess. Often we want to pass on our earned excess to our children. For the children, the accrued status is now ascribed. The Medicis were trying to keep their royal power past death. They were trying to spend their "accrued" wealth and power beyond their lifetimes.

Caste -- Caste describes a social system in which some members cannot achieve a given status in any way. They are ascribed to a status and they remain in that status all their lives, regardless of their accomplishments. Indian society with its many castes, Brahmin, etc., is the best example. Slavery in the United States was another.

The basis for the withholding of status in this excerpt is race. Race as represented by color is what Erving Goffman (1963) called a "visible stigma." That is, if one is going to be denied status on any characteristic simply because of possession of that characteristic, it will be easiest to enforce and consequently most damaging, if the characteristic is visible. Sex, like racial identity, is usually [though not always] visible. That means that stereotypical expectations based on gender alone, or on color alone, can be put into immediate operation. Visible stigma are the most difficult to combat. This is one of the sources of the dark-skin/light-skin stereotype. Again it is visible. Consider the visibility of physical beauty and the representatives in our culture: Arnold Schwarzenneger and Marilyn Monroe. Physical attractiveness stands out. The stereotypes come immediately into play.

Subtle Uses of Status Differential to Oppress

One of the ways in which the social system protects itself from rapid change of status, which could destroy the elite and the social system, is to enforce status differential precisely. At each step within the social system status is enforced. There will always be rich and poor. Maybe we can place limits on the society's tolerance of the extremes of wealth and poverty, but we probably cannot eliminate, nor perhaps should we, the differential. A major conceptual difficulty is encountered at this point. Given that there are and maybe always will be differences in the access to society's goodies, how shall that access be controlled? Most social systems settle on some characteristic: class [ascribed status based on social connections], examination, grades or other evidence of production [achieved status]. The inherent problem is that there is and must always be tension between achieved and ascribed status. We seem to need to categorize. And the models we use, social class, gender, race, academic success are too broad to fit the reality.

Jon Qwelane, a black reporter for the South African, is said to be one of the best reporters in South Africa. But his career is limited by the fact that he is black. None of the reasoning behind apartheid applies to Qwelane. He is educated, literate, motivated, political. He has taken advantage of education for himself and for his children. His father was a teacher before the days of Bantu education. But apartheid defines him. He is caught in the definitional system. He is black. Apartheid is easy to analyze. It is a simplistic system. But other more complex systems are equally prejudicial. They are merely harder to see. And those trapped by them are jut as trapped as Qwelane. Gender and race are simplistic. Intelligence and achievement [measured by the grossest of standards] are more complicated. Color of skin - the dark/light phenomenon is less well-recognized. Social class in our culture has all but disappeared for want of adequate measures. [Who can afford the best quality and greatest quantity of cocaine?]

Status, both ascribed and achieved, with the tension always between them operates in every social system. The traditional system model is hierarchical. Consider the corporate work system. Those below answer to those above until ultimately the buck stops at the top. Or somewhere along the way, depending on the importance of the problem. At each level, each member guards her ascribed and achieved status. If the hierarchy shows that A, B and C report to D, D will guard that reporting hierarchy. Woe be unto he who skips over D and reports to Q. D may have earned her position by her achievements, but the reporting right is one of her ascribed status rights. Channels must be followed.

A, B, C and D might be at any level of the organization. The status system is self enforcing, for each member of the organization has a stake in it. But this analysis is too simple. No organization follows the chart. The chart looks nice in theory. Bt when A needs D to approve something she is in R's office and there's a deadline and if i-t isn't approved, there'll be a penalty and then, having got Q to approve it, A had six other things to do and forgot all about it. Not until D's secretary mentions to D that P's secretary said that Q said that A was in Q's office all the time and who does A think he is anyway, does anyone even notice the silly paper.

The complexity we would like to add to the traditional system hierarchical analysis is like that of the Brownian movement in chemistry. If you put a single drop of red dye into a glass of water, you will see strange patterns of color. The red drop will not fall through the water in a straight line. It will scatter into thin segments that go in a thousand crooked ways all over the glass. That is how we work our way through corporate work systems, just like the drop of red dye.

When A looks for D, D may be on vacation or down the hall or not available to sign anything. Sometimes D is only available from 2 to 4 on Thursday. The work day may be called 9 to 5, but most people must divide their attention between 78 different tasks. Some are more important than others. Some have to be ignored when others are more pressing. One of the underlying assumptions is that the higher one's status in the organization, the greater the expectancy that one will organize one's production, time, availability with the organizational goals in perspective. Freedom to let some things go, never to be done, and to reshuffle priorities is essential to the organization. But that very freedom is one of the privileges which come with the higher level jobs. Rarely does that freedom exist at entry level, or is permitted at the lowest levels. And here is the beginning of the oppression.

The elite in a bureaucracy are freer to break the "rules" than the clerks. Is this a description of what is? Or of what should be? Whatever, the pattern has been with us so long we have ceased to question its propriety. It simply is. Like rich and poor. So now we will begin to question. One of the ways in which the system fights revolutionaries is to refuse through its clerks to grant them ascribed status. Simple, really. The same technique when used for other purposes is called "working to rule." If a supervisor is impossibly difficult, employees begin to work to rule. They do precisely what their job description says they must. Nothing more. They do precisely what the supervisor says to do. Nothing more. They refuse to fill in the obvious assumptions between the lines.

In a sense this working to rule is like ascribed and achieved status. There are certain assumptions in an on-going work relationship. If she tells him to get out a letter while she is gone, and he has always signed the letters in her absence before, that is a shared expectation, much like the ascribing of status. It goes with their work relationship. But when he is working to rule, he does not sign the letter. In anger, she asks why not. Because you did not tell me to. If we must enumerate every step of our daily transactions we will soon come to grief. We cannot achieve new expectations with every task. There are too many tasks, too little time.

In slowing revolutionaries [Both great and small - We call them revolutionaries only because they wish to change the system.] a similar process occurs. The revolutionary, who wants nothing more perhaps than more promotions for women, is vociferous, and angers all those who disagree. [Remember someone always disagrees.] Or the revolutionary, so sure of the triumph of the new belief, works ten times as hard as everyone else to show how much her new ideas would benefit the system. [Remember the stepsisters in Cinderella.] The black revolutionary in South Africa hones his reporter skills until he is better than the white reporters. He risks his life to get news stories. Some will make it into print - if there is room. [Remember the stepsisters in Cinderella.]

Now, with Giddens (1984), we might say that if the revolutionary stopped to think, she would recognize that there is another sphere in which her zeal operates. She has failed to see that by becoming aware and making others aware of the differential status continuum, she has damaged its validity. Those who always believed it was true and just are forced to see that somehow it is not. They do become more aware. That is one of the things revolutionaries do, make people more aware, sensitize them. [Does that make sociologists revolutionaries?] She has forced people to question their belief systems. And she has offered by examples, like Jon Qwelane, living proof that their belief system is at least partially in error.

People do not like to find their belief systems in error. It causes cognitive dissonance. It forces them to question. And with revolutionaries there are rarely answers. Only questions. Kozol (1967) and others of the liberal education left wanted to change the educational system. To humanize it. To recognize the joy that every child should and could find in learning. What a terrible threat that was to the stamping of A's, B's and C's or Eagles, Robins, and Sparrows upon their foreheads so industry would not have to trouble itself to place them at appropriate levels of competence. Easier to demand that all students entering our schools emerge in one of five classes: A, B, C, D, or absolute failure F. Labels, that's what we need. Then stamp again for gender, color, beauty, and odd other assortments of visible stigma.

The revolutionaries wanted to throw out these inadequate mathematical models of rating systems. But belief in the rating system was one of the mainstays of the belief system. If the belief system is wrong here, it may be wrong elsewhere.

And so the system, for various reasons, peaceful continued existence not the least, tolerates the revolutionary for so long as she does not change too much. Later, when the change looms more threatening, the system foils the revolutionary. Not with conspiracy. Not with any particular intent. [Oh, there may be some individual jealousies, like the stepsisters, but for the most part, the system just chugs along in its semi-conscious way, content within the chrysalis of its many complex and often inconsistent belief systems.] Here is where the concept of status becomes so useful.

Within every work organization, the underlying assumptions about task relationships exist. Just as the supervisor must rely on the employee not to revert to "working to rule," each member of the organization must rely on social control to enforce the varying status levels. A must respect B's higher status in thousands of little ways, from simple deference, to respect for leadership factors in who initiates and receives communication, to appropriate variations in tone and vocabulary. If A denies these tokens of respect, and the organization, through the administration and/or through other employees, condones this denial, B's function in the organization is impaired.

B as supervisor is dependent on the ascribed status of that position. If B must justify his requests and elaborate each detail of the task demands he makes, he cannot get his work done. Other supervisors will devalue him. His continued need to operate on achieved status produces doubts about self\_esteem and hinders continued progress. This is even worse than having to fight a rear guard action, because there is no enemy. Those who oppose him are just following the rules. Achieved status and formal titles follow the formal organizational chart which does not include the existence of an informal hierarchy. The informal hierarchy is that network of acknowledged ascribed status that goes with each position. It describes the social cohesion of the organization. Without this informal network of ascribed status the entire system is not navigational.

The revolutionary can be stopped by the simple refusal of individuals all along the organizational path, throughout the organizational system simply denying ascriptive status. Like working to rule, that is all they have to do. No need for conspiracy. The Brownian movement. Individuals in the organization are in many places, at different times. Only in on Tuesday, 2 to 4. Without acceptance in this crazyquilt of the informal organization, you can't get through the necessary channels of the organization.

Information control. This informal network knows who is where and when. If you know who to ask, and they honor your ascribed status, they will guide you. If your revolutionary zeal has unsettled them, they are not ready to aid you in further transgressions against them. Just that. No counter revolutionary plan. If you become angry, accuse them of hindering your work, they have done nothing. You are excitable. They are merely doing their work, to rule.

An important client is visiting. The company police have put a parking ticket on his car. Nobody knows how to tear the ticket up. The ticket is. Only the informal informational system knows how the system operates, who in this mass of offices, badges and uniforms has the power to tear the ticket up. The ticket is. No job description for tearing the ticket up. No conspiracy. But no ascribed status to find the way through the Brownian movement. A system is not operable through formal channels.

The revolutionary, who has worked so hard for the system, finds herself crushed by the lowliest clerk in the system. Regardless of her title, regardless of her achieved status, regardless of the high esteem [ascribed status] of the upper ranks of the system, she cannot bend the lowliest clerk. He answers to rule and she does not know the way. Her high placed friends cannot come to the rescue. They do not deal in parking tickets. Clerks deal in parking tickets. So she must pay the ticket herself or offend the important client. She has no ascribed status on which to draw. Not because of conspiracy. Because her threat to the belief system has made people within that system afraid. In their fear, they simply back away from her. Without them, she is helpless in the simplest of tasks.

Exercise 6-1: Ascribed And Achieved Status

1. In what sense is there always tension between ascribed and achieved status?

2. What does ascribed and achieved status have to do with sex roles?

3. Why is the "Brownian movement" concept of the informal organization so important to the competent individual who wants to make it on his or her own achievement?

4. As noted in the text, Kozol and others have suggested that the traditional academic system stunts creative intellectual growth. But in recent years, we have returned the right wing educational establishment, while saying "back to basics" has suggested that our "standards" have fallen. In what sense can this attack on the left be considered "blaming the victim?"

Some Examples of Denial of Ascribed Status and Resultant Assault on Self-Esteem

The denial of ascribed status forces someone who has already exhibited talent or ability to re-earn that status, causing them to lose ground. One of the effects of achievement is the ability to bank status. The more we have achieved, the more others treat us with the respect that shows that we have achieved. When achieved status is denied, the effect on our self esteem is devastating, for it suggests that we cannot rely on past achievements, that we have in fact gained nothing. Blacks in South Africa cannot achieve because even if recognized world-wide, the lowliest South African prison guard can still destroy the entire bank of achievement and is controlling. The prison guard has not earned his status. It comes to him because he is white.

What exactly is the power of this refusal to grant ascribed status? Why does the refused one not walk away? Refuse to accept the denial? To the extent that the refused one wishes to or must remain within the system, he or she cannot deny the refusal. To what extent does one wish to or have to remain in a system? In a dyad, the cntrol may be a wish for a relationship, for the particular relationship or for any relationship. In a dyad, the refusal of earned status is possible when one party has greater power than the other. It is the dyad in which the sex role relationship is most often seen - the spouses. If one earns income and the other does not, the one earning the income may have greater power, especially if his refusal to continue working means the end of the viability of the dyad ,(i.e., it can't support itself).

In larger groups, the power often depends on shared reality, (Berger and Luckmann (1966) in Social Construction of Reality. Power is controlled by the social group. If males control the power and define females as having no power, for so long as the males can enforce their definition, it is real. If whites control, and define blacks as having no rights, for so long as the whites can enforce this definition, blacks have no rights. As Homans (1950) shows in The Human Group , the external system usually imposes limiting constraints on the internal system. South Africa is a case in point. Whites have defined blacks as having no rights. The world-wide social system has begun to deny that reality. South African apartheid society may have carried its social construction of reality beyond social acceptability. Unfortunately, there is no world-wide enforcement power, short of war.

Which Class Am I?

Another way of figuring out "who's on top?" is by social class. Are you rich or are you poor? How do we determine who is rich? By how much money you earn each year? By the kind of car you drive? By the work you do? At any rate, when we look at social class, we are looking at society from top down; bottom up. All societies have some kind of system of stratification and social class is one kind.

About Social Class -- Karl Marx (1964) took a strict economic perspective of social class. He said there were two major social classes in society -- the bourgeoisie and the proletariat -- the rich and the poor; the powerful and the powerless, the exploiter and the exploited; the haves and the have nots; the oppressor and the oppressed, and so on. The bourgeoisie are those who "own the means of production," (i.e. they own the factories, the big corporations). The proletariat, according to Marx, are those people who have only their labor to sell -- the workers. Marx said that the proletariat would get so fed up being exploited and oppressed that they would eventually revolt. He called this "true consciousness" or "class consciousness." In the meanwhile, as long as the proletariat continue to let themselves be exploited, as long as they continue to buy into the Horatio Alger stories (success from rags to riches as a result of hard work), according to Marx, they will have a false notion of reality. He called this "false consciousness." So, according to Marx, revolution is the only solution. Marx certainly had a radical and revolutionary view of society in terms how this social class structure would change. According to Marx's definition of social class, are you a member of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat?

But Weber (1947) talked not only of class being about economics but he also noted the social aspects which he called "status." A good example is when sanitation engineers typically make more money than a university professor. In terms of sheer economics, the garbage collector should be way above the professor. But according to Weber, social prestige is an additional factor to be considered. When we examine both of these occupations on a prestige scale, the professor ranks much higher than a garbage collector -- almost at opposite ends of the continuum from the most prestige to the least prestige. (But does prestige put more "bread and butter" on the table?) Prestige has to do with social respect. Treiman (1977) did a study comparing occupational prestige where he examined the range from U.S. Supreme Court Justice to Shoe Shiner. Now that's quite a range. So maybe it's not only the money you want, but you want the respect and social honor as well. That certainly is something to consider.

We often focus on work and careers, but let's examine the world of leisure according to social class categorizations. What do upper class folks do for fun? They jet set to exotic places and the most exclusive resorts. They can afford the best seats at the opera. They are members of exclusive country clubs. Polo, golf and tennis seems to typify the leisure activities of the rich. (Just look at that television show, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"). The rich enjoy professional sports in their private luxurious sky boxes while the bleacher bums shiver in the wet and cold. And, what do middle class people do for fun? Pretty much the same. Probably not. How many middle class individuals do you know who can afford to jet set? Can they even get into the most exclusive resorts? Probably not. For the middle class perhaps, bowling, golf and fishing are more typical. They can afford to attend professional sports like football, baseball and basketball, but not they cannot afford the luxury boxes; let alone season tickets. Not much reading goes on but a lot of television. And finally, for the poorest social class, earning money is a real effort, if they have employable skills at all. If they are not working, they are not earning money. Simply surviving is a major concern. Leisure is not. Most of the time, the poor are either working or worrying about no income. Leisure is not a priority concern.

Moving Up and Down

In this section, we want to examine moving up and down as it relates to social mobility. If your parents are working class, does that mean you are stuck in the same social class? Maybe you'll move up. Or maybe you'll move down. Does Horatio Alger still apply today? We want to talk about access and opportunity. Are the rich getting richer? Is the middle class shrinking? Do we have a growing permanent underclass?

There is a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The rich are getting richer. According to the U.S. Census, in 1986, the highest quintile or one-fifth in America accounted for 43.7 percent of the income, while the lowest quintile had only 4.6 percent of the income. That's quite a dramatic gap between the rich and the poor. Earlier in this chapter, we focused on ascribed and achieved status. Remember the Medici family? The rich create advantages for their children, and then for their children's children, and so forth. It's all in the family!

In the Racine Journal Times , one year someone made the following calculations: To spend $1 million in one year, you would have to spend $19,230.77 a week. To spend $1 billion in one year, you would have to spend $19,230,770 a week. Wouldn't you want that kind of "problem" to deal with, huh? Sure, sounds easier than making ends meet from month to month, doesn't it? How would you spend all that money? What would you buy? Would it be easy to do?

Some people have labeled the middle class an "endangered species" because they are vanishing. With slow growing economy, the "Dick and Jane" images of the "American Dream" (two-story house, two-car garage and a white picket fence) seem to be just an image and nowhere near reality. When dual-career couples can no longer afford a home in Orange County, California unless they get their parents to help out, something is happening. With the gap between the rich and the poor widening, the result is a shrinking middle class. More of the high paying jobs are being replaced by lower paying jobs. This means that there is less for those in between. There is no middle ground. Now, you're either rich or poor.

The visible increase of homeless people on our city's streets is a reflection of the growing "underclass." The members of the underclass have nothing to contribute to society. They have nothing. According to VanderZanden (1993:186, 188), the underclass are "concentrated in an inner city, who are persistently poor, unemployed, and dependent on welfare - with an emphasis on 'persistently.'" Not too long ago in a documentary called "The Vanishing Black Family: Crisis in Black America," Bill Moyer interviewed young African-American males. The only proof of "worth" as defined by other black males was how many children you could produce. Hence, the population explosion of kids by single black teenage mothers.

As we examine these social class issues, they might provide us some clues to some emerging career fields (i.e., kids having kids, hence child care in the high schools) as well as those that are closing (who are the homeless). To conclude this section, what social class do you belong to? Why? How does this relate to your career aspirations? Will you be moving up or down? Staying in the same place? Why?

Power and the Social Context of Language

What is power? Having the ability to "boss" someone smaller than you? The same size? Or larger? According to VanderZanden (1993:197), power is "the ability of individuals and groups to realize their will in human affairs even if it involves the resistance of others." Where does power lie in the workplace? Is the president of the corporation the most powerful person in that organization? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. It's not as easy as that. In this section, we will examine power and the social context of language. Most work-related communication takes place within some organizational context. We will explore the hierarchical patterns common to most work organizations.

The Red Badge of Power

Social indicators of power (symbolic red flags identifying who's got the power) abound in work organizations. The most obvious are title and position on the formal organizational chart. But these can be misleading. Often greater power lurks behind the throne. If the President is tired and has been talking of retiring, a dynamic Vice President may be more powerful, especially if others expect him to succeed to the presidency. If Joe Sitonthefence has been cursed all his life with a dread of decisions, his secretary may wield the power of his position in the formal organizational chart. Thus, the formal rankings do not always lead us to the real decision-maker.

But the informal structure offers identifying badges, too: Communication patterns with "stars" and "isolates", communication flow (usually from the top down), deference behavior, use and abuse of status symbols (car, clothes, etc.). Unlike the formal structure in which rankings are readily discernible and rigidly defined, the informal structure demands careful scrutiny before it yields up its clues -- no pamphlet or brochure available to interpret the significance of Dan Dandy's dressing with far more formality than his boss, Harry Rumplemeyer, who always look as though he should be sent for pressing. You'll have to sniff out further clues, such as who gets vital information first, who initiates communication, who serves as liaison to other status positions, and so on.

Assessing power in the informal structure means looking for clues, and not just once, but continuously, for power alignments, shift, and flow. It is rumored there are some who stake their whole careers and meteoric rise on a careful reading of power alignments and alliances in the formal structure. In Live for Success, Molloy (1981:153) states: "Powerful people's moves are orchestrated. They are very deliberate and know what they are doing . . . The most effective power players use the implements on their desk effortlessly. Pens, pencils, contracts or pieces of paper become power props. They always seem to know where everything is."

Of course, one must beware of reverse status symbols - traps set by perverse individuals who enjoy upsetting all the neat signposts. These perverse individuals are the kind who drive battered cars. They park in the spot marked "Reserved for the President." They like playing "gotcha," and they hate being pigeon-holed. Some of them are wise enough to want to foil the rising star whose greatest expertise is in power alliances instead of production. Some of them are just perverse and having fun.

Language games are interspersed throughout these status arenas. One must master the nuances of deference in tone and language, just enough to appear obsequious. Having identified the actors of primary influence, one must attend to their vocabulary of approval. How do they describe successful ideas? As cost effective? As innovative? Language clues are strewn across the organizational landscape. How do they speak of successful subordinates? Loyal? Hard working? Generate ideas? Carry out ideas? Who talks about "hard working" in the informal structure? Those who are being promoted? Or those who have been passed over?

Not everyone chooses to scale organizational heights. Some like their jobs just as they are, and are content to stay there. Does the language of hierarchy in the informal structure matter at all to them? Indeed it does. What a different world theirs might be if those in positions of power began to shift from the language of "quality work", "creative effort," "strong client advocacy" to one of "cost cutting," "time-saving," "budgetary demands." The study of power is crucial to all, those who would climb, as "stars" as well as those who seek only a comfortable niche from which to serve.

Many who never thought to encounter bureaucracies and hierarchies have discovered the need to make concessions to them. Several artists we interviewed with their own small shops found they had to adapt their product mix to customer tastes. Lamented one, "Most people who come through town (a resort area) especially for the festivals that attract large numbers, mutter that they'd really rather have 'something for around $25.' That's the going figure. Oh, we sell a few of our really nice, one-of-a-kind pieces, but we only get a few orders. But mostly, we turn out maybe two or three different items at $10 and $25. That's all we get to work on for months before the festivals." The market language of pricing has shifted these artists' work patterns to include some mass-produced items. Not quite the artistic ideal, but that's what the market will bear. Now, consider the case of the person who had agreed to work for this artist. The job meant no organization, lots of creativity; maybe just a percentage of the profits on what he made, but considerable job satisfaction as her language shifts to "net profits," "increased demand," etc., and his job becomes more repetitive and less creative? What about her job satisfaction?

Patterns of Communication Flow

All organizations depend on communication to function. Chaos results when Peter doesn't know that Pablo borrowed from his accounts to pay Paula. Because it is so central to the organization's functions, the pattern of communication is a good social indicator of power. In Power!, Korda(1975:125, 128) states: "More important still is the control of information. Almost everybody is dependent on the supply of information, yet 'information input' is usually regarded as a clerical task, not much better than menial labor. . . Those who play the information game know better. They not only obtain and control information, they know how to make it practically incomprehensible."

Communication generally flows from top down. The higher the status of the individual in any communication network, the more likely she is to initiate communication. There is a tendency not to "bother" those of higher status with any communication that is not necessary. For example, one doesn't pick up the telephone and ask the manager what she thinks one ought to do about some problem that just cropped up, at least not if one is the floor supervisor of a small unit in the factory. On the contrary, the manager is quite likely to call the floor supervisor to ask if he could handle a problem expected to crop up. As a matter of fact, the very fact that the manager established direct contact with that floor supervisor, i.e. include him in her communication network, indicates relatively high power for a floor supervisor. Communication networks in large organizations are generally limited to a few levels above and a few levels below any individual's status. This is purely a matter of expediency, since one must limit the amount of communication in a given time span if one is to accomplish any other productive work. (Memos and written directives may cover a much wider space. We refer here to direct interaction.) In recent years, Naisbitt (1982:121, 140) points to a change in the flow of communications: "The failure of centralized, top-down solutions has been accompanied by a huge upsurge in grass roots political activity everywhere in the United States. . . As our top heavy, centralized institutions die, we are rebuilding from the bottom up."

One may also estimate by the nature of the communication. In any interaction the higher the status of the individual, the more likely he is to issue directives, to request information, to commend or rebuke performance, to summarize and clarify the issues, etc. Thus, if a comment is overheard such as: "You handled that very well," one may assume equal or higher status on the part of the speaker. It would be presumptuous for a lower status individual to make the remark. It assumes that the speaker knows how the situation should have been handled, and approves of the action taken by the other. Were the speaker lower in status, the remark could better have assumed a different form: "I was impressed by the way you handled that." Now there is no assumption implied that the speaker has the status to either approve or disapprove of the action. There are minor but important nuances of language in the world of careers. For example, in a recent study it was noted that interruptions are a form of social markers. Someone who constantly interrupts may be trying to show that his social status is higher than yours (Larsen, 1984). No immediate notice might be taken of a subordinate who fails to observe such nuances, but at promotion time we might hear: "Yes, but Outspoken has such a high opinion of himself. Maybe Observant could fill that position better."

One source of power is information. If an individual can control the communications so that she is in possession of information no one else has, she increases her power. This is the foundation for many a dastardly deed in the informal structure. The secretary who has been crossed can simply not bother to give her boss any extra reminders, knowing that he'll forget that important 2 o'clock meeting. At all levels of the hierarchy, memos can be "lost," messages garbled.

One of the first signs of changing status patterns in the informal structure is the coincidental recurrence of someone not getting information she needs and would normally have gotten. Forgetting to put someone's name on the circulation list for a memo, if it happens more than once, it occurs with memos from more than one source, indicates that the informal structure is for some reason resisting the information flow dictated by the formal structure. This does not automatically indicate Machiavellian power structures - it may be a simple warning that someone hasn't done her informal structure homework. For example, Gertie Getitdone may have been working long hours for months to get out a report which so impressed Sam Superman that he promoted her to group leader. This promotion automatically adds her name to the list of group leaders who receive all memos on form 2612-AD. But Sally Fetchit, who sends out memos on form 2612-AD usually sends them out from memory - she knows all the group leaders. But she doesn't know Gertie Getitdone, because Gertie is new and has never been seen outside the little cubicle where she turned out that great report. Dastardly power ploy? No, Gertie ought to get the message that now is the time to take a coffee break and talk to Sally and other group leaders. This is what we call a social gambit (more fully explained in the next section on strategies). Sometimes that which is not said carries more weight than that which is.

In our anxiety to get new messages across we are likely to heed only what we say, failing to notice what we have not said. The use of negative space, or the fine art of what is not said, is one strategy that serves to enhance stratification patterns in the organization.

Controlling Distance -- Status differentials is one facet of stratification. (Aren't we back where we started in this chapter?) The greater the distance between two individuals on some measure of status (wealth, expertise, position or formal organizational chart, etc.) the greater the actual distance, both spatial and figurative, they will keep from one another. The concept of like pairing with like is reflected in the aphorism: "Birds of a feather flock together;" in the idioms "to know one's place" and "to be happier with one's own kind" as well as in countless other phrases we could trace back to Homer, Aristotle, and so on. It should not be too surprising, then, if organizational behavior reflects this cultural baggage.

One figurative indicator of social distance in the career world is the usage of titles, and of differential patterns of naming. In some front stage settings, the audience may be of similar status but from another system, hence, distant because of the system barriers. In other front stage settings, the audience may be of different status from the same organizational system and/or from another system. In these instances organizational members would be likely to maintains social distance, addressing one another by title: Mr. President, President Runitall, Ms. Leadership, Reverend Prayerful, Professor Prattlealong, Congressman Notyetcaught, etc. In backstage settings where all share some status, by virtue of their being admitted to the same backstage, they would be more likely to use either surnames above (Coggins what do you think of that?) or first names above ("Harry, what would it take to make you believe it?") These categories indicate decreasing formality, and accompany decreasing social distance (either on the basis of group or organizational membership or status within the organization).

This pattern of titles and surnames can be used to control distance. If the line is overstepped and someone of higher status addressed inappropriately, a pointed change in the form of address may be in order. For example, if Joe Eager bursts into Susan Sellum's Vice Presidential office with "Susan, I think it would be a great idea to . . ." Susan Sellum, Vice President of Marketing, might reply coolly, "Mr. Eager, I believe your section head could handle this." Social distance is reestablished. Other examples of controlling social distance abound in the norms which evolve in the work world. Social distance is one of the marks of status differential. And, as we have noted, cultural expectations and the formal structure dictate a certain distance between workers of very different statuses. However, principles of egalitarianism dictate that the occupational status of the formal structure need not carry over wholly into the informal structure. This is usually translated into cordial and brief exchanges of social niceties about the weather and one's health, between all workers, with "socializing" limited between workers of different status. In many work organizations it would be considered inappropriate to discuss personal problems about one's work or family with workers of very different social status. There are exceptions, of course, but it would not enhance the Vice President's position to have lunch twice a week with the spare parts supervisor. He might, however, greet her each morning on his way in, and inquire about her family's welfare. But there are times when formal niceties do not adequately meet the needs of the situation. This is when a social gambit is used.

The social gambit we consider here is an interaction between two people of markedly different status, initiated to gain some strategic advantages. We call it a gambit because a sacrifice is involved. The loss is the potential loss in prestige of the action is initiated by the person of higher status; the loss is the potential criticism of "not knowing one's place" if the action is initiated by the person of lower status. But these losses are negligible if the two parties gain some advantage in the organizational system, for example, a social gambit might provide access around a communication barrier. This was the case in the example of Gertie Getitdone needing to spend some coffee breaks with Sally Fetchit. If Gertie wishes to gain more promotions she cannot afford to spend enough time to become a bosom pal to Sally during working hours. She must spend most of her time with other group leaders and supervisors so that she will have the network contacts she needs for promotion. But neither can she afford to ignore Sally. In the same sense, Sally cannot spend all her free time in the organizational environment with group leaders. As a secretary, her status differential is too great. She cannot rely on these contacts for promotion; and she might be accused of "not knowing her place." But neither can she afford to ignore the group leaders who are a part of her work environment.

We hasten to add that if Gertie and Sally absolutely adore one another they are welcome to spend all the time together they wish. We consider the situation here only in terms of propriety during working hours. In some work organizations, characterized by a high degree of formality, status differentials carry greater importance than in organizations that promote a more egalitarian atmosphere. However, even in the most egalitarian of work environments those who share a given work status need to share in informal associations (lunch, idle conversation, etc.) at that status level, for important bits of information are channeled through this informal component of the organizational structure. Thus we do not mean to imply Machiavellian intent to use people of higher or lower status. The social gambit we describe here is simply a logical extension of one's social interactions in the workplace to other status levels. Most people do this unconsciously. We discuss it here in a technical sense primarily because of the dangers of either too great a use or too little use of the strategy. Whether used consciously or not, it is a strategy, and as such has predictable consequences of which we should be aware.

Controlling Visibility -- Language mechanisms play an important role in the strategy of controlling visibility within an organization. There are times when one wants to be seen; and there are other times when one wants most definitely not to be seen. Molloy (1981:168) explains: "Being seen is very important. But knowing when you're being seen is just as important." For example, when one has a great deal of work to accomplish, one may prefer to be invisible. Strategy: don't return any non-essential phone calls or answer any non-essential messages. The rate of incoming phone calls and messages will drop in a day or two. Several people in our field research reported using this technique successfully. When ready to reestablish their contacts they simply began to make calls and send messages' wider visibility regained: One could describe this as another variety of social gambit. The social gambit described for controlling distance serves equally well to control visibility. One of the main reasons Sally Fetchit didn't know Gertie Getitdone was that Gertie had cloaked herself in invisibility to get her winning report out. The social gambit of spending a few coffee breaks with Sally would serve to establish visibility.

There are also some convenient social formulae for establishing visibility: they're called "please" and "thank you." Whenever it is strategically advantageous to increase visibility, these social formulae lie readily at hand. Most jobs afford dozens of opportunities to make reasonable request ("please") of a number of people. This even includes low-status jobs which are rigidly prescribed by rule sets. For example, a riveter, whose job is to weld rivets into place, has very little latitude to alter the task-mix of her job. But she can still use the "please" formula to gain visibility. She might ask the group supervisor, during a break, if he knew of any good technical schools where she could learn some other phase of the production so that she could look forward to a promotion in the future. Now the group supervisor has been given the information that she is willing to learn and wants promotion. It is imperative, of course, that she follow through in some positive way with any suggestions he makes. That may be no more than checking out the recommended school and informing him, during a break, that she can't afford their tuition yet, but hopes to save up for it.

Our assumption is that the request will be genuine - i.e., that you actually want the information or help you ask for. There is such a variety of possibilities that there should be no justifiable excuse for making a gratuitous request for no purpose other than gaining visibility. Fatuous undergraduates are sometimes guilty of this in the early stages of their academic careers. We warn against it for two reasons: 1) It's hard to listen attending to answers you aren't interested in. Result: The whole thing sounds phony, rather like the old school boy's accusation of "apple polishing." You may get visibility, but not the kind you want. 2) Only a rare paucity of imagination could leave you without honest alternatives. And it's stupid to be unnecessarily dishonest. If necessary ask for help in choosing a request but do your homework honestly.

"Thank you's" are a logical follow through to the "please's" you initiate. They're simple enough and they add to visibility. These are but a few of the language mechanisms that can heighten visibility. Some others we leave for you to ponder are: sharing your work results with colleagues, asking for information, providing information, encouraging others in their work, providing emotional support, and so on. Weinstein (1983:118-119) offers this piece of advice: "It's important that you be noticed within your field. . . If you're maintaining a high degree of visibility, you should also be positioning yourself for something better."

We have made the assumption throughout this section that you are satisfied with your work and want either to continue in it or be promoted to higher-status work. Should you be dissatisfied, finding the work place unsanitary, unhealthy, or otherwise undesirable, you may wish to acquire a different kind of visibility. In this case, if you choose to confront the employer, you could still find numerous requests, but they would tend to state your dissatisfaction. For example, you might ask the floor supervisor what steps should be taken to bring a union into the company. The management won't love you, but if you are sincere, unemotional, and consistent in your pursuits of a better work environment, they may come to respect you. They might even promote you to organize some improvements. Of course, they might fire you, too.

(N.B. As we pointed out, if you are unsure about whether to confront the establishment or climb the career ladder, here's our rule of thumb: If you have to ask that question, don't confront. Political confrontation is a difficult process. It wants intense commitment. When you encounter an injustice you cannot tolerate, you'll confront because there will seem to be no other choice. The courage of that conviction should carry you through. Meanwhile, you can lend quiet support to those who have already found the intense commitment, if that is your political persuasion.)

Controlling Span of Network -- Another important strategy in the world of work is that of controlling the span of one's professional network. You've probably heard of the "old boy's club". This is a good example of an elitist network. Some believe that it is important to network at all times. For example, Naisbitt (1982:219) explains: "Networks offer what bureaucracies can never deliver - the horizontal link. Networks cut across the society to provide a genuine cross-disciplinary approach to people and issues." Molloy (1981:175) states: "People who like people are the most successful people in the world. The overwhelming majority of successful men and women we spoke to had a large network of friends." He (1981:178) adds: "So, here's another way to give yourself an edge and a pleasant one. Make friends and contacts and keep in touch with both."

As in the case of visibility, there are times when one wants to draw on and/or be visible to a local group (the work unit, the section, the particular plant and the local chapter of a professional association, etc.) and other times when one wants to draw on and/or be visible to a more cosmopolitan group (the organization as a whole, the industry as a whole, the national officers of the professional association, etc.). The sociological issue of local versus cosmopolitan patterns and influence has been well treated in the literature. Translated to the world of work: the "local" keeps abreast of events and politics in the office of local plant ("local" here sometimes meaning one small work department), and judges his status by his standing in the local work group, rates events in the local work group as having great importance in is work life, tends to ignore events and politics in broader spheres, expect perfunctory attention - i.e., the organization as a whole and its place in industry, professional associates at the national level affect his views only peripherally. The "cosmopolitan," on the other hand, keeps abreast of the events and politics on the national (and/or perhaps, statewide) level in his work area, judges his status by his standing in the national and/or state network in his field of work, rates events in the local work group as having relatively less importance in his work life than those on the national level, tends to ignore events and politics in the local sphere, except for perfunctory attention, as peripheral to his work life, and so on.

The local and cosmopolitan described here are ideal types. But the concept offers a useful means for understanding and controlling information patterns. The communication network of the local will be extensive in the local area; the communication network of the cosmopolitan will be sparse at the local level and extensive at the state and/or national level. This simple understanding carried remarkable conferences for getting the job done.

Every work organization needs both locals and cosmopolitans in order to establish the requisite ties to the community and to other work organizations. Herman Turk (1973), in his studies of large cities' ability to attract needed resources, has shown that the key to distribution of resources is the combination of need for reources, plus strong local organizations and strong ties to the national center which control distribution. This translates in the world of work to a need for locals who will tend to the status and for cosmopolitans who will tend to the status of power of the organization in professional and organizational standing. The person who prefers to be a "big fish in a little pond" will probably adapt more comfortably to the local role. The one who prefers to take on the big pond will probably adapt more comfortably to the cosmopolitan role. The organization must have both ponds, though as in the case of the fish, the big pond generally carries higher relative status.

Local and cosmopolitans in work organizations can be identified by their language (again, both verbal and non-verbal). For example, the local, when faced with a problem usually turns to the formal channels for pursuing such problems. She may send a memo to Jack Jumpstart, who will form a committee to study the problem, and so on. The cosmopolitan, when faced with a problem, will more often pick up the phone and ask a colleague in Timbucktoo how she has handled such problems. Her memo to Jack Jumpstart will then include solutions used with varying degrees of success in other parts of the industry. The local will probably get to sit in on Jack Jumpstart's committee, will broaden her local network, and increase her local status. The cosmopolitan, in bypassing the local group, will probably not extend her local network, but will strengthen her national network. The cosmopolitan, as one can judge from this example, also runs the risk of causing local ripples by moving too fast. Jack Jumpstart may think she's after his job. This requires careful attention to language strategy, in particular, deference phrasing, in order not to offend those of higher status. The danger of status problems inherent in the cosmopolitan role also tends to explain why we are more likely to find cosmopolitans in the higher status ranks. The shift from a local to a cosmopolitan perspective is one of the side effects that may accompany promotion to the higher status. Young people, anxious to move quickly up the ranks, must maintain an awareness of the costs of most of these out-of-awareness strategies.

Whether your network focuses within the local office or spans the national scene, it is important to remember that "in the network environment, rewards come by empowering others, not by climbing over them," (Naisbitt, 1982:22).

Exercise 6-2: Language and Power in Expressing Ideas

Listening to the language of those in power is one technique to acquire the vocabulary you will want to use in sending messages about your ideas. The process will require some experimentation on your part - first listening and selecting words. Using the words and then evaluating the response to those words. In order to give you some practice in using different vocabularies to present the same idea, we have listed below some sets of words and terms which might be used by supervisors in very different settings. We have then selected and applied terms from of the sets to the presentation of one idea to show you how it can be done in different settings. We suggest factors to take into account in choosing language for a second presentation, and leave the language selection and application for you to do the third idea.

Sets of Words and Terms

1. Words and terms a supervisor in a finance department might use:


time-saving-------------------diversification------------------------------rate of return


reserve margins------------incentives-----------------------------------controlling balance

manage efficiency---------risk-return tradeoff--------------------- downsizing

goal setting------------------profit margins------------------------------budgetary constraints

resourceful-------------------cost improvement-------------------------financial controls

2. Words and terms as administrator of as academic department might use:

work load-----------------------student-faculty ratio---------------------collegial

course proposal--------------enrollment policy-------------------------standards

institutional fit-----------------enrollment projections------------------innovative

target population-------------professional development--------------fundable

interdepartmental coordination---quality reinvestment ---------- feasibility

academic and professional recognition

3. Words and terms a manager of a marketing department might use:

ambitious-------------------------public relations-----------------------attention-getting

innovative-------------------------institutional promotion---------------high energy

creative --------------------------aggressive -------------------------------provocative

boost sales -------------------- market share -------------------------- campaign

promotion planning ----------competitive pricing

demand---------------------------track record -----------------------------world market

take charge---------------------domestic market------------------------product positioning

4. Words and terms a supervisor of a customer service department might use:

following procedures----------efficiency------------------------------------precise

expedite orders-----------------accuracy------------------------------------information access

paperwork flow -----------------error rate------------------------------------checking procedures

order pricing----------------------credit check-------------------------------time-saving

efficient records-----------------reduce paperwork

5. Words and terms that a supervisor of a production department might use:

man-hours per unit -----------decrease wastage------------------------cost control

productivity-----------------------deadlines ------------------------------------efficiency

production capacity------------tolerance-------------------------------------standards

quality control--------------------production rates---------------------------cost per unit

down time-------------------------up time


1. You have just thought of a way to design a new form which would combine information from three old forms, reduce duplication of effort in filling out forms, and would save time and paper.

a) Select a few (three or four) terms from the list above that you would use to present this idea to the marketing manager.

b) Use the words you have selected to write a message about the idea to the manager.

c) Now select a few terms from the list about that you would use to present the same idea to the academic administrator.

d) Use the words you have selected to write a message about the idea to the administrator.


a) One set of terms for the marketing manager: innovative, attention-getting, public relations

The message:


To: Ms. Sellum

From: Mr. Combine

The attention getting format of the new form attached to this memo is designed to improve our firm's public relations through making essential information readily accessible to clients. This design takes an innovative approach to combining essential elements from three existing forms while avoiding duplication. Let me know what you think about this one.


c) One set of terms for the academic administrator: innovative, interdepartmental coordination, feasible, course proposals

d) The message:


To: Dean Ivory Towers

From: Asst. Dean Ivy Hall

The innovative format of the new form attached to this memo is designed to improve interdepartmental coordination in our school. This design represents one feasible approach for combining essential information of course proposals and avoids the duplication inherent in the three forms it replaces.


2. You have just come up with a brilliant idea for a new program to sell the services of your department to other divisions in the organization. Your department has developed some specialized information not ordinarily available to the other divisions. If you can promote the use of your department's special expertise by the other divisions it will mean growth for the department and a promotion for you.

a) Select a few terms you would use to present this idea to the supervisor of your finance department.

b) Write a message about your idea to the supervisor, using the terms you have selected. HINT: Select only terms that are relevant to your idea. For example, in selling the specialized information developed by the finance department, the term "cost-avoidance" is more likely to be directly applicable than the term "market share". Select only a few terms, and use them to make the idea more specific to the situation. (i.e., the department as well as the specific idea).

c) Now select a few terms you would use to present the idea to the academic administrator.

d) Use the terms you have selected to write a message about this idea to the administrator.

3. You have been working on a plan to reduce the time spent on paperwork in your department through reorganizing work loads.

a) Select some terms you would use to present this idea to the supervisor of customer service.

b) Use the terms you have selected to write a message about the idea to the supervisor.

c) Now select some terms you would use to present this idea to the supervisor.

d) Use the terms you have selected to write a message about this idea to the supervisor of production.


In this chapter, we tried to answer the question, "Who's on Top?" as well as explain why. We discussed social stratification in terms of status -- ascribed and achieved, social class (related issues of the widening rich/poor gap, the shrinking middle class and the growth of an underclass), and finally, power. The social context of language within the organization was analyzed in terms of power. Some social indications of power were analyzed for language implications. Language patterns and style associated with communication flow were also discussed. Finally, we presented language strategies for controlling and/or maintaining stratification within a work organization. Strategies for controlling social distance, visibility, and the span of network contacts were reviewed for language implications.

Appendix A- Sociological Terms in This Chapter

Achieved Status - Based on what you have done, not through who or what you are.

Ascribed Status - Based on your position in the social system which may have come from birth -- the family into which you were born, the country into which you were born, and so forth.

Brownian Movement - Taken from chemistry, this is a nonlinear approach resembling a scattered pattern or effect.

Bourgeoisie - The owners of the means of production (i.e, the ones who own the big corporations, the agribusiness, the factories).

Caste - A social system in which some members cannot achieve a given status in any way.

Class - A social/economic category to classify groups of people.

Power - The ability of individuals and groups to realize their will in human affairs even if it involves the resistance of others (VanderZanden, 1993:197).

Proletariat - Individuals who have only their labor to sell. The workers.

Status - The rank order of participants in a group or society.

Underclass - Individuals who don't own the means of production and who don't have any labor or marketable skills to sell. They have nothing.

Appendix B - Self-Diagnostic

How good are you at figuring out the stratification of your workplace and society, in general? How do you know who's on top? Try your hand at some of these myths and dilemmas. Enter a T for True and an F for False.

-----1. Marx said social class is purely an economic phenomena.-----
-----2. Not all societies are stratified.-----
-----3. With regard to social networks, work organizations need more locals and less cosmopolitans.-----
-----4.Achieved status is what you have earned.-----
-----5. Caste means you're pretty much stuck where you are.-----
-----6. The president of a company doesn't necessarily have the most power.-----
-----7. The informal structure is as important as the formal structure when we examine the issue of power.-----
-----8. The middle class is shrinking while the underclass is growing.-----
-----9. "Work to rule" increases productivity in the workplace.-----
-----10. Ascribed status is better than achieved status.-----
-----11. Weber spoke of social prestige as well as economic standing in his discussion of social class.-----
-----12. Information typically flows from the top down.-----

Correct answers and career forecasts for this self-diagnostic may be found on the next section. It should be noted that the logic of the justification for your answer is more important than the answer itself.

Scoring and career forecast for self-diagnostic

Score one point for each correct answer.

1. True

2. False

3. False

4. True

5. True

6. True

7. True

8. True

9. False

10. False

11. True

12. True

Your career forecast for this chapter:

10-12: All right, all right. You know how the "system" works and how to work the system. And we don't need to tell you.

7-9: You did okay. But it helps if you read the chapter first.

4-6: You're making progress -- little by little. Time to knuckle down and open the textbook for a change.

0-3: Do you know which end is up?


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