There are office dramas. There are office dramas like Misaeng. And then there is the social grapevine.
In a significant proportion of workplace dramas, office life serves as a vehicle for romance, comedy or both. In these subtypes of the genre, work is a secondary element that adds color to a character, indicates his/her social status and/or drives emotional conflicts. Occasionally, reality is disregarded to such a great extent that a lead character can excel in a management role even when he has no knowledge of basic economics or turns up for work only two days a week. On the flip side, there are many dramas that focus squarely on office work itself, while recognizing its tedium and moral gray areas. Nevertheless, protagonists frequently get to save the day from within a byzantine bureaucracy at the end of the tales, even if they are mistreated newbies or corporate outcasts. These are worlds of immaculate suits, pulsating energy and infinite possibilities.
Misaeng, on the other hand, is one of the dramas that opt for gritty realism. In its monotonous, minimally windowed and fluorescent-lit cubicles, salaried men toiled around in worn-out slippers, for work that did not always get commensurate rewards or recognition. On the contrary, contract employees without college degrees lost their jobs at the end of their terms no matter how much revenue they generated for the company, and women got trampled upon irrespective of their capabilities. Any moments of triumph and heroism were rapidly forgotten in the daily grind. One veteran worker took matters into his own hands by seeking compensation through other avenues—sexual harrassment, fraud and bribery. While the roles of employees were critical, they were also readily replaceable and made up only small pawns in the grand operations. Sometimes, an individual is paradoxically not even deemed consequential enough to be considered for dismissal over a failed deal. They led, as the meaning of the title implies, incomplete lives.
Still, Misaeng had its heartwarming moments and developments. Prejudice gave way to understanding, enmity to comradeship. Cold supervisors and unethical colleagues were given airtime for their side of the story. One well-loved character forsook his chances of promotion for years to adhere to his ethical principles, then suddenly fought for his advancement, through a risky career move, to secure the job of his subordinate. Four young workers banded together during a weekend to complete a presentation for an overworked director who had fallen ill while juggling career and family duties, even though she and her work would not affect their departments. These stories may carry a tinge of idealism in the eyes of real-life employees, but they also echo the themes of enlightenment, fraternalism, mentorship and self-sacrifice found to some degrees in reality.
These positive aspects of corporate life are, however, frequently underrepresented in everyday accounts of actual office work. A typical screen director or writer is cautious to temper the somberness of a production with some optimism and warmth in order to vary its emotional beats and retain its audience. An ordinary office worker, however, is often so exhausted and dispirited that, when he shares his work experiences with peers and family members, he is far more concerned with off-loading his emotional burden than with his impact on the listeners. And so, they tend to hear about the superior who called at two in the morning or hurled stationery in meetings but not the superior who put in a word for his pay raise, the partners who badmouthed him and stole his credits but not the one who stayed behind to finish a document for him so that he could turn up for a date in time, and the clients who ran hands over female staff but not the driven contractor who worked 90-hour weeks for the project in spite of her pregnancy. Yet these real-life, informal (and thus “uninhibited”) anecdotes of office survival, rather than that portrayed in corporate promotional materials and fictional narratives, enjoy the highest credibility.
The result is that some young people embark on their corporate careers with a darker view of humanity than warranted, arming themselves with arsenal against ruthless office maniacs and two-faced game-players even before they encounter them. This arsenal may include acts as benign as putting on a tough facade and subjecting every co-worker they meet to intense scrutiny or as severe as taking the offensive in manipulating office politics. The mistrust and malice manifest in either case may exacerbate the toxic atmosphere in the office, increasing further the tendency to dwell on unhappiness at work in accounts of professional experiences. In such a manner, office life and office narratives traded around in casual settings are caught in a vicious cycle, each misinforming and shaping human relations in the other for the worse.
Paradoxically, though, as disgruntled as many employees are with cubicle life, the office remains a symbol of hope to segments of society. It carries the aspirations of blue-collar workers who dream of jobs safe from the elements and free of extraordinary physical hazards like noxious vapors and difficult terrains for their children. It is also an elusive place of prestige and intellect that numerous disadvantaged families, even in the developed world, have been locked out of for generations. While the misery and injustice of work life in the office deserve attention and sympathy, what little warmth it offers should still be recognized as a huge leap forward in the biopic of the human struggle for survival.
It has been said that we are actors in our own lives. But perhaps, the greater reality is that we are also the directors and writers of our lives and those around us. Each of us is capable of constructing story arcs with more far-reaching consequences than we imagine, a skill that may need to be exercised with a little more care.