For the '90s, the gossip's the same, but the locale has changed Office workers seeking inside info know fax machine is where it's at.


The familiar gathering of employees around the water cooler to exchange the latest delicious gossip and to mutter seditious remarks about management is an outdated, unfair stereotype.

After all, it's almost the year 2000 and practically everything in the workplace has a futuristic spin to it. For instance, everyone knows workers do not gather around the water cooler, which has dried up as a meeting place.

Instead, they gather around the fax machine. They stand there and talk for very worthy reasons:

They sincerely want to be part of their office's informal and instantaneous communication system no worker can afford to ignore, according to advice from the best-informed career counselors; and, of course, to exchange the latest delicious DTC gossip (now upgraded and known as networking) and mutter seditious remarks about management (a high-tech form of communication now called, in cutting-edge psychobabble, "participatory democracy").

Let's listen in today as two working women, Catharine and Elizabeth, meet over the fax machine:

Catharine: "It looks to me as if everyone's going to be working a lot of extra hours from here on in handling all our own mail and phone calls and ordering supplies. Did you hear that our new administrative assistant, who's worked here less than one year, has asked for a six-month, unpaid parental leave? Isn't that some nerve, dumping all that work on the rest of us?"

Elizabeth: "No kidding! Well, it'll be hard on all of us because this place is too cheap to hire a temporary replacement, but we can do it. And I hope he gets the leave if he wants it."

Catharine: "I don't know what this place is coming to: Did you hear that the quality-control manager has asked to come in early in the morning on Fridays during the summer and leave early in the afternoon to play golf?"

Elizabeth: "If she still does a full day's work, they should let her. I'll bet a lot of people would like flexible schedules. Why should everyone work the same hours? It's crazy."

Catharine: "I basically agree with you. We need time for some fun, too, and things are slow around here in the summer. Now, I know this really is awful to say, but I trust and believe you would never repeat it to anyone: It's none of my business, but one of our top salespeople has a very long ponytail. Can you imagine, a ponytail? A lot of people are saying a ponytail, no matter how neatly it's kept, is simply too unprofessional and juvenile-looking, especially in view of the stiff competition we're facing right now. A ponytail doesn't inspire much confidence. Don't you agree?"

Elizabeth: "You're right, it's none of your business. I know who you mean, though, and if it bugs you so much, why don't you tactfully suggest to George that he should get it cut?"

Catharine: "Have you been reading those stories that claim the electromagnetic fields of video display terminals really are safe? I'd like to see more research on the subject, especially on how the prolonged use of VDTs affects fertility. And I wish they'd study a large variety of VDTs, instead of only a few. There's been a lot of talk about it around here recently and lots of murmurs of concern."

Elizabeth: "Yes, I've been following that, too. There's enough doubt

about the subject that I'm all for the men here who are petitioning to wear lead aprons on the job. I'd be plenty worried, too, if I were they and wanted to have children some day."

Catharine: "Did you hear our new divisional vice president is going to visit here by 'surprise' tomorrow to check us all out again? Someone from headquarters let it slip out yesterday. Everyone gets so nervous when we have these unexpected inspections. They're demoralizing. No wonder everyone's so paranoid around here. We should be."

Elizabeth: "Thanks for telling me about it. I didn't know the Big Honcho was coming here but I'll be on my best behavior. It seems as if she 'surprised' us only a few weeks ago."

Catharine: "It's a shame, that new secretary down the hall seems totally lost and disoriented. Someone hasn't done a good training job there."

Elizabeth: "You're right. Let's be nice to him and invite him to lunch. But let's not tell him all the bad stuff at once! He'll find out on his own soon enough. Maybe he already has, and that's why he looks disoriented."

Catharine: "Speaking of looking at people, everyone's starting to look at us. I guess we've been standing around the fax machine too long, especially since no faxes have come through in the last 10 minutes. They may even think we're gossiping, which, of course, we're not. I think gossip is vulgar and would never indulge in it. But networking and imparting important information -- that's different!"

Elizabeth: "Yes, we are getting a lot of looks. Besides, we're the only two senior systems programmers on duty, and it's time for us to get back and check out the mainframe to see what hexadecimal dumps it's giving us today. Oh, look, here come the office gossips, Jim and Tom. I'll bet they tie up the fax machine for hours on end. Really, don't they know they should use the water cooler for gossiping?"

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