In Monday's Washington Post, Monica Hesse revisits an annual conundrum: how to dress for the D.C. summer in an air conditioned office that often feels like winter. "Air conditioning and the space program are perhaps humanity's two greatest assertions that the laws of the natural world no longer apply to them. Yet somehow we have still ended up sitting around a table wearing giant felt wizard costumes," Hesse writes, referring to the snuggie blankets cold workers sometimes wear. It's a complaint as regular as the changing of seasons. But is it valid? We discuss.
Chill, Baby, Chill!
A 2004 Boston Globe article on this same phenomenon called it a "battle of the sexes," because often it is women who complain the most about summer air conditioning. Writing in the Post, Hesse notes, "While it would be a stretch to say that all frozen office workers are women, please feel free to count how many of the summer cocoa-clutchers in your office are men. None. There will be exactly no men, swaddled as they are in the suits and the neckties and the socks." Put another way, this is a zero-sum game. There will be losers in this battle of the sexes, and sorry ladies, but I think it should be you.
First, a look at what causes us to divide along gender lines where glacial office spaces are concerned. The New York Times's Phyllis Korkki notes that if the tables were turned, "the workers who are required to wear suits and socks or nylons would probably be miserable — especially the active, well-muscled ones." (That's because muscle generates about a third of the body's heat.) "And even with a relaxed dress code, there is a limit to how much you can take off, whereas you can always add layers of clothing."
As it is now, women have devised all sorts of odd outfit add-ons, cardigans around their knees, snuggies around their bodies, fingerless gloves on their hands. That's pretty annoying. But if the tables were turned, where would a besuited man turn? How could he customize his outfit to beat the heat? Imagine arriving to a meeting in an 80 degree office sporting an undershirt, boxers, and the flip-flops you along in a bag. This kind of outfit customization is beyond impractical. It's forbidden. Maybe the expectations we place on women and men for office-appropriate garb are unreasonable or sexist, but that's a cocktail crossfire for another day. For as long as offices allow us to add on but don't allow us to take off, we should err on the side of cooler work spaces.
Finally, I often find my colleagues at the Wire complaining about the frigid temperature at moments where I remain quite comfortable. (Let's just attribute that to all my muscle mass, you know, because of science.) Yet even on the days when I do feel the chill, I'm not sure I mind. There are studies that suggest productivity improves as the temperature gets warmer, but I actually find that heat makes me sleepy. Maybe it's that I drink more hot coffee on cold days, but I definitely sit up a little straighter and type a little faster.
Down with the Tyranny of Wool!
There are thousands of reasons why the air conditioning situation in millions of American cubicles is an abhorrent and disgusting problem, one that we've gotten ourselves into via inertia, waste, intellectual laziness. But here are three of the most important.