Wasting Time at Work, Again

15 May 2006

Many years ago, up at my mother-in-law's house in northeastern Pennsylvania, I heard a brief story that I thought was kind of funny. Down at the Procter & Gamble paper mill, there was an employee (call him Charlie) who worked the night shift. It's one of those secure facilities and all, so there's a security officer on duty as employees come and go. (They're there, basically, to ensure that all of the thievy low-wage workers don't steal the inventory. This element of the story is true, I'm sure.) One of the byproducts of this particular type of manufacturing is sawdust. It's a relatively worthless material, but they use it for various things from time to time. It helps with parking lot traction in the winter, for example. And, there are other odd uses for it as well.Sometimes employees would even take some home for themselves. During one stretch of time, ol' Charlie would walk out of the plant, past the security station, with a wheelbarrow full of sawdust.The security guards were suspicious, though. Each night, they'd stop Charlie and inspect the load to make sure he didn't have anything hidden inside the sawdust. He never did, either. He just kept taking home loads of sawdust, night after night. In time, they caught on, though. Turns out Charlie didn't care about the sawdust; he was stealing wheelbarrows.

Well, if you never heard a story like that, it's probably amusing. It was told to me by a guy I know who doesn't normally tell "tall tales." In fact, I think that guy actually believed the story. But then about a year ago, while here in Pittsburgh, a co-worker walked up to me and managed to tell me practically the same story -- with just a few of details slightly altered (d ifferent company, different guy, but almost entirely identical in most other respects).Strangely, this guy also told it to me as fact.

Ever see the movie Good Will Hunting? There's a scene where Will (Matt Damon) is in the psychologist's (Robin Williams) office, and Will tells a joke about being on an airplane. Williams' character knows Will's fibbing.He says something like, "You've never been on a plane."But Will responds with something like, "Yeah, but the joke's better if I tell it in the first person." I think the phenomenon here is exactly that. At some stage, people tell these amusing stories (which aren't necessarily clearly fictional "two lesbians walk into a bar"-type jokes) to others, using the first person for effect. Then, those others (like me, sometimes) don't necessarily recognize the stories as fictional, and pass them along to others as fact.

... which is a shame, as I originally thought the Charlie story was kind of funny. But, I guess you see this sort of thing all the time.Here's a semi-related example.(Warning: extremely nauseating, supremely annoying "touching story" content ahead.) Once, Kumar (whom I've written about many times) told me a "true" story that had freshly traveled across the globe from his home town near New Delhi. Here's the extremely abbreviated version (as I can't spend more than about 20 seconds typing it without vomiting all over my laptop): This family brought an elderly grandfather to live with them. He became such a burden to the household that they made him stay up in his room day and night. Whenever he needed anything, they had him ring a bell that they'd nailed to a wall near his bed. Eventually, the old man died. After the funeral, they're cleaning out the bedroom, and the young child starts removing the bell from the wall.When the parents ask the child what he's doing, he innocently replies, "I'm saving this bell for when you're old." (I know ...awful story. Commentary to follow.)

Anyway, a few months later, my old boss, Mr. Maraschino (a complete a-hole, as will be demonstrated in future posts), forwarded me this "touching story" (quoted almost in its entirety):

An old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and young grandson. The old man's hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table. But the elderly grandfather's shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth. The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess, so they put a small table in the corner. There, Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner. Since Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. When the family glanced in Grandfather's direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food. The four-year-old watched it all in silence. One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, "What are you making?" Just as sweetly, the boy responded, "Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and mama to eat your food when I grow up."

It's interesting how these stories seem to take on lives of their own, naturally morphing into versions pleasing to various international audiences. The sawdust stories I don't mind so much, of course. But, the parables get on my nerves. It's the down-side of the corporate networking world; everyone wants to share "inspirational" stories. Based on any given subject line, it's often tough to tell what's a business email and what's destined for the delete bin. What's sort of funny to me, though, is the fact that many of the same people who send me inspirational, religious, and/or patriotic emails are the same ones who also forward porn on a regular basis. I get "The Wooden Bowl" one day, and the next it's a Powerpoint slideshow showing the "Women of Wal-Mart" rolling back more than the everyday low prices -- from the same guy!

Original Comments

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On May 16, 2006, Kevin Wolf wrote:

Good post. Too true. Especially the porn part.

I also find that the people most likely to pass these stupid stories around are also very likely to be complete jerks.

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