Ronny Chieng: on judgement and social hierarchy, and how it applies to the workplace

Tonight, we went to see Ronny Chieng’s sold out show at Radio City Music Hall. If you asked me when I was in middle or high school whether I thought I would be seeing Asian or Asian American comedians as “mainstream” in my thirties, I would have thought it wasn’t possible because the U.S. could only see “black or white.” So I’m happy to see when I am proven wrong. I guess America (and the West, for that matter), IS selectively able to accept Asians in show business.

It was another show, similar to Vir Das’s show the previous weekend, where I laughed so hard at moments that I almost cried. At this show, though, there were so many relatable moments that my face nearly hurt after from all the laughing and smiling. One of the moments that I could definitely empathize with, especially given our annual kickoff that had just ended this week at work, was his discussion and commentary on “social hierarchy,” how whenever he goes back to Singapore or meets up with his friends and former classmates from there that it always feels like people are trying to size him up, see where exactly they stand vis a vis him. And it’s hard with him because he’s a comedian, so you can’t instantly group him into the lawyers or the doctors or whatever other careers are “expected” in Asian culture. He’s in show business, and it’s not easy to “type” him into a specific income bracket or level of success because of that.

I don’t feel this constant judgment about “social hierarchy” with my friends, especially since I’ve parsed down my friends list so much that anyone I still maintain semi-regular contact with is a good friend, someone who I’d consider has a good heart and isn’t just with me because of my income bracket. But where I feel this the most is at the last two company kickoff events. Each person at these conferences has to wear a lanyard with a badge attached to it with their name and title. Sales people are pretty cliquey; most of them stay amongst themselves. If they go out of their groups, they’re trying to meet and connect with people “higher up” than they are on the corporate ladder, people who can help them or get them something they want. I can feel the gaze of many people walking by me, staring down at my badge, sizing me up to see if I’m important enough, based on my title, for them to introduce themselves to or even talk to. Most people who have higher titles rarely give me the time of day unless we have worked together previously; they are quick to stop our small talk so that they can go schmooze and hang out with their “equals or above.” Do I really care about this? Not really. But I do notice it, and I do find it pretty funny because at the end of the day, the vast majority of us are not running this company. We’re not effecting that much change at the individual level. We’re all just working minions here for our paychecks and our perks. We’re not in Elon Musk’s tax bracket. If you want to be snobby and stick with people at “your own level” or judge me simply because of my title, I don’t really care because I not only don’t know you, but I probably don’t want to know you. But the judgment and “sizing people up” is definitely real in corporate America. And while it’s annoying, it’s something you just have to live with and navigate as long as you want to participate in the rat race.

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