American work culture, seeping around the globe, threatens to ruin the pleasures and benefits of public, communal sleep.
A few months ago, two Americans arrived for a meeting at a sprawling, corporate campus in Sichuan Province in China. (They asked not to be named because their work is confidential.) To get to the conference room, they crossed a vast span of cubicles where hundreds of young engineers were busy at their desks, a scene replicated on every floor of the 10-storey building. The meeting was to discuss a dense, text-heavy document, and it began with the client reviewing the day’s agenda: they’d talk until 11am, break for lunch, have nap time, and then start again at 2pm.
Lunch was in a cafeteria the size of a football field where women with hair nets and soup ladles regulated the movement of a column of people. The visitors lost sight of their hosts, so they got into line, bolted down their meal, and retraced their way to the building where they’d had their meeting. When the elevator door opened, the window blinds were drawn, the computer screens were off, and the whole floor lay in grey shadow. The workday could have been over but for the fact that people lay about everywhere, as switched off as the ceiling lights.
The Americans hadn’t seen anything like it since morning-after scenes at their college fraternities. They had to step over some bodies. Other people were tilted forward in their seats with their faces on their desks, like they’d been knocked out from behind, while others still had cleared their desks and lay on them face-up.
The Americans hoped that their hosts, upper-tier executives, would be awake in the meeting room, but they were just as dead to the world as everyone else. One of the Americans coughed into his fist. No one stirred. There were still 45 minutes to go till the 2pm meeting. So he took a seat and pretended to join the mass nap. He didn’t feel like sleeping and would have felt too vulnerable even if he did, but it was a tight space, the woman facing him, a lawyer, was snoring away, and he was afraid that, if she woke up, she’d think he was staring at her. ‘I figured it was safer if I just closed my eyes,’ he told me.
The ordeal ended, finally, with a gong. The lights came back on, music (a military march) played, and people just opened their eyes and resumed their working posture. Nap time was done.
That the incident seemed strange illustrates how people raised in the United States (or who identify with its values) often think about sleep: we can be dominated and bullied by early risers, and tend to look down upon other customs such as siestas.
These are some of our conventions: a person should not sleep too long – as a matter of personal virtue and social capital, the less the better. The average American sleeps for 6 hours 31 minutes during the working week, the least of any country but Japan (6 hours, 22 minutes). The higher limit of what you can admit to is eight hours. Sleep is a waste of time, robbing you of the finite resource of conscious, productive time. Collective nap times or public sleeping bring to mind nurseries and nursing homes.
You don’t sleep with co-workers, ever, in any sense of the term. If you really have to sleep, you slink off somewhere out of view and, if anyone asks, you manufacture an alibi, or say something like: ‘I just wanted to close my eyes,’ as if to plead a felony charge down to a misdemeanour. Or you call it a ‘power nap’, as if it was really a strength-training session at the gym.
‘Every society is judgmental about its core issues of value,’ said Carol Worthman, a biological anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta. But when it comes to sleep, the need for safety – versus value judgment – seems to have prevailed in cultures beyond our own. Indeed, in Worthman’s research around the world, sleep has emerged as both more flexible and more social than one would think from the perspective of the West. ‘Human sleep evolved in risky settings that fostered complex sleep architecture and regulation of vigilance in sleep to suit local circumstances,’ she writes in Frontiers Reviews; and those circumstances varied from place to place.
When Worthman started exploring the anthropology of sleep more than a decade ago, the topic was way below the radar of colleagues who believed that culture was something you did while awake. But she found otherwise. In a study of 10 groups including foragers, herders and cultivators from South America, Africa, central and southeast Asia, and the Pacific, Worthman discovered that when, where, how and with whom people slept varied widely. Broadly, in cultures beyond our own, it was the quest for safety that mattered most.
‘In all these groups, sleeping together brings safe sleep by providing warmth, comfort and security that someone is awake or wake-able at any time in case of danger of distress,’ she explains. ‘Such shared sleeping spaces are enlivened by other sleepers, domestic animals, hearth fires for warmth and protection, and nighttime activities of others nearby. Mattresses, profuse bedding and pillows are rare or nonexistent because they harbour pests and parasites.’
Early to bed, early to rise, pronounced the insufferable Benjamin Franklin