Here are some mistakes I may or may not have made when I was first employed at the age of 21 as an assistant to a magazine editor. I arrived with sopping hair, which left soggy dimples across my shirt. I didn’t smile easily, which maybe could have softened my angular face and pointy nose. I didn’t “look busy,” even when I was.
Three-fourths of all interns, Ross Perlin writes in Intern Nation, are women, but I wasn’t an intern—or not until much later. If I’d been an intern first, I’ve since thought, maybe I would have been a less awkward assistant. An internship can teach you a lot about appearances—knowledge that’s most helpful for the kids who aren’t going to receive internships at their aunts’ auction houses or at the weekly owned by an uncle’s best friend. My father is the sort of small business owner that Jane Jacobs would have loved—he runs an audio/video store in San Francisco—and my mother was a nurse. Securing a job in their professions was less dependent on diplomacy than simple skill: soldering the innards of a subwoofer, learning how to slide the needle straight into the stem of the arm.
But for an intern to distinguish herself, she must ingratiate without seeming ingratiating. The intern is to appreciate the opportunity to peek at the file folders into which she slides contracts and correspondence. She shouldn’t act above her lot, although to be hired she must believe herself above it. While Andrew Carnegie thought his low-level workers should mop their own offices, he didn’t want anyone working for him who couldn’t envision himself head of the company.
And so unpaid or underpaid interns must pass off their labor as an offering, a gift. For that’s what the world of internships is: a grotesque bastardization of a gift economy in which aspiration is necessarily married to servility, sometimes obsequiousness. Historically, as Lewis Hyde explains in The Gift (1983), gift exchanges have had all sorts of rules: one man’s gift shouldn’t be another man’s profit; a gift cow should be roasted, not bred. Gifts draw a social bond that to be maintained necessitates reciprocation—a gift in return. “The gift not yet repaid,” the French sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote in his book The Gift (1923), “debases the man who accepts it.” The term Indian gift made this unspoken social commitment explicit. An Indian gift as first defined by Thomas Hutchinson in a footnote from his 1765 history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is “a proverbial expression symbolizing a present for which an equivalent return is expected.”
These rituals weren’t undertaken for mutual gain, but for mutual goodwill. A tobacco pipe offered as a symbol of peace by a host to his guest at parting was expected to stay in circulation, increasing in worth as it passed from one person to the next. Reciprocation was integral to reinforcing the social fabric, which is just what an intern banks on. The intern’s gift of work and time obliges the employer to return the favor—to write a recommendation or alert the intern to an interesting job opportunity. (It’s also a gift that almost always “immediately benefits” the company and thus is not only a gift exploited but, as Perlin points out, a gift that renders the arrangement illegal according to the Fair Labor Standards Act.)
But what if the intern’s gift sucks? It’s better—less thorny—to be paid a salary and maintain the distinct distance commerce imposes. In fact, the word “professional” as we tend to use it refers to exactly this personal remove. (Phoning your boyfriend from the office: unprofessional.) Then employers don’t have to pretend to compensate in attention or favors, nor can they resent such compensations, having obligatorily gifted them. Because reciprocity is one of the tacit assumptions that makes the intern relationship so fraught, it’s also the reason, I believe, that some employers subconsciously sever themselves from expectation: they demean their interns, so that any flash of humanity, any joke or joviality, can be perceived as a present.
What, it’s easy to wonder, is so bad about this, especially if say it’s only for a summer? Well, the first problem is the question itself. Only someone well-off could have the naiveté to ask it. An internship can be economically impossible for a kid from a low or middle-income family. But even putting subsistence aside, Perlin persuasively argues that the absence of pay devalues work, and, more frightening yet, deprives workers of employee classification. (An employee by law isn’t someone who works but someone who gets paid.) Not being an “employee” means no worker’s rights, no legal recourse for discrimination or sexual harassment.
Most internships don’t offer substantive training. In fact the name brand ones—prestigious stints at CNN or the White House—expect their interns to already be trained. So, as far as I can tell, the value of an internship is making meaningful social connections at work. What an internship teaches is a matter of manners. There have long been books about office manners—The Merchant’s Clerk Cheered and Counselled aimed to adjust entry-level work expectations as early as 1856—and Megan Hustadt’s excellent How to Be Useful (2008) culls the best from them. Look at this sample, how well it categorizes you, or me, or someone annoying in your office:
In jobs as in life, people who try hard to show how very smart they are often get passed over for someone who’s equally bright but easier to get along with. The guy who feels entry-level work insults his intelligence is everywhere.
If you come in shirt untucked or looking in any way like you’re not completely prepared for the day from the moment the boss sees you in the morning, you’re being yourself too much.”
Don’t be so taken with “authenticity” that you can’t bring yourself to read from a script from time to time.
Although it won’t credential you, middlebrow reading might be better than the learning by humiliation of internships. Self-help is comparatively a miniscule indignity—an indignity to which women tend to be more open. Or so it’s nice to think. Just imagine it: the three-fourths of interns who are women may also be something like three-fourths more open to a better, bookish alternative.