Article Thumbnail

A Cultural History of ‘Workin’ Hard or Hardly Workin’?’

And just why that sad-sack at your job insists on saying it

“Workin’ hard, or hardly workin’?” 

It’s one of those vapid, stupid things that people say when either they’re awkwardly trying to make smalltalk, or when they’re so unimaginably stupid that their simplistic brain actually thinks this is a funny way to connect with someone.

Urban Dictionary has a pretty dead-on set of definitions for this phrase: “Funny play on words used by successful management types. Can be combined with finger guns for the ultimate combo,” snarks one. But in case the sarcasm is lost one some people — particularly people who say things like “working hard or hardly working” — Urban Dictionary offers up another, more straightforward definition: “A pathetic attempt at word play and stock phrase of the middle-management careerist asswipe. Often accompanied by finger guns. Bang bang.”

Indeed, the finger-gun waving sadcase at your job is precisely what comes to mind when one hears the phrase “working hard or hardly working”: An empty-headed middle-management company drone that the bosses find useful because of, not despite, the fact he has no real personality or semblance of original thought. He just does what he’s told and tries his best to connect with the cynical real humans at his job by making empty conversation, and it’s all summarized perfectly by that one dreaded phrase. 

For the sake of clarity, let’s just refer to this middle-management moron type as “Jared.” Here’s the truly frustrating thing about Jared’s catchphrase: There’s literally no good answer to it. It’s a “this” or “that” question, but if you answer “working hard” then you’re even more boring than Jared is, and if you say “hardly working,” there’s a good chance Jared will include that information in his hourly status update to your boss. So despite appearing like a conversation starter, this phrase essentially starts and abruptly ends a conversation all in one fell swoop.

Aside from being unanswerable, it’s also uncomfortable to reply to in part because of how generic it is. Daniel Wendler, author of Improve Your Social Skills, explains that phrases like this are irritating to so many people because it’s often being used at an inappropriate level of familiarity — it’s the kind of smalltalk for the sake of smalltalk that should be reserved for a stranger in an elevator. When someone you see every single day says these kinds of empty things to you, it’s like you’re stuck at this weird, generic level of conversation with them and you can’t escape it. It’s pretty much the exact same deal as the “case of the Mondays” that was skewered so perfectly in Office Space — just empty, unanswerable non-speak.

“A phrase like this shows that there is a minimum of effort in smalltalk,” explains Paul Sanders, a friendship and social skills coach and the author of Get the Friends You Want. Sanders says that phrases like “working hard or hardly working” reveal just how little effort that person is putting into a conversation. We’re social beings, and the purpose of smalltalk is to connect and to make sure that “we’re good” with the people around us, but if Jared says a phrase like “working hard or hardly working,” it shows just how uninterested Jared really is in you, and how little he knows about you. Jared has put next to zero effort into this conversation he’s starting — a “how was your weekend?” or a comment about the weather would fare slightly better, but even that’s too much effort for Jared. 

The astounding thing, given how clichéd and maligned this phase is, is that anyone would ever say it anymore — even a Jared. In addition to countless memes like the one above, it’s been parodied on The Simpsons, Family Guy, Cyanide and Happiness and various ecards. And the joke is always the same — this saying is stupid and tired as fuck.  

It doesn’t help that it’s always been tired, even when it was brand new. While the linguistic genius who originated the phrase is lost to history, the oldest occurrences of it — in print, anyway — date back to the 1930s. The oldest example I could find was from court documents from 1930, and from the context, it appears that this was already a well-known saying. By 1937, the phrase is tired and the subject of parody: From the May 4, 1937 issue of the Beaumont Journal, a column excerpt reads, “PET PEEVE: I wish there was a cure for the bird who always greets you with ‘How you doin’, working hard or hardly working?’ People don’t realize how stupid and asinine it really sounds.”

Now, if you’re a Jared yourself and have indeed uttered the phrase “working hard or hardly working” to your coworkers, there are some ways you can help yourself be less hateable. For one, Wendler explains, “The basic principle of smalltalk is that you want to ask something that’s open-ended so they can answer it in whatever way they want. Then you want something that in some way pertains to the other person and their life. Finally, you also want something that’s safe, so you’re not asking them about something that’s very personal.” A great example of this is, “How was your weekend?” or “Got any plans for the weekend?” Anyone can answer this question in any way they want, and they may disclose a little or as much as they wish in this context. It’s low-pressure, normal and potentially boring, but at least not likely to be responded to with a spork in the eye.

Be alert, though, Jareds: You want to be careful, when trying to make smalltalk, of trying too hard to be liked, which people find to be a major turn-off in any context. Sanders says that you can spot yourself trying too hard if you’re “saying things that are outside the boundaries of your principles, values and preferences.” So if you’re stating or agreeing with things that you disagree with just to be liked, or if you’re forcing yourself to love football when you actually hate it, sorry, you’re trying too hard. Not only will this be transparent, but it will make you seem weak in principle or totally lacking in personality — indeed, a Jared personified.

If you’re a normal human on the receiving end of a “working hard or hardly working” every week, you may try to help Jared out of it by modeling how real humans talk for him, and perhaps, eventually, Jared will get it. Wendler offers this example: “When someone asks you, ‘working hard or hardly working?’ you may reply with, ‘It’s going the same as always,’ then turn it around and say, ‘How’s the work week looking for you?’” It’s as simple as that, and if we all do this — if we all band together and teach the Jareds out there that this is not acceptable conversation — then maybe we’ll eventually send this phrase to the ash heap of history. 

I’m not going to lie to you, though — it’s going to take some hard work.