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The Secret Lives of Want Ads

When I was in my impressionable pre-teen years, my mother and her also-recently-divorced roommate, Lennox, would periodically sit at the table and read classified ads aloud. They would make a game of decoding the hidden meanings of the ads. Most people are familiar with this code as it applies to real-estate ads: “cozy” means cramped, “lots of parking” means the yard has been paved over, “restorer’s dream” means the place is totally run down, etc.

Mom and Lennox also decoded the personals ads. “Seeing SWF for good times” indicated the guy was afraid of commitment, and possibly also racist. Any man who opted to represent himself as someone who honestly liked candlelight dinners and long walks on the beach was either completely boring or trying to mask some serious social shortcoming.

But then, most personals ads in papers — before the advent of the longer, more evocative ads that web dating services make possible — were pretty uniform. I remember my mom getting a good, unironic chuckle out of an ad which rhymed; part of it ran “Lots of smarts, rarely farts.” I was heartened by this. When I couldn’t convince her to leave a message for the guy herself, I snuck a moment when she was out of our shared bedroom to call and leave a message. (It led with something like “Hi, my mom really liked your ad, but she’s too shy to call…”)

Lately I feel like I’ve been seeing the same subtle or not-so-subtle messages in job ads. Witness:

“Individual must have excellent communication skills”

Read: A former employee snapped at a client and caused an international incident. Please don’t make us relive that scene.

Proofreader/copyeditor needed… in fast-paced Office of Communications to work closely with production artist.

Read: If you can’t handle the production artist’s caprice about sudden changes to the layout and tendency to blame someone else when she neglects details, forget it.


Must be able to work well under deadline pressure, enjoy teamwork, and take direction.

Read: We will give you more work than you can reasonably be expected to handle, and blame you when you don’t finish it. If you don’t get along with us personally, you’re fired. Don’t even think of challenging our directions.

This is an exciting position for a creative and energetic technology activist who is committed to social justice.

Read: “Social justice” clues those of us who are left of the Democrats (we call it “progressive;” the term “liberal” is generally viewed as a dirty word) in to the fact that the people at this organization are doing work that is more openly political, has a more systematic social critique, or possibly works further outside the political and grantmaking establishment than your average nonprofit/charity. People who don’t understand these distinctions will find themselves alienated by — or alienating to — their co-workers in this job.

Meanwhile, “energetic” suggests that you will be given little to go on, have to make your duties up yourself, and be viewed with suspicion if you ask for support.

The ideal candidate is excited by the potential of bringing an understanding of government and political action to young people

Read: By contrast, “government and political action” suggests an organization that seeks to work inside the system. Don’t bring your civil disobedience tactics here.

Women and people of color are strongly encouraged to apply.

Read: I’m going to take shit for saying this, but I’ve watched it happen: If you’re white, especially if you’re white and male, don’t expect to get this job. The New York City nonprofit establishment tries to make up for the glass ceiling in the private sector by keeping itself female, and thinks its clients will be better served by people of color. On the latter, I think they’re mostly right. How ensuring that nonprofits remain a female-dominated ghetto helps anyone is beyond me.

Seeking a hip and young freelancer to write articles, copy, and content for a local ISP in New York… Good chance for an unpublished net-marketing-copywriter to find a home. You don’t have to be Hemmingway [sic] or James Joyce, but some sense of style and grammtical correctness is a plus.

Read: We have no idea what we’re doing; we just need someone to fill space. Our ears are totally made of tin. And we wouldn’t know Hemingway if he turned up as a zombie and bit us hard on the ass and turned us all into bluntly-spoken zombies (BRAIN. I EAT HIM BRAIN BUT GOOD) with an unholy urge to go out and fill the world with Great American Novels.


  1. fuz wrote:

    I tried to add this yesterday…

    “…Our Client…”
    “we don’t have an actual job, we just like to get lots and lots and lots of resumes. We won’t call you back or anything, even if you’re exactly what this description asks for.”

    Fraud, Enron, Bush

    Tuesday, May 6, 2003 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  2. Roger wrote:

    (trying again…)

    Another amusing want-ad feature that you may not have been privy to: ads, and headhunters, looking for programmers without any idea of what the buzzwords and acronyms in the ad refer to.

    Recruiter: Do you have experience with JFC?

    Me: Well, I’ve built applications using both Swing and the AWT.

    Recruiter: But do you know JFC?

    [“JFC” is the name for the Java user-interface toolkit, of which the two main examples are called “AWT” and “Swing.” It’s the sort of thing you could find out in ten seconds of web searching.]

    Of course, I guess this language barrier — recruiting Java people without any idea about the Java language — is really just like the one in your last ad, which asks for writers without having even a foggy idea about English. Of course, neither “Hemmingway” (nor his zombie) nor Joyce were much troubled by “grammtical correctness” themselves…

    Tuesday, May 6, 2003 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

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