Yes, smoking is a dirty habit. It’s for addicts or nihilists, depending upon your perspective. But the more us dirty, nihilistic smokers are vilified, the more we pull together – and this has its advantages.
I work in banking and I smoke. Depending upon my mood I either smoke in a quiet corner or in the main smoking area. The main smoking area is like MD-central.
Because managing directors (MDs) are often in their 40s and people in their 40s got addicted to nicotine before everyone totally understood the “issues” around it, there are a lot of smoking MDs in banking. When you’re a junior (like I was) and you go to the smoking area, you’re therefore among senior managers. A conversation over a cigarette is very different to one in the office. You’re more relaxed. Work conversations are informal and confidential. You get to know people on a different level when you’re pulling on a Marlboro Red.
This matters. When you’re a junior in a bank, MDs are like gods. Thanks to cigarettes, I got to know quite a few MDs and senior directors when I was just an associate. Sometimes they’d drop by my desk and colleagues would look at me agog. “What did he want from you?”, was a popular refrain. (A lighter, maybe?)
It didn’t really matter what they wanted: what mattered was that I was seen in the presence of these idols and that I got to bask in their reflected glory. In banking, it’s not just how good you are – it’s who you know. And I knew these senior smokers. I never ass kissed. We just smoked together and we got along. I had a system of etiquette: I never went up to them; I let them come to me. I never asked them for anything (not even cigarettes). I built a rapport. And it payed off in my “aura.” For a bit, I was a kind of celebrity and the internal face of my team (my manager even asked me to cut down on interaction with teams elsewhere in the bank, probably out of paranoia). I got promoted to VP, faster than usual I like to think.
Of course, there are other ways of meeting MDs and people who go to the gym are going to say they get MD facetime while they’re pumping on the machines or hanging around the showers. But, let’s be honest – you’re not going to get much of a conversation when you’re flexing or standing in the nude, and smoking is a whole different thing – when you’re smoking, you’re actively killing yourself. There’s a camaraderie in that.
Smoking’s also quick. You can smoke, and then you can work. It’s the perfect promotional lever. – So long as you live long enough to enjoy the fruits of your efforts, and let’s face it – none of us will live forever. Marlboro anyone?
Sean Riley is the pseudonym of an MD at a US investment bank.