Health & Family

Ana Veciana-Suarez: It’s that time of year: Thermostat wars are happening all over

No, it's not your imagination. The mercury may be inching its way up to summer, but our offices are stubbornly stuck in the Ice Age. That's because lots of workplaces set the temperature to about 70 degrees based on a 1960s formula of men's metabolic rates. As a result, most women are forced to keep a cheap cardigan over their office chair and an old throw in a drawer. I know one worker, a paralegal, who has a portable heater under her desk. She claims it's the only way to avoid frostbite on her toes.

The thermostat wars in the office are nothing new, and they're as difficult to negotiate as a Middle East peace treaty. Finding an acceptable compromise may be the quintessential Catch-22 situation. Whatever the maintenance staff does, they're sure to anger one group or the other. Of course it's not just offices where the thermostat is set too low. Movie theaters, department stores and especially hospitals tend to the permanently Siberian.

For years I worked in a newsroom where one section was steamy enough for a good pore-cleaning facial while the cubicles on the other side were positively polar. Depending on the geographical location of your desk, either the women or the men were miserable. I homesteaded in the latitude of the Arctic. Most of us there kept an emergency-heat supply, usually a sweater or blanket that we could throw over our shoulders as frozen fingers grew too stiff to dance across the keyboard. When it got really bad, we just stepped outside to defrost in Miami's humid heat.

Now hard data may settle the simmering debate once and for all. A study published in the journal PLOS One found that chillier temps actually affect women's work, and not for the best. Put another way, women performed better in warmer temps. By how much? When there was a 1-degree Celsius increase in room temp, women's answers to math questions rose by almost 2 percent. Verbal scores also increased. Men scored better when working in cooler temps, but the decrease at a warmer environment was not as big as women's performance increase.

"It's been documented that women like warmer indoor temperatures than men, but the idea until now has been that it's a matter of personal preference," University of Southern California researcher Tom Chang said in a statement. "What we found is it's not just whether you feel comfortable or not, but that your performance on things that matter – in math and verbal dimensions, and how hard you try – is affected by temperature."

The thermostat setting has turned into a battlefield between men and women at home too. I argue with The Hubby about the thermostat setting almost daily in the summer, demanding a higher temperature than one he likes. While I may sleep better in lower temps, I prefer a more temperate environment during the day, at least one that doesn't require me to wear a jacket indoors. He doesn't get it. This temperature thing is as mysterious to him as crying at chick flicks or browsing in a store with no intention of buying.

Not that I've stopped trying to convince him, in my own way. Other wives may be guilty of financial infidelity. I, on the other numbed hand, could be convicted of meteorological cheating. This is a typical conversation at my house.

Me: Is it cold in here?

The Hubby: No.

Me: Yes, it is. Look at my fingernails. They're purple.

The Hubby: New nail polish!

Me (indignant): Look at the goosebumps on my arms.

The Hubby: Get a sweater.

And I do. I grab a sweater and on my way back take a detour to fiddle with the thermostat. Never underestimate the sneakiness of a hypothermic woman.

(Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at avecianasuarez@gmail.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.)

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