Courtesy of Flickr user Lara604 under Creative Commons license

Some people take frequent breaks outside. Others bring in a sweater, a scarf or an “office blanket.” Some block air vents with cardboard, or quietly switch on space heaters under their desks. If you’ve ever sat shivering in your office in the dead of summer, you too may be a victim of excessive air conditioning.

Even as the temperature outside rises to sweltering temperatures, America's extreme air conditioning habit mean that people in offices, movie theaters and restaurants end up being chilled like TV dinners.

How did this happen? How did America become the land of overpowering air conditioners? Will it ever change?

It's not just a matter of taste or personal comfort. Some studies have found that worker productivity falls with the temperature. Customers aren't happy either: In a 2008 survey, 88 percent of people said they find at least some retail establishments too cold, and 76 percent said they bring extra layers of clothing with them to movies and restaurants. The Post's Petula Dvorak has observed that in offices, the trend exacts a particular toll on women, and, of course, it wastes huge amounts of energy. The U.S. uses more electricity for air conditioning than Africa uses for everything.

America, it turns out, is addicted to A/C for reasons of fashion, physiology, gender norms, architecture and history. Over the last century, air conditioning improved our health, happiness and productivity. But somewhere along the way we grew dependent on it, and now we don't know how to find our way back.

The battle of the sexes

If you've spent time around the opposite sex, you may not be surprised to hear that women tend to get chilly more easily than men.

Part of that is just due to the difference in male and female bodies. Men tend to be bigger and heavier than women, meaning they heat up and cool down more slowly. Men also typically have more muscle than women, which helps to generate heat. Women tend to have more body fat, which holds heat into their cores, but can leave them with icy toes and fingers that make them feel colder.

These differences are the origin of countless domestic spats over the thermostat and the covers. It's also why some sleeping bags have two temperature ratings, one for “standard woman” and “standard man.”

A label shows the European norm rating system for sleeping bags.
A label shows the European norm rating system for sleeping bags.

But beyond the differences in our bodies, clothing probably plays an even more important role in keeping men warmer than women. Women have a different wardrobe for warmer weather, including dresses, skirts, sandals, sleeveless tops and lightweight fabrics. Men wear pretty much the same thing as always: long-sleeve shirts, pants, socks and closed-toe shoes.

“Women do register temperature a little more sensitively than men," says Susan Mazur-Stommen of Indicia Consulting, a company that studies human behavior and sustainability. "However, what you also see is gendered clothing differences, particularly seasonal. We have norms that say it’s more acceptable for women to show more skin.”

So why do temperature settings typically suit the men but not the women? It's partly because women haven’t been a major part of the workforce for long and typically men have designed office buildings, installed air conditioning systems and set the thermostats.

A new study released on Monday argues that today's standards for temperature are based on the assumption of an average worker being a 40-year-old, 154-pound man. As the Post's Ariana Eunjung Cha writes, researchers found that the current standards for office settings overestimate the heat production of women by up to 35 percent.

[Your office thermostat is set for men’s comfort. Here’s the scientific proof.]

People have different preferences, of course, and not everyone is going to be happy at the same time. But men, swathed in suits, ties and socks, may not even realize how cold women are.

Today, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that businesses keep their temperatures set at between 68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity between 20 and 60 percent. But that is quite a big range, from freezing for some to sweltering for others.

“So you have one half of the human race freezing to death, and the other half is ridiculously comfortable in ridiculous amounts of clothing," Stommen says. "And once you start noticing it, you will not be able to stop noticing it."

How did we get this way?

Before air conditioning became widespread in America, men also used to adapt their clothing to the summer heat, switching from thicker suits in the winter to straw boaters, seersucker suits and linen in the summer.


A man wears a seersucker suit and straw boater in downtown D.C. in August 2005. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)

Air conditioning was invented in the early 20th century by an engineer named Willis Haviland Carrier, who coined his invention “manufactured weather.” The technology was first used in industry, and it later spread to homes and businesses. By the 1920s, some department stores and movie theaters acquired air conditioning, which drew enormous crowds in the summer and perhaps even helped spur Hollywood's Golden Age.

Over the next century, the spread of air conditioning changed how Americans spent their time, how they built their houses, and even where they lived.

Before air conditioning, people spent the summer hanging out on their porches, swimming, and taking naps during the hottest part of the day. Public places were much more vibrant, though not always idyllic: In an essay for the New Yorker in 1998, playwright Arthur Miller describes how New Yorkers slept in the parks or on their fire escapes, and fought for a spot on the beach at Coney Island in the summer in the 1920s.

 

By the 1950s, as air conditioners became common in the home, family life in the summer moved back inside, and increasingly centered on a new consumer technology called the television.

Amusement parks and playgrounds emptied out, and people retreated from their stoops and the streets to their living rooms. Even attendance at baseball games dropped in the 1960s.

Air conditioning also made possible a huge movement of people to places like Arizona and Florida. Congressional scholar Nelson Polsby has argued that air conditioning remade America's political landscape, by enabling Republican pensioners to move to the previously Democratic South.

As air conditioning became widespread, we seemed to forget some simpler techniques for battling the heat. In particular, our houses are no longer often designed with thought to coolness and ventilation — without the high ceilings, porches, balconies, shade trees and cross-ventilation that were once seen as necessary. People don't carry fans anymore, and adults don't often go swimming.

And our style of dress has changed, with most men forgoing seersucker suits and summer linens and just wearing the same thing all year round.

Cool outfits

But this isn't the case everywhere. Some places around the world have attempted to change these norms. In particular, Japan has tried to encourage its men to shed their suits in the summer, so businesses can dial up their thermostats.

Under the decade-old program, government offices and other businesses have set their thermostats to 28 degrees Celsius, about 82.4 Fahrenheit – substantially warmer than the average U.S. office. Government officials were told to leave their jackets and ties at home, and the prime minister appeared in front of parliament in an open-necked white shirt.

One clothing company developed a light-weight business suit that weighed only a pound.

One former prime minister, Tsutomu Hata, even tried to popularize a short-sleeve summer suit. The trend never quite caught on.


Former Japanese Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata smiles as he folds his arms during an interview with Reuters at his office in Tokyo July 27. (RTXFDGP)

Over the next few decades, the adoption of smart energy meters and energy saving building designs could help a lot with America’s tendency to over-cool our buildings. But it's hard to image that making much of a difference.

“We’re cooling these buildings because men will not stop wearing business suits. It really comes down to social norming,” Stommen says. “We are spending a lot of energy keeping men both thermally comfortable, and also socially comfortable."

A previous version of this article referred to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as the Office of Safety and Health Administration. We regret the error.

Read more:

Your office thermostat is set for men’s comfort. Here’s the scientific proof.

I wore shorts to the office, and nothing will ever be the same

Frigid offices, freezing women, oblivious men