What happens in the City of London affects everyone, but most of us know very little about the people who work there – or what they do all day. The Guardian is launching a new project: an anthropological study of the Square Mile

Look, I'd tell them via email, everybody hates you. Do you hate yourself? No, you don't. Then why don't you tell me about your life, your ups and downs and what an average working day for you looks like? I'll work your words into a portrait of a banker as a human being, we'll anonymise it because you've probably signed a document saying you'll never speak to the press, and then we'll post it on my Guardian blog. Who knows, when they read about you in your own words, people outside the financial sector may change their minds about you — or at least come to a more nuanced and realistic view of what people like you are all about.
This was my pitch and most of the time it failed. Why should I invest time to contribute to a better understanding of my sector, some bankers replied, when all outsiders want is a reason to hate us? Others politely indicated they didn't trust journalists or the Guardian. Or they didn't trust me; what is a Dutch anthropologist doing talking to bankers in the City of London?
Before I explain why, here are the words of one financial worker who did sit for a self-portrait, the first of 10 to do so. He is involved in mergers & acquisitions (M&A, the buying and selling of companies) and explained that when a company is in the process of being sold, confidentiality is everything:
"This is one of the reasons we invent code names for deals. I enjoy thinking about these very expensive and busy and important bankers convening a meeting to brainstorm about a code name. Some banks prefer cartoon characters, others Greek gods or anagrams. Often they like to keep some element of logic. When there are four contenders to buy a certain company, they will name them after the four Dalton brothers in the Lucky Luke comic strip."
And here's a former M&A banker who agreed to meet:
"Let me tell you, the financial sector is not rocket science. There is a lot of lingo, I mean a lot, and you have to master all that jargon. But you don't have to be brilliant to work in finance; you have to be smart enough. And then you have to be willing to put in really, really long hours. And be competitive. It is an endurance game, in part."
Another banker who would talk but declined to sit for a portrait, compared his work to that of a GP: "You spend many hours memorising terms (body parts, diseases, treatments) and learning to recognise patterns. Then you put in very long hours and collect a nice salary, while employing your jargon to intimidate outsiders."
That's the sort of thing I've been talking to bankers about, and why I am beginning to be captivated by them. Beneath the layers of lingo there are subcultures and dress codes and ways of speech, their mutual stereotypes, conventions, taboos and of course jokes: "Every economist knows that there are three kinds of economists; there are those who know how to count, and there are those who don't."
It is quite a change for me, exploring bankers. I used to do anthropological fieldwork among students in the slums of Cairo, then worked as a Middle East correspondent going back and forth between Hamas leaders and Jewish settlers. The latter were people who knew they might die at any moment for their convictions, and had made their peace with that. Meanwhile those students lived off less than a dollar a day.
Compare this to the bankers and I have moved from freestyle boxing to billiards. Then again, readers' responses may not be that different.
When I wrote about Israel and the Palestinians some readers would judge an article exclusively by whether it was likely to make one camp look good or the other. In particular, pieces that humanised their objects of hate elicited very aggressive letters to the editor – or worse. I expect the same thing with bankers.
The Middle East is a pretty intense place but unless you have family living or serving there, for most readers it is also a pretty far away place. Finance is not. If somebody told you your savings aren't safe, she'd have your full and immediate attention, wouldn't she? But if she then said the words "bank reform" many would have to suppress a yawn.
This is paradoxical. Finance directly affects everyone's interests, but many have a hard time maintaining their interest in it. But as the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the following three years have shown, the financial world is too important to leave to the bankers – in fact in some countries democracy is beginning to look like the system by which electorates decide which politician gets to implement what the markets dictate. The people in this very powerful sector are worth learning more about. And the good news is, when you listen to them in their own words, that can actually be pretty entertaining. And humanising.
Now for the blog. Here's the idea. You have the internet and today's technology. You have the classic techniques of narrative journalism and anthropological fieldwork. And you have this enormously important yet devilishly complex thing called the world of finance.
What if you mix those? Is that a way to make the world of finance accessible to outsiders who are interested but can't find an entry point? When I started interviewing financial workers this summer, I knew as little as the average Guardian reader. So I plan to start at the beginning. Every interview will be posted on the web, with comment threads open to let other outsiders to ask questions and, who knows, to let insiders to elaborate on the material. Over time I hope to build an intellectual candy shop full of interesting stuff about the world of finance, stuff that will then help you as a reader make better sense of the news.
But the question "tell me what an average working day for you looks like" has proven quite productive already. It turns out there's a clear divide in the world of finance between those who see their children in the morning, and those who see them in the evening. The ones who work in tandem with the markets have to get up really, really early to be ready to go at their desks when the markets open. These see their children in the evening.
The other part of the financial world works independently of the markets, for instance lawyers and those in M&A. They can take their children to nursery or school, but work late pretty much every evening. When you see financial workers having lunch, it's always this second category. People who work with the markets have their lunches next to their computer screens.
The hours some of these people put in seem completely insane. Here's the PR officer for a brokerage firm.
"I get up around 4.30am. I watch some news, see what the Asian markets are doing, read my Reuters, Bloomberg, perhaps do some Skypeing, make phone calls, watch or listen to the BBC. I am building an understanding of what is happening, and what will happen. I write my report and as the day progresses and the markets move, I may update it. Most days I throw in the towel around 6-6.30pm. Unless there's more radio to do, then I might go on 'til seven or eight."
Even after only a couple of dozen interviews, it seems fair to say that this is not a sector for whiners. The same PR officer, a veteran of four decades in the City, said this about the top bankers, the ones with the huge bonuses: "In the old days the caricature was of a fat man with a cigar in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other. In the current environment somebody like that wouldn't last a week."
The subtitle to the blog reads "going native in the world of finance". It's a nod to the risk that you identify too much with the people you are studying. That after a while in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, human sacrifice begins to look pretty reasonable. It is happening to me already, a little bit. I also remind myself there's a clear bias in my sample: would Gordon Gekko have made time for a Dutch anthropologist?
Still the bankers are getting under my skin. If there's one thing that has suddenly begun to annoy me no end it is categorical statements about "the banks" or "bankers". I have learned by now that such generalisations obscure just how different many of the activities across the financial sector are. If you are angry about "the banks", you need to specify which parts. Otherwise you are like somebody who blames the BBC for what happened at News of the World; they are all the media, aren't they?
As I said, it's a captivating world, and often all too human. This is what a lawyer said about dress codes in the City. We were sitting in a restaurant called L'Anima, a soberly decorated place near Exchange Square, one of the largest clusters of offices in the City. He scanned the tables around him and said: "Mostly lawyers here, I think. I see no trophy wives or trophy girlfriends, no extravagantly dressed women. I see men who keep their jackets on, which is what we tend to do as lawyers – many lawyers would not want to be the first to take it off and most lawyers I know leave it on anyhow. Keeping the uniform intact makes you look solid. I see inconspicuous ties, which is also a lawyer thing. This restaurant serves very good quality food but the restaurant is not flashy, I believe only this week the Sunday Times called the interior 'boring'. Boring is good, for lawyers. We sell reliability, solidity and caution. We want our presentation to mirror that. And we often charge hefty fees, so we don't flash our wealth because then clients are going to think: wait, am I not paying too much?"
He then proceeded to compare this to the outfit of an M&A banker. These may dress in a very flashy way and drive very expensive cars. The reason is, they are selling companies for their clients, making these clients very rich. If an M&A banker radiates wealth and success, potential new clients will not think: am I paying too much? Potential clients will think: this guy has made other people very rich, he must be very good, I am going to hire him so he can make me very rich too.
On the blog you will find 10 self-portraits of financial workers. Hopefully more will follow soon. Let me say something nice about people in the financial world, to encourage them to defy their PR departments and come forward for a confidential interview. The other day I was supposed to go for an early morning swim but felt very lazy. Then I found myself thinking: get a grip you lazy Dutchman, think of those people you've been interviewing, some of whom have been up for hours already. Don't be a wanker, act like a banker. I got up, did my swim and felt much better.
The Joris Luyendijk Banking Blog launches on Thursday at 11am
This article was published on guardian.co.uk at .