Rules of Reentering the Workforce
Iron your shirt the first day. Remember the iron? If you’ve forgotten how to use it, mimic the movements of the washerwomen in all those BBC dramas you’ve been watching for the last 12 months. You know, the seven-part first season of Downtown Abbey you put on instead of hanging yourself. The rest of the week: Iron only the collar and put on a sweater.
When you’re meeting new colleagues, smile. Practice now. No, not a grimace. Don’t show lower teeth. Look less like you just lost a baby in a shopping mall. Look less like the baby.
When they ask how you are, your sole options are “good,” “great,” “fine,” or “can’t complain.” Don’t tell them how carefully you walk on sidewalks because you’ve been without health insurance. If you’re lucky, in 90 days you can walk on the sidewalk however you goddamn please.
A few words about the free coffee machine: It gives you coffee. For free. People in the office will go to the good coffee place and buy lattes and offer to buy you lattes. But then you’d have to reciprocate. You’d have to buy lattes. And why would you buy lattes when this coffee is free? You come in to work every day thinking about that machine: When is it too early to get your first free coffee? What mixtures of caffeinated and decaffeinated would enable you to drink the maximum number of cups and still sleep that night?
Remember the lessons you learned while you were watching Little Dorrit, and Anne of Green Gables, and Bleak House, and all four Jane Eyres, and the good Sense and Sensibility, and the only Pride and Prejudice worth watching. Remember the lessons, but don’t bore your colleagues with them. BBC dramas are the syphilis sores of the recently unemployed. These marks will fade with time, if you let them. Try Breaking Bad. It’s up your alley, but people won’t feel a lead weight smack against their basal ganglia when you mention it. If possible, catch up on Community.
Networking is important at any new job. If you’re asked to lunch, cram that peanut butter sandwich made on government bread deep into your bag and go order soup and water with lemon. It will only cost an hour of your newly remunerable time. Your colleagues will buy meats and exquisite drinks. If you’re asked, say you are a dehydrated vegetarian.
Occasionally, as you reach for your wallet, someone will say, “Oh no, this one’s on the marketing department.” Your first thought will be the dinner you could have skipped that night, the breakfast of fire-roasted brussels sprouts and salmon cakes crusted with oats, if only you had known. Don’t beat yourself up.
Conversely, don’t begin all future lunches with the question, “Am I going to have to pay for what I eat?”
Meetings are a potential source of much anxiety, and also cookies. Write everything down. You’re not buying the paper. You’re not buying the ink. Use ink like it’s going out of style. (Look around the room at the number of leather-clad iPads being tapped and smudged and poked, the way the apes do to the Plexiglas of their enclosures. It is.)
Make friends with the administrative assistants and the janitorial staff and security guards. Not because you should be friendly with everyone but because they will terrify you less than the others. Good subjects for conversation: break room magazines, the free coffee machine, how lattes are bullshit. If a more senior employee walks in on you, be prepared to say that lattes are bullshit in a tone of voice that precisely could or could not be irony.
If you’re asked your opinion of someone’s project, use the same tone. People will think your rhetorical uncertainty is a sign of quiet intellectual clarity, and if you’re lucky you’ll float through the first few months of office politics on the noncommittal cloud of your desire to be liked by everyone.
A note on email etiquette: When in doubt, CC. Failure to include any relevant persons in any email communication can result in hurt feelings and thoughts of insubordination.
Conversely, don’t take it personally if no one replies. No one will.
As a rule of thumb, every email should include 15 CCs. If necessary, invent email addresses for people who could theoretically be involved. Give them names and backstories, disastrous childhoods and monstrous relatives, a pure-hearted caretaker, a near-fatal and disfiguring pox. Email these people your darkest secrets. Add them to the list of office birthdays. Everyone will appreciate the cake.
Advancement in the new workplace, in a still-fragile economy, is dicey. If you’ve been hired at 32 hours a week or less, and you are having flop-sweat dreams in which you bang around the empty, scuffed-floor interrogation cell that is your retirement account, thoughts of secure full-time employment are only natural. Don’t forget that you’re as replaceable as a plastic iPhone screen protector. Don’t forget how nice it would be to have an iPhone.
So keep your grubby needs to yourself. You don’t want to go back to unemployment, do you? Back to the public library? Iron your collar. Get your robot-prepared instant coffee. Prepare your Bryan Cranston factoid. Welcome back.
Sent from my iPhone
Patrick Coleman is a writer living in San Diego. Excerpted from The Morning News(January 31, 2012), an online magazine of essays, art, humor, and culture published weekdays since 1999.
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