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 original seven-part first season of Downton Abbey you put on instead of hanging yourself.
The rest of the week: Iron only the collar and put on a sweater.
When 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 options are: “good,” “great,” “fine,” or “can’t complain.” Keep in mind that you aren’t about to start telling them how carefully you walk on sidewalks because you’ve been without health insurance. There’s nothing to be upset about anymore. You have a job! 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 into work every day thinking about that machine: When is too early to get your first free coffee? What mixtures of caffeinated and decaffeinated would enable you to drink the maximum number of cups of free coffee in a given day and still sleep that night?
This is where your brain will go, more than job performance. That’s OK. Like Gillian Anderson’s English accent, sometimes good enough is actually good enough.
Tread into the waters of the “hot chocolate” button carefully. Some things you can’t take back.
Remember the lessons you learned while watching Little Dorrit, and Anne of Green Gables, and Cranford, and Bleak House, and all four Jane Eyres, and the good Sense and Sensibility, and the only Pride and Prejudice worth watching, the longest one, the one you watched eight times. 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 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 asked, say you are a dehydrated vegetarian.
Occasionally, as you reach for your wallet at the end, 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 instant oats, if only you would have 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?”
Instead, go back to the office and drink a couple free hot chocolates.
Meetings are a potential source of much anxiety, and also cookies. Take notes. 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.)
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.
As you learn the office politics, you will learn whose comments to respond to and in which ways: a smile, a little jet of air through your nostrils, a thoughtfully protruding lower lip. Most importantly, you will learn whose comments to ignore after sharing a long, resigned look with the boss—a boss who is demanding and changeable and ugly but—confound it all—fiercely attractive.
But don’t get carried away. Rising up in the world may not depend on your naïve goodness and the tragic blinding of a superior, rendering him more tractable and dependent. Prevent yourself from wondering which other employee is his secret wife and from which corner of the building she’ll throw herself. Prevent all wedding dress fires.
Make friends with 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 asked your opinion of someone’s project, use the same tone. If asked for ideas, ibid. In fact, use that tone all the time. 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 non-committal 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. Keep a mental image of the Circumlocution Office from Little Dorrit.
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 back stories, 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. No one will admit to not knowing them.
Don’t kid yourself. Now is not the time to expand your range and get sucked into Dr. Who or Poirot. Take those back to the library, you fool. Remember: syphilis sores. Remember: Troy and Abed references. The beginning or end of a meeting is a great time for a “bottle episode” joke.
Advancement in the new workplace, in a still-fragile economy, is a dicey question. If, as it is likely, 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.
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