Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Audacity of Mope

Every so often, I'll drop by the Object's office to collect him on our way home or take care of something else equally mundane. It's generally a pleasant affair - the Rawk Goblin sometimes drops by and we have conversations that inevitably make me feel like a smarter person for having engaged in such witty palavering; the Object keeps chocolate and Wasa crackers in his desk drawer and has been known to give me one, and from time to time, someone will pop in and invite all those present to partake in a shot of Maker's Mark. These are the times that I show up after five and can just call the Object to let me in. But on other occasions, I'll have to come by and deal with the shrew they have hired to man their front desk. The first time was the most memorable.

"Excuse me?"

I directed my request to the young woman slumped over her computer, studiously ignoring me despite the fact that she had just buzzed me in the door of her lobby. She looked up at me with a world-weary sigh and snarled a "what" at me. I'd clearly offended her by having the audacity to cut into her Perez Hilton time1..

"I'm here to see the Object."

WRONG ANSWER - it sent her over the edge. In a huff, she whipped around to her phone, sending fumes of stale cigarette smoke emanating from her stringy hair as she furiously punched in the digits. Barely bothering to conceal her contempt for the whole affair, she seethed into the phone, "Somebody's here for you." She dropped the phone back into its cradle with a clatter and resumed her earth-saving reading.

At first I gave her the benefit of the doubt, supposing that she’d had a bad day or just found out that she was the secret lovechild of Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan, but the pattern persisted - each time I walked in, she would make a strenuous effort to ignore me, then bare her fangs. Finally I asked the Object if I'd inadvertently offended her or worn her rival sorority's colors one too many times. "Nah," he responded, "she's just got a huge chip on her shoulder because she has to do the receptionist work."

"Ummm, isn't that her job?" I asked.

"Well, half of it. She's also here to do research, so she's got a huge chip on her shoulder for having to do the more menial work." My hackles immediately rankled. "Wait, so it was a big surprise to her when they hired her? They didn't tell her she would be doing it? And what the fuck do you mean, ‘menial work’?"

"No, it was her first job out of college; she wants to do something more important, and feels the work is beneath her," he shrugged.

"So she's going to prove to everyone she's capable of doing more by doing nothing and being an asshole on top of it? Doesn't anybody care? What about your co-workers? What about other people who come into the office?"

"They complain about her all the time, and outside people have complained about it too. But nobody really knows what to do. What do you want me to say? 'Sorry your job is shitty, but could you do a less shitty job of it?' It's just not my place, and I don’t want her to get mad at me." The Object seemed nonplussed, disinterested in the whole affair, which rankled me even more. Then he dropped a bombshell, "We're actually interviewing her for a promotion; she might be working with me on my treesmooching stuff."

I lost it. "What are you going to do when you're in a Senator's office fighting for some bill and she gets all snotty and you get kicked out of Earl Blumenauer's office? And what are you going to do when you ask her to work on your legislative proposal and she blows it off because it's menial?” Inexplicably, the Object started to stick up for her. “Maybe she just hasn’t had a chance to prove her skills. All she does is sit there and answer the phone.”

The attitude that a receptionist – or any person in administrative position - lacks skills is one that's been advanced by people who don't know the work involved, so they treat the receptionist as though she’d just asked if they want fries with that. As one of the few people in my organization with the nebulous term "administrative" in my job title, I've suffered disdain at the hands of coworkers who seem to think I'm little more than an overglorified secretary, here to get invoices signed and fetch coffee - no matter that those tasks have nothing to do with my work on international programs. It doesn’t matter that about 85% of the people in my organization are in a so-called administrative capacity, slapping on the term administrative carries a stigma that people seem to think gives them carte blanche to act like a condescending asshole2..

A receptionist is not unlike a waiter in that it's a service job. Plenty of talented people have made an excellent career (and money) out of it, using a high level of organization, business savvy and people skills. My colleague who serves as our Receptionist/Office can juggle a five phone lines, three delivery guys, seven snippy staffers, and a partridge in a pear tree from our vendors - all while working to secure a contract with an international shipping courier, saving me literally tens of thousands of dollars in my budget. She commands respect through her professionalism.

But the hussy at the Object’s office wasn’t doing herself any favors. I’ll grant that not everyone’s dream is to graduate college and work as a career receptionist, fine. But while she was ostensibly rotting away in the Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar and Grille of jobs, she missed a huge opportunity to scheme and work her way up. This is Washington, DC, Land of the Overly Ambitious Overachiever! Work it! As the first point of contact for anyone coming into her office, she could have taken advantage of her unique position: making contacts with key players, learning more about the machinations of the environmental movement3., forging relationships with staff and using her capacity to make the whole place run better. Instead, she wallowed in her misery and took everyone else down with her. Who wouldn’t think someone so spectacularly surly and dispassionate didn’t have much worthwhile work to do?

Our paths have crossed well over a dozen times and not once has she deigned to acknowledge me in a manner that doesn’t convey how pissed off she is about her station in life. I was incensed when I found out that the Object and his colleagues had decided to give her the promotion. “Have fun getting kicked out of Senators' offices,” I sulked. Apparently, he’d sold him in the interview the Object in the interview; he rhapsodized about the turning of a new leaf, “No, I really think she’ll be good. She was so overjoyed when we offered her the position and said she promises we won’t regret it. I’ll start working with her as soon as they hire her replacement in a month or two.”

A few days after that conversation, the Object asked me to stop by his office to pick something up. No one was at the door, so I went to grab my phone to call the Object to let me in. I was fumbling awkwardly to balance grocery bags, tote bags, winter paraphernalia, and a phone when who should waltz right past me but the recently-promoted underkind herself? Before I could drop everything to get her attention, she was already on the other side of the door, which locked as it closed behind her. I rang the bell. She let me in, and then proceeded as usual, studiouly ignoring me.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

Without looking up, she sighed. “Whaddaya want?”

I did not congratulate her on her promotion.


1. I'm sure that in her capacity as the receptionist for the Object's environmental organization she needs to be in-the-know on the latest Britney news. You know, for the drowning polar bears and the melting ice caps and whatnot.
2. The worst offenders are inevitably middle-aged men and recent college grads who refer to any administrator as a secretary.

3. A soap opera rivalling anything on t.v. Including American Gladiators.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Chris Chan said...

Have you heard this one? A 22 year-old needed a job, but the only one he could find was at a grocery store. Reluctantly, he started working there. On his first day, the store's owner told him to sweep the floors. "But I'm a college graduate," the 22 year-old said disgustedly. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know that," said the store owner. "Here, give me the broom. I'll show you how."

4:08 PM  
Blogger Matt Eckel said...

I must say I haven't seen the word "hussy" used in a while. Good show.

10:31 AM  

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