Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Un-Receptionist

I’ve had a lot of bad jobs in my life.

Haven’t we all, right?

I'm sure, like actors, a lot of writers work an assortment of odd jobs that are either, a) really boring; b) insanely boring; or c) so boring that if boredom could be measured like toxicity, working in such dreary conditions would be regulated by OSHA or declared illegal just like handling asbestos or spraying DDT.

The one job I held most often over the years was that of receptionist. Maybe the job title wasn’t strictly “receptionist,” but answering the phone or greeting office visitors was a key aspect of the job. 

Oh, don’t you worry. I did a fine job as a receptionist. I had what I called my Lilting Office Phone Voice for answering calls and my Pleasant Professional Demeanor for greeting people at the front desk. But really, you know, I didn’t want to be there. In truth, I was a most unreceptive receptionist. You’d never have known this by looking at me, though. I covered very well. I was the freaking Meryl Streep of pretending to be a good receptionist.

In fact, this is what I learned from being a receptionist: how important it is to fake it in the workplace. Nay, how essential it is to professionalism. Professionalism might very well be a synonym for faking it. 

Well, really, that was just one of the things I learned watching people come and go all day. Another thing I learned is that there are exactly two kinds of people in this world: people you were happy to see arriving, and people you were happy to see leaving.

I’ve been thinking about my days as a receptionist because well… I’m not really sure. I guess I’ve been feeling discouraged of late, and whenever I feel that way, I remind myself of the importance of soldiering on despite appearances. Come what may, you just keep marching up and down the square and never let on that you've got a blister the size of a kiwi on your heel. 

This lesson was most effectively taught to me by a woman I worked with who'd had been a receptionist/secretary pretty much her entire adult life. She was one of those meanies who seem to populate school principal offices and doctors’ offices, the type who makes you feel bad about asking for anything, who sighs and rolls her eyes and mutters about every single person who walks through the door. And when she was having a bad day, she told everyone about it. I swear that woman invented the concept of TMI. She was pretty much a low-lying cumulonimbus cloud of gloom and negativity – all of which she blamed on the fact that she'd worked as a lowly receptionist her whole life. 

I'm sure she had some very good reasons to be so angry, and I felt sorry for her. Kind of. Mostly I learned that I never wanted to become like her, because spending day after day at her side made me vow, “Whatever happens to me, whatever I may become, whatever disappointments I may face, I swear on the soul of this Swingline Stapler, that I will never, ever become such a huge, bitter cow.”

I’ve had to suck up a whole lot of heartache over the years to keep this promise, but all in all, I’ve done pretty well with the not-becoming-a-bitter-cow thing. So I guess I can’t say I wish I’d never been a receptionist. Even if it was pretty horrible and even though, to this very day, I still don’t like answering or talking on the phone, I suppose it’s not the worst thing to figure out that come what may, there’s simply no excuse for giving up and taking out your disappointments on the rest of humanity.

Do tell me: what was the worst job you ever had, and what did you take away from it?