By Joey Vergara
Starting work is a lot like being a freshman.
You find yourself scared and alone, afraid of saying the wrong thing and alienating yourself from your peers. But at least when you start school, you’re in solidarity with your fellow students. When you start a job, the difference is you’re actually alone.
When I was hired to be on the development team over at my network, there was only one other person in the office, Chris. He was a seasoned comedian and producer with over a decade and a half of experience writing for some very large productions. I was a college senior who impressed the right person at the right time with some short animation where ducks blow up the earth.
I’ve always been good at acting confident, but not so much at managing how arrogant I appear. When I first started, Chris would ask me if I liked actor X, or comedian Y. I responded the same way any insecure college student would, “Actor X was good in his role in ‘Movie A,’ but was incredibly weak in ‘Movie B.’ Comedian Y is okay. I think he’s a little overrated, but he has a few good bits.” Chris would just give me a look that said, ‘Sure, dude,’ and go back to whatever he was doing. I was responding to the question as if I were trying to make small talk with some cute NYU girl, while desperately trying not offend her taste or let her know that I didn’t attend NYU.
One day, Chris asked me if I was a fan of John Oliver. I love John Oliver, but didn’t want to look like A.) a guy who’s only into popular comedians or B.) someone who disliked popular comedians because they’re too mainstream. “Last Week Tonight” wasn’t a show yet, so my immediate response was not, “Of course I’m a fan! Who wouldn’t be?”, but “He’s alright,” quickly followed by, “His stand-up special was okay at best, but some of his ‘Daily Show’ segments are kind of funny and he’s also okay in ‘Community.’”
That’s how I answered a yes or no question.
Once I started to talk to Chris as a real person and responded to his questions with real answers, we warmed up to each other fairly quickly, but I had more to learn.
In the past, I had interned at small companies where people were pretty relaxed. But now I’m working at a large international media conglomerate, an environment I’ve never been in before, so all my preconceptions come from television and movies. Looking back, this is an incredibly awkward way to view your work environment.
Here’s a tip– learn from your surroundings, not from your favorite office drama.
In movies and television, people shake hands when they’re meeting for the first time or making a business deal. I believed workers were to shake hands with their higher-ups whenever they met.
“How was your weekend?”
“Good, took the wife and kids to the Caribbean for the weekend.”
“I’m struggling to pay my mortgage. Think I could get that promotion?”
“We just can’t afford it right now, Joe. Have you tried moonlighting for Uber?”
Three months after I started working, I set up a meeting with my General Manager, the man who ‘discovered’ and hired me. I saw him on a weekly basis back when he was my professor, but after I was hired, he was an apparition that appeared once every couple of weeks. I decided it would be in my best interest to set up a half hour meeting with him just to catch up and talk about the work I was doing, the future of our network and whatnot.
Translation: I had no idea what the hell I was going to talk about.
Seven minutes before our scheduled meeting, I ran to the bathroom to take care of business. Four minutes later, I flushed, came out of the stall and my general manager walked in.
“Hey, don’t we have a meeting now?”
“Yeah, I’ll be in your office in two minutes.”
I washed my hands and went to my desk to twiddle my thumbs for the remaining minutes.
I walked up to his assistant and asked if he was ready to meet.
“Go right in.”
I walked up, said hello and extended my hand. He looked at me, confused, and reluctantly reached out his hand. I could see in his face that he just remembered where he saw me last. The realization hit him only a fraction of a second before I grabbed his hand and shook it.
His expression transformed from confused to disgusted. I realized what had just happened, let go of his hand and blacked out. The air was no longer amiable. I have no idea what we talked about for thirty minutes, but I remember it being awkward. I remember piecing together words that had no real meaning and him saying “So?” a lot.
I’m still working there, seven months after that meeting, getting along with all the new hires and interns. I suppose work is a lot like being a freshman again: you will make mistakes, but you will learn and people will forget… one can hope.