The story begins.
Added By: Julia Mandelbrot 6/12/2005 - 20:14:04
Added To: The story begins. (Crystal)
Mrs Tompkins's office was well appointed and businesslike, in the smart way of corporations that can somehow make employees feel easily intimidated. After he had seated himself Mrs Tompkins continued to peruse some documents from a file she had open. After about a minute she looked up with a slightly strained smile.
“Mr Winters”, she began, and then glanced back at the papers, “we seem to have a little problem developing”.
Inside, Major felt a shiver. He had left his home town and resettled here in Smallsville because the job offer, though for a modest job, had implied there were great benefits and many opportunities for advancement. He could ill afford to be jobless in this strange town, as his meagre savings had disappeared quickly on a deposit for his small duplex and on some furniture and a car. Moreover, if he failed to hold down a simple office job, his domineering father would make his life a misery and withhold the rather decent sum of money that he had promised as an incentive if Major achieved a promotion in his first year in his first job. He was in for the long haul, and “problems” did not figure in his plans.
“Ah, what sort of problem, exactly, Mrs Tompkins?” he politely asked, after, she had simply looked at him meaningfully for a moment.
She raised an eyebrow, perhaps implying that he ought not to have had to ask that question, as if to suggest that the problem was obvious.
“Some of the other workers have expressed the feeling that you are stand-offish, Mr Winters, to the point of rudeness.”
Major felt his mouth open before he had any sentence formed in his mind, and somehow the back of his throat activated itself before the words queuing in his head could arrange themselves.
“W… ah… I…” and finally he managed: “I’m terribly surprised to hear that, Mrs Tompkins. I, I guess I’m just shy and don’t really find it easy to fit in among the girls. I absolutely did not mean to be rude on any occasion and apologise if it came across that way.”
He was quite pleased at how that, finally, came out: he’d spoken non-confrontationally; he’d apologised for any perceived error; he had made clear his point of view that no offence had been intended; and he had pointed out an area of difficulty to suggest there might be a way to improve things, by helping him fit in. Although speech is different to writing, he felt sure that his college lecturers would be proud of his arrangement of the points he needed to make. He particularly liked “surprised”, a word that his legal studies tutor had often promoted as a gentle way of proclaiming innocence.
As his eyes refocused on Mrs Tompkins, he realised he’d forgotten to maintain eye-contact, which had been emphasised as an essential technique by the tutors of his “Presentations” classes. Oh, there was still so much to learn about the business world! But there was something in Mrs Tompkins’s steely stare that was worrying.
“How old are you, Mr Winters?” she asked icily.
“I’m, ah, twenty one, ma’am,” he replied.
“Do you consider yourself a man or a boy?”
“Um…” he frowned, “a man, ma’am”.
“Then you will refer to your co-workers as women, since they are no younger than you are,” Mrs Tompkins said tersely.
“Oh! Yes ma’am, of course. I didn’t mean…”
“I think,” she interrupted, “what you mean and what you say and do may be at some variance, and this is what we need to work out, isn’t it?”
“Ah, I suppose so, ma’am.”
She turned over a paper.
“One issue is that most of your co-workers have introduced themselves to you with familiar contractions of their names. Jennifer, for instance - and I personally heard her - introduced herself to you as “Jenn”; many of the others have done similarly. Yet it has become a point of discomfort for one or two of the women in the office that you have made no such effort yourself. I cannot say this is an important issue,” she glanced at Major, “but it seems to me that it is the sort of thing which, were you to change, would significantly help to break the ice, which seems to be forming. Do you follow me?”
“Ah, yes ma’am, I think so,” said Major, frowning slightly again. No-one had ever shortened his name. Even at home in everyday informal contact with his family no-one had ever suggested a shortened form. “It’s just,” he hesitated, “I don’t know what else to call myself.”
“Do you have a middle name?”
“Well, that would be, ah, Napoleon, same as my father’s middle name,” he said, blushing slightly.
“I see,” said Mrs Tompkins, “your parents had something of a military mind-set when you were born?”
“Yes, my father isn’t that happy that I went into business instead of the forces.”
Mrs Tompkins frowned thoughtfully and considered the difficulties that might lie behind this young man becoming more relaxed among the staff.
“What I suggest is”, she began, “to save you having to approach everyone individually and trying to reintroduce yourself, which might be uncomfortable for you, is that I will put your name on the new coffee rota tomorrow morning in a more friendly and shortened form. Suppose the other staff were to call you Maj,” she said, pronouncing it “Mage”, “would that offend you at all, would you mind my doing that?”
In fact Major was quite disconcerted at the idea of being called by a name that scarcely sounded like his own, but he was even more concerned at there being a problem at work so early in his career. With his father’s financial encouragement at stake, he had to succeed in his first job. He had not supposed holding down the job would be his difficulty but, rather, he had been focusing on securing a promotion in his first year. The news that he wasn’t getting on with the other staff was terrible, especially after having spent all his savings to establish himself in Smallsville. So despite his discomfort, he could honestly feel that he wouldn’t mind suffering the slight indignity of having his name changed.
“No, that would be very helpful, he said,” displaying as much willing as possible.
“Good”, said Mrs Tompkins, “I won’t bring up the other issues at this stage then. We’ll hope that this softening gesture will overcome any confusion, shall we?”
“The… the other issues?” said Major.
“Don’t worry,” said Mrs Tompkins, smiling thinly, “I’m sure it’s all a matter of communication. If you start with letting people call you something less formal, and follow through by being warm and open, everyone will understand you’ve just felt nervous starting a new job.” She closed the file in a way that made it clear that was all that would be discussed.
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