For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a project for a finance company and as such, (besides neglecting my blog) I’ve been getting reacquainted with the corporate world and the benefits, restrictions and protocol of the 9 –
5 7 business-casual life. For the first three days on the gig no one spoke to me. The VP of HR walked me in, made sure I got an ID, showed me to my desk and to the coffeemaker, introduced me to the team that I would be working with and poof, she was out the door. With her exit everyone else went back to their respective domains and left me to fend for myself. I had seen this before on National Geographic with the lives of baby sea turtles who are left alone by their mothers to develop by themselves so it wasn’t totally foreign to me, but by the third day the chill of isolation was starting to get to me.
I wasn’t expecting folks to roll out the red carpet for me, I just wanted to be acknowledged, which in hindsight was really naïve and even a tad egocentric on my part. When you work alone, as I do most of the time, you grow accustomed to the solitude, but it’s a chosen, self-imposed solitude. I had forgotten workplace protocol where an individual’s value is usually earned and competition is the basis by which our worth is determined. Once our status has been determined to be relevant and our value quantified, then, and only then, are we welcomed into the fold of small talk and big business. Of course I want to be just like Olivia Pope, roll-in with my white hat and just handle it because I know I can, but it’s not that simple. There is a process to everything, even being a “gladiator.” Don’t believe me, ask Quinn!
As a freelance writer and social media consultant this mindset around value and competition is easy to adjust to. I just try to continue to compete with myself, to do everything as good as, if not, better than I did it before. I think from watching “The Office” and “30 Rock” I subliminally got caught-up in their bizarre matrix of corporate culture. No one is having a paper airplane flying contest at JP Morgan Chase and there may be execs like Liz Lemon who refuse to have Blimpie’s for lunch, but no one at Apple is having a 55-minute boardroom debate on where to order their sushi and grilled chicken wraps. So for that first week I proofread documents, edited & bound reports, showed up on time, worked late and during my second week I started to get a few “hellos,” a couple of “how are you’s,” and even one compliment. While venting to my mom that the silence was making me crazy she reminded me of one of her favorite mantras: “Nicole, you don’t go to work to make friends. You go to do your best work.” This might sound harsh to some, but it really has been so effective in guiding me socially at work. I go into an office only having expectations around my conduct. This doesn’t mean I’m going to allow myself to be disrespected, it just means that I’m not here for anyone else, but myself– making me more efficient and least likely to be disappointed by my lack of fun times at the water cooler. I mean, it is called work for a reason.
I wish Sloane Stephens, the tennis ingénue, had heard my mom’s mantra. Her remarks in this week’s ESPN The Magazine complaining about how Serena isn’t really her friend made her sound like a whiny brat:
“She’s not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia. And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter. Like, seriously! People should know. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and she’s so that — no, that’s not reality! You don’t unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?”
I wish she would go into her tennis matches not expecting Serena or Venus or any of her competitors to be her friends. They are first and foremost her competition. Just last month, when asked about her relationship to Sloane, Serena kept it real saying, “It’s hard to be a real mentor when you’re still in competition.” I know this is a particularly tough pill for Black women, and probably most women of color, to swallow because we tend to seek and want mentorship and camaraderie from other women who look like us and share our same cultural background. I think the answer to this is to look for mentors who are older– our mother’s generation (who may be less threatened and intimidated) and to, maybe, also look across gender lines and align ourselves with our Black, Asian and Latino male counterparts. Instead of “leaning in,” women of color should do more leaning-on! It’s been my experience that when you do your best work you will attract the right people into your cipher. Struggling with a 3-7 record this season, Sloane needs to rip up her friend contracts and concentrate on winning matches. When you get your life, folks will want to get with you and friends will come, eventually. Meanwhile, if no one else knows, act like you know and make like Liv, Huck, Quinn, Harrison and the rest of our crew at OPA and handle it!