“You, umm, how do I say this? It’s always a rather awkward topic.”
I was sitting in the grayish office of The Woman Formerly Known as My Boss. When I had called to say I would be back in Frankfurt and available to work, Former Boss had called brimming with artificial niceties and the suggestion that we meet up for a “little chat” before I started working again.
I had wondered how bad it would be. “Little chat,” after all, is business speak for stern conversation about what you’ve done wrong. I was pretty sure I knew what was coming, so I just sat back with the relaxed smile of someone who’s just spent six months doing just exactly what she wants and watched her try to squirm her criticism out in a polite way. Too bad politeness so often gets in the way of honesty.
“Well, it’s about dress code,” she finally said, choosing her words slowly and running a finger across the edge of the plastic-gray table. “I’ve been cracking down on people about dress code lately.”
Uh-huh. Cracking down on “people.” Ladies and gentleman, I would like to introduce our new prototype. So polite! So kind! So diplomatic! An expert at talking around blame and unpleasantness! Some may call her an artificial coward but we call it state-of-the-art anti-unpleasantness. We’ve dubbed her the Modern Boss. Don’t wait! Place your orders today!
I personally would prefer conversations like this to be loud and honest. Maybe some yelling followed by a gladiator-style battle where we could bash our frustration and aggression out on each other with foam bats and go home friends. At least then we’d all know where we stood. Directness, after all, might lead to negative feelings and decreased productivity. It’s not personal. It’s never personal. It’s just business.
“You sometimes wore,” she went on, drawing out the “o” to buy time to search the database for more neutrally negative adjectives, “combinations that I was a little uncomfortable with.” Translation: You dress like a slob. There are sometimes holes in your pants. You don’t iron. I almost laughed. This had been coming for a long time. The only real surprise was that it had taken her so long to get around to it.
“You don’t have to wear a suit or anything,” she rushed on. “Just business casual. What you have on today is fine. You really don’t have to wear a suit, just because I do. I mean, I personally love suits.”
“Really?” I was incredulous. There can’t really be people who love suits, can there? Oh what people will do for fashion. Including looking like idiots, hookers, and penguins.
“Yeah. I really love them. And besides, I never know when I’ll have to meet a client.” I have never been good at determining when English people are being sincere and when they’re being ironic. Apparently I didn’t watch enough Monty Python as a kid. But doubt aside, I’m fairly sure I’ve never witnessed an authentic moment with this woman. Usually we exchange the banal forced small talk of office inmates and go our separate ways. Could this really be an authentic endorsement of the business suit? I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. She did, after all, meet her husband in church, and I have trouble taking people seriously who believe that a thousands-of-years-old slavery-endorsing pseudo-hippy is going to come back in a ball of fire and brimstone and lead us all to the promised land. I apologize to any Christians reading this. It’s just that we’re from different planets.
The worst of the criticism over, she went on in an attempt to lighten the mood. “Oh god,” she laughed. Her blue pants suit couldn’t manage a laugh and just hung sternly at her side. “I still remember that day you came in with the bruise on your neck from that chain you used wear. Oh my.” She shook her head in bewilderment at the memory.
The previous year I had almost always had the chain on. It was a heavy thick-linked number, fastened at the back with a safety pin. One day I had come into work and Former Boss had passed by with her usual pre-recorded pleasantries. But this time as her eyes wandered to my neck, a look of horror had spread across her face. “Nikki! Oh my god! You have a terrible bruise on your neck! What is that from? Oh my god, it’s from that chain! You shouldn’t sleep in that thing! You could suffocate!” Uh-huh. Suffocation. Neck bruise. Right.
Ever since she’s brought up the subject once every few months, as if she still can’t shake her horror at the thought. I nod and chuckle, wondering if she secretly thinks that bruise is part of some kinky asphixiation fetish.
I’ve never had the heart to tell her it was just dirt.