Offending the Russians
September 24, 2012
It was my first job in New York. I was working for a dreary corporation in the Financial District run by a hierarchy of incompetents who meandered through middle management like driftwood, their woeful ineptitude rotting the business. I watched with detached incredulity as the managers (a superfluous title) bluffed their way through client meetings with responses that were raw, a mere string of words that lacked conviction. They had a suicidal habit of over-promising and failing to deliver, a morbid cycle that repeated itself with depressing regularity, paving the way for panic, tantrums, tears and meltdowns, which all made frequent guest appearances in our office.
The pace of work was erratic, sometimes dawdling, often frenetic, and the turnover of clients and staff alike was high. The hierarchical chaos wore me down. Each day was an endurance test. The good news? I wasn’t alone. Unhappiness was ubiquitous. In the lobby, the elevators, the corridors, the meeting rooms. It brewed like cheap coffee until a visible, tangible wretchedness hung in the air. It was contagious, spreading from cubicle to cubicle. Ah yes, the cubicles! They stretched before the eye, row after row like a prison sentence.
Most people working there had a wearied expression of corporate defeat tattooed to their faces, and their wistful glances outside the windows gave them away. My boss was the exception. A short Jewish man in his forties with dark hair miraculously free of gray, he reminded me of a Raymond Chandler line: He was a small man, not more than five feet three and would hardly weigh as much as a butcher’s thumb. Indeed he was tiny, but there was a lot of punch to him. His enthusiasm was limitless. His speeches were loaded with clichéd, textbook anecdotes designed to boost troop morale.
“When I was sixteen, I was tasked with painting a house and I was lousy at painting!” He told me during a performance review. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I needed guidance. I should have asked questions. Sometimes you need guidance and you should ask questions.”
He kept on with this tired analogy. He talked about dripping paint and a slow but sure learning process. It was patronizing, but I smiled with saccharine sweetness. We hadn’t reached the matter of pay and I was still clutching onto the vain hope that however incremental my raise was it would please, please outweigh rent inflation. It didn’t.
He was ruthlessly committed to the corporate cause and happily sacrificed social plans for the client. “We’ll get that to you first thing tomorrow,” he would tell them at 6pm on a Thursday, one short sentence that fed my evening plans to the gas chamber.
Instead of toiling away quickly and efficiently, my boss preferred a leisurely pace of work. While I lamented the happy hour I was missing he would gleefully begin his stand-up routine, bellowing and laughing about what a ker-razy client we had. There was no sense of urgency which infuriated me. He would crack jokes, suggest a food break, joke some more, edit the document and finally approve our work at a cool midnight. He was encouraged by his sidekick, a woman from Ohio with an unusually large forehead that was difficult not to stare at. She wore baggy sweaters that swamped her frame and looked out of place without leg-warmers and crimped hair. She spoke in a sing-songy voice and laughed with loyal fervor at his jokes.
I kept my distance from her and befriended like-minded colleagues, those who raised their eyebrows cynically in meetings. We gave our colleagues secret derogatory aliases, like Check, whose chin and neck had morphed into a fascinating, undefined blob. Check was deadly, lurking in the kitchen threatening to suck innocent bystanders into a conversation as bland and tepid as the caffeine in our dormant cups. There were others: Harvard, who constantly referred to his alma mater, and Bug Eyes. We skipped out of work on Fridays like giddy children encountering snowfall for the first time. On Sunday afternoons dread began to rise like damp, so we drank ourselves stupid, hoping to dull the pain of a Monday morning that was fast approaching and, when it finally did, we congregated by the coffee filter with the slowness of aging grandparents and the joviality of a funeral parlor. But one by one my friends left, like an Agatha Christie plot. I was on a restrictive visa, ineluctably tied to the company. Reluctantly I stayed and listened to my boss’ tired anecdotes.
One time he was telling us about a colleague, a half-Russian girl, who had recently been forced to work the entire Thanksgiving weekend.
“Her parents must think this company is crazy! Not that it matters,” he quipped. “The Russians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving!”
It wasn’t funny, but he was laughing. There were a few forced titters from the cubicles and a chainsaw-ripping guffaw from his sycophantic, baggy sweaters sidekick. I sighed. He was like a goofy parent, cracking bad jokes and prodding us to laugh. I emailed the girl opposite me.
I hate these awkward jokes.
That’s all I wrote. I hit send. Within three seconds I realized what I had done. It was an egregious error, a terrifically bad oversight. I gulped. My hands started to shake. I looked over. He was talking to his second-in-command, blissfully unaware of the insult awaiting him in his inbox. I needed to delete it but he would see me if I slipped into his office. I peered over the cubicle partition, where my intended recipient was sitting.
“What?” she asked. I forwarded her the email. “Oh god,” she gasped.
“Do something!” I pleaded. “Distract him.”
She ran over and asked him questions, but he remained rooted in the same position with a perfect view to his office. I couldn’t walk in and delete the email. I felt emasculated, utterly futile, acutely aware of a creeping sense of abject misery. My next instinct was to hide. I bolted to the other side of the office and yelped at a friend.
“Oh this is easy,” he said. “We’ll pretend you forgot to include a link to an awkward joke.”
“But I never email him jokes,” I wailed. “And why would I send him an awkward joke?”
“It’s your only option. Let me find a link. ”
I walked back to my desk full of despair. I couldn’t recover from this. I would be sent back to England. Waiting in my inbox was a reply from my boss.
The double exclamation mark was brutal. I stared at the words, contemplating what to do. It was too late for apologies. Besides, what would I say: sorry for writing a nasty email and being stupid enough to send it to you? I did nothing. I hoped this would be one of those incidents we never acknowledged, like when a colleague gets hideously drunk at the holiday party, or says a compliment that sounds creepy. I hit delete.
Forty minutes later he walked to my cubicle. I didn’t realize at first. He had a habit of creeping up on people. It must have been his slight frame, or perhaps he wore soft sole shoes, but I was ignorant of his presence until he said my name. I swung round to face him. I was sitting and he was standing which placed him at a better vantage point than usual, but he looked self-conscious. I stayed silent, bracing myself for an ugly encounter.
“Hey,” he spoke in a quiet, low voice. He paused. ”So, umm, was there something about my jokes that offended you?”
I glanced at him, surprised. He looked timid and sheepish. Why was he… apologetic? It dawned on me. He had been expecting an apology. My resolute silence must have forced him reconsider to the situation until… he decided the email was intentional, a formal complaint about his bad jokes? I couldn’t believe my luck! There was only one way to play this.
“I didn’t appreciate it,” I said slowly, trying to look annoyed.
He shifted onto his other foot. He was on unfamiliar territory. “I’m sorry. What was it in particular that was offensive?”
Now that was the follow up question I had been praying he wouldn’t ask. I kept frowning as I desperately tried to remember the jokes, something about Russians not celebrating Thanksgiving.
“Well, if you must know. When you offend the Russians, you offend the English.”
I tried to look confident in this statement, even though every James Bond movie suggested otherwise. My grandmother is Russian, a tenuous link to the preposterous statement I had made. I was preparing to play that card if he asked follow up questions.
“If I offend the Russians I offend the English?” He paused to absorb this. “I guess the Americans offend everyone, right?” It was a joke. I laughed loudly. “Well, I didn’t mean to cause offense, I’m sorry.”
I watched as he walked away. Had he just apologized to me? Surely he would realize I couldn’t be offended by those jokes. I sent him a follow up email.
Sorry about earlier. I had a terrible Thanksgiving so I’m a little over-sensitive on the subject.
“That’s perfect!” My friend whooped. “It sounds like you’ve got family issues or your period or something. He can’t touch this.”
He didn’t reply. The poor guy was probably worried I would complain to HR. After that our dialogue was brief and perfunctory. He was more careful around me, less garrulous. I preferred this watered down version of him. In fact, I began to like him. He was harmless. Like the paint story, it was simply his way of highlighting my flaws in a kind manner that wouldn’t bruise my confidence.
In time I changed my visa to one that allowed me to move companies. With relief I could finally leave. He happened to be on vacation when I resigned. When we discussed my resignation he was wonderful, congratulating me on a great new opportunity. On my final day I said goodbye to everyone. I went to his office but he wasn’t there. I shrugged and walked to the elevators. Suddenly he appeared.
“You’re leaving?” he sounded offended.
I explained I couldn’t find him but it sounded lame, a cowardly move on my part. I should have tried harder to find him.
“Keep in touch,” he said. Then he did the unexpected. He smiled and leaned in for a hug. Logistically it didn’t work. I’m taller so I leaned down and reached around his small back, like a parent hugging a small child. “I’m sure you’ll be great,” he said, as though sensing I was nervous about my first day at a new school.
He was so nice, so gracious, so many things that I hadn’t been to him. I wanted to apologize for the email, for never caring, for rolling my eyes at his enthusiasm that I would never match, but I remained silent.
Hannah Sloane moved to New York four years ago from London. She has also been published in Defenestration, Monkeybicycle, Mr Beller’s Neighborhood, Nerve and Unreality House and she has upcoming pieces in Ascent Aspirations and The Big Jewel. She is currently editing her first novel. You can follow her @hansloane.