I'm On a Boat
I'm a cliché. As an introvert, I generally prefer solitary activities over team oriented events. I groan when group projects are assigned. I keep thinking at some point in my life I'll just be left alone to do my work.
When I worked retail we were often required to participate in role-playing exercises to see how well we could sell. I hated role-playing because, as a training tool, it is completely artificial. How many people are going to perform in front of a group of co-workers and managers the way they are actually going to interact with a customer?
When I made the switch to working in an insurance office we heard less about role-playing and more about “ice breakers” and “team building” exercises. How many different variations did I play of children's board games made adult during these training sessions? Like the one where we were all given the name of a famous person. We, however, didn't know the name as it was sticky-noted to our back. We'd have to ask questions of the other participants (mutually bound in team building torture) until we could figure out who the post-it note said we were. Match me! Or how about competing to put a puzzle together without talking? Which team can do it faster? That one always made me think of Pictionary. Sounds like? Waste of time.
It wasn't like I didn't want to be around my co-workers. I liked most of them. We went to lunch together; I visited them on my way to and from places like the fax machine. I liked the fact that I could hang out with people across the generation divide because we shared the work experience. I really felt I had a good rapport with everyone I worked with until “The Boat Incident.”
When the boat incident occurred, our local HR person had driven in from a few hours away to present this scenario: You have a boat and you can only fit five people on it; here is a list of people who might be on your boat. I'm not sure why it was felt we needed the exercise. My guess is that we all, in some way, had issues with our immediate manager who was known to throw his pen down if you walked into his office, exasperated that you interrupted him. Why didn't he just close his door? I wish I had had a door on my cubicle. This manager also openly criticized any claim we had involving people he termed “Generation X.” I wonder if he realized that his two newest employees, including me, fit perfectly into Generation X.
The perky HR girl started listing people for the boat like the Pope (John Paul II at the time), Hilary Clinton (before she added senator to her resume) and Maya Angelou to name a few. I don't recall there being anyone listed who was under the age of 40 but I was getting used to the lack of interest the corporate world paid to younger generations. Although near the end of my insurance days, new focus groups began researching ways to target the youth market. Our managers always said our business was big like a boat, therefore, slow to change course.
Our office was part of a large corporation but the location we were in was small and rural. There were eleven regular employees in the office. Only three of us were under the age of 40 and only two of us were in our 20's and new to the office. Many of the employees had not only worked together already for decades but had even gone to high school together. There were other workers who came and went from the office but the group above was the core. We were a “team”, at least on paper. In reality we just tried to work under our manager's anger radar. When someone was on vacation or out with a sick child we were supposed to work the other person's files as if those files were our own. I tried my best to do so but, besides the other co-worker my age, the help was not reciprocated. I resented this, especially since the older employees had more vacation time than I did and were, therefore, out more. I think the older employees feared the very presence of the younger employees because they saw us as a threat to their future raises and promotions. They also, to be fair, had put in the years that garnered them extensive vacation time.
Five minutes into the boat exercise and our manager had already started ticking off people who should not be on the boat. There was no discussion as to the purpose of the boat and we were not given an opportunity to ask the HR person if there were any other guidelines we should be aware of, such as, whether or not her list contained the only people we could consider. It didn't take long before Hilary was out. The Pope and Billy Graham both needed to stay. The boat quickly became old, white and male with each crew member holding either a career in the church or the military. Not that I had anything against anyone who was being picked but it was all happening so fast and was only being discussed by our manager and one of the older male co-workers. The rest of just sat there. If we had been drawn by a cartoonist I think our lower lips would have been on the floor. I know at least one person, if not more, had a face that was starting to fill with red. Out of anger? Embarrassment?
I made the assumption that this exercise was one of those “end of the world scenarios” where you had to ask, “Who would you want to help take care of the new world?” I proposed, “What about someone like Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison who are also on the list. They are writers and teachers. I think we'll need teachers.” I was ready to hear the back lash. I, on a daily basis, heard from angry claimants who were often more concerned about their cars then their own health. I felt like I had developed a pretty thick skin, but I was flabbergasted by the reaction of the male co-worker who was in cahoots with our manager when he said, “Maya Angelou was a prostitute and a madam.”
I babbled something about, “Huh? We studied her in school. I know she was raped or molested but a prostitute? And…” I couldn't get anything else out. My mouth closed and my fellow Gen X co-worker was so red he reminded me of what Yosemite Sam looks like when he yells, “My biscuits are burning!” My fellow Gen X'er said, “I don't want to be on this boat.”
Not much was spoken after that. The boat was “settled” and it was still old, white and male although the secretaries bonded together enough to put Robert Redford on the boat. We left the room splintered into two groups: those who were offended and those who apparently thought diversity training was a burden rather than an important part of company policy. The offended group was much larger. The male co-worker who made the prostitute comment apologized to me later. I took his apology but I never looked at him the same again. I could still enjoy his company, on some level, but every time I saw him I'd remember that he contained such raw negativity. I don't have words to adequately describe how vehement he was against even considering someone like Maya Angelou for the boat. Was this a generational thing? Was he a racist? Is being “raised” to have racist views an excuse to still have them? Or, as I would come to learn, was it seated in one of his many conspiracy theories? We never heard anything else about the exercise although within a few weeks our manager resigned, saying he was starting a new career, but I can't help wondering if he was asked to quit.
I ran into that HR girl once later on away from my office. I won't repeat exactly what she said about that manager and the Maya hater because it would take this from PG to R, but it summed up what I would never have dared to say myself. I will say that this is what she thought of when the Maya hater spoke, a statement I wish she would have made or that I had thought of but I was paralyzed with anger and she was supposed to stay silent. She told me she had wanted to say, “Even if Maya was a prostitute, does that negate what she has given back now as an activist, writer and professor?” I bet HR girl was really happy when she had her baby and stayed home instead of having to attempt to construct teams out of the roadrunner and Wily Coyote. I know I was thrilled when I finally left that office for a more diverse urban office. I hate that my old office was such a cliché but I can't deny the ageism, racism and fear of change that were so present there. The experience of working there, however uncomfortable it may have been, was eye-opening. I learned to limit how much of my personal life I presented at work. I learned that even with education some people don't change. That doesn't mean we can't work with them or that we won't keep trying to build a bridge of understanding. It, however, is a lesson that we should all be more cautious about what we would say and do in mixed company.
I don't know that I'll ever forget “The Boat Incident” especially now that I every time I see one of the many “I'm on a Boat” T-shirts, the first thing I think of is being back in that too warm conference room. I came away from that room, that office, that life with a new metaphor. I can consider myself a white-collar fisherman. As an angler, I can steer around obstacles in the work place ocean and, once docked, I have one heck of tale to tell. Can't you just see me stretching out my arms as wide as possible while I say, “The tension was THIS BIG.”
words: Jessie Carty, North Carolina (homepage)
image: 'Wandering' - Claire Ibarra, Florida/Peru (homepage)
on another boat: Anchor Baby (#26)