Imagine you’re an indoor cat. You know there’s a big world outside but you’re comfortable in your cosy little home. You know where everything is. You’ve been there twenty years. It’s easy, reassuring.
Now imagine venturing outside for the first time into an unfamiliar and scary world.
That’s what it felt like, moving from the UK public sector to the US private sector. I had to adjust to a very different work environment. Never mind the accents and the mystifying vocabulary (“the US curve has bull-flattened” and “countercyclical buffers will help” ooh thank fuck for that, I think), it’s the little things that have an impact. There’s no canteen, no swipe card to get into the office, no bomb curtains, no armed police outside. Colleagues take a full hour for lunch. We can leave the office at 5.30pm and have the entire weekend off. The phone doesn’t ring much. The e-mails dribble in sporadically, rather than the stampede I was used to. And having my own office freaked me out at first until I realised the enormity of the googling opportunities. But what bemuses me most is the American custom of being incredibly polite and excited! about doing absolutely anything!
My new colleagues reply to every e-mail with an exclamation mark. At first I thought they were taking the piss, but no. It’s like they’re injecting Red Bull at their desks and eating salad for lunch with a nice amphetamine-and-blue-cheese dressing.
Me: “Would you mind reviewing these letters for me?”
Colleague: “Got it!!”
Me: “Could you dig out that boring article?”
Colleague: “Right away!”
Me: “Here’s the reply from wotsisname”
Me: “Thanks so much for sorting that thing for me”
Colleague: “You’re welcome!”
Me: “Can you get me a pint of gin, a male escort called Tony and a bowling ball?”
Colleague: “Of course! My pleasure!”
It’s not e-mail, it’s e!-mail.
In spite of the obligatory rictus grin (I am being a little unfair – as I’ve said before, Americans are genuinely friendly), my colleagues do tend to take work all rather seriously. When I first started the job I asked someone “So, do you have any fun here?” He looked at me, puzzled, as if someone had let one off in the room. But things are changing. To liven things up a bit, I am teaching my colleagues to use a number of basic British idioms and phrases in their everyday parlance. It’s Pygmalion with an urban dictionary. The phrase ‘fuck that for a game of soldiers’ is proving popular. So in the spirit of transatlantic co-operation, I too am learning a whole range of new phrases (I just have to get them the right way round; I told a chap ‘your pleasure’ the other day, getting ‘you’re welcome’ and ‘my pleasure’ mixed up. He now gives me funny looks in the lift):
He threw me under the bus! Did he? Oh my goodness, I think that may be a felony. Actually it’s a phrase used when moaning about someone who has dumped you right in the shitter.
Ass-hat. As in “Man, he’s such an ass-hat”. Derogatory. I like it.
You’re just blowing smoke up my ass. Er, no I’m not. This is not physically possible. Don’t ask me how I know, but I know.
Am gonna choke his ass. Again, not physically possible in two respects. First, unless someone has a bottom the size of two small grapefruit, it’s going to be a challenge. Second, the act of choking is defined as preventing someone from breathing and whilst I’m no medical expert, I can be fairly sure that the ass does not include a windpipe. Goes without saying, though, that some people still manage to talk out of theirs but that’s the miracle of science for you.
Periwinkle lunchbox. Not actually a phrase in common usage but an unfortunate misunderstanding when I thought a colleague was daringly describing the size and shape of another colleague’s meat and two veg, when actually she was complimenting his tupperware. Periwinkle is a colour here. A shade of indigo.
It’s interesting just how much ass is involved in this mini-glossary. There’s clearly a lot of humour to be found in a pair of pants.
(An anagram of glossary, by the way, is ‘ass glory’).