The time my manager jokingly called me a piece of shit in front of most of the office was a strange one. There I was — a lowly intern lost in the stream of life — taking the proverbial piss face-first while half-poised to say “Thank you! My pleasure! May I have some more, ma’am?” as long as it meant raising my prospects at future full-time employment by whatever measly percentage. See, when your main claim to your name consists of a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English and some spotty stints fetching coffee for executives at nonprofits, substitute teaching demon children at public schools, and hustling freelance work, emphasis on the free, you feel some pressure to say whatever you can to secure your path to a higher tax bracket. And since my mid-twenties, part-time, learning and minimum-wage-earning ass needed a big boy job stat, salvaging my dignity was low on the priority list.
Every so often a series of events will conspire to completely sour your day no matter how promising it began. Case in point: October 31, 2019. What was my hint that Halloween Twenty-Nineteen would be, to borrow a choice phrase from Ernest Hemingway, “bitched from the start?” Perhaps it was the fact that thirteen separate wildfires were simultaneously threatening to burn Southern California away on that day? Perhaps God died that morning when the roof collapsed at the local Good Shepherd Bible Church, the wooden pews charred to cinders in the conflagration that engulfed that humble house of worship. If not the de-roofing of God’s house, then surely it was the de-cabling of Spectrum’s internet lines due to the other fire raging through Compton that threw off the hum drum rhythm of the work week.
From an ABC 7 Eyewitness News report: “A two-alarm fire engulfed a church in Whittier on Thursday morning, prompting a massive response from firefighters.” Image Credit: Brandi Hitt (@ABC7Brandi), 31 October 2019, 6:49am, Tweet.
It was the latter development, after all, that caused our Spectrum Internet-dependent office to frantically pack up our outdated and darn near ancient Dell laptops and pistol over to a dank, dingy conference room in the basement of the large Whittier-area hospital for which we served up press release pitches, light-hearted healthy living blogs, and sugary sweet social media posts on the monthly, weekly, and daily. Of course, there would be very little pitching or blogging or social posting happening that day. Instead, my coworkers and I performed the kind of charades you would expect when an entire communications department attempts to access a nonprofit hospital’s subpar wifi from the same room.
Furiously clicking the track pad. “I’ve refreshed the page seven times now. Why can’t I get on?”
“Have you gotten on, yet? No, I haven’t either.”
Studying the laptop like the DaVinci cryptex. “It says I’m connected, but I can’t do anything.”
“What’s the wifi password, again?”
“Quiet down, I’m on the line with Spectrum. Fuck, never mind, I’m on hold.”
And so on ad nauseam and in various intonations of hopeless frustration. Under such circumstances, one might conceivably hesitate if granted a one-time-use power of resurrection and shown two video screens — one broadcasting the smoldering ruins of the late Good Shepard Bible Church and the other broadcasting the spayed cables that formerly pumped internet to Spectrum’s customers.
When you’re already living in Hell because the internet went caput, it’s possible you might hesitate if given the choice between restoring a 100-year old church and repairing Spectrum’s busted internet cables.
Even my basic social skills could read the room and see that tensions were running high. Maybe that’s why our digital content manager — let’s call her Carla Canary — called me a piece of shit. With the comedic timing of a young Joan Rivers, Carla Canary made it her mission to evacuate the room of nervous anxiety like Ellen Ripley blasting that bitch of a xenomorph queen out of the USS Sulaco’s airlock and into the cold vacuum of space. As for myself, I would play the role of Bishop, the android who gets tasked in the movie Aliens with doing all of the jobs deemed too dangerous for humans and is rewarded by being disembowled shortly before the credits roll. As an underpaid and overworked intern, I’ve never related more to a fictional robot who politely and earnestly reminds his meat sack supervisors that he is not just a synthetic labor resource, but an “artificial person.”
I imagine that if I pointed out my humanity to my employers, I would get the same reaction that Bishop is getting from Ellen Ripley in this scene.
Unfortunately, however, Carla Canary’s joke fell flat, at least in terms of laughs. The problem with telling a joke to your office pals in the conference room of a hospital about how the intern was once a little brown nugget that even fruit flies would pass up, but has since matured into a fully digested and anally expelled steamer that could make a skunk suck in its breath is that two floors above, some human resources person just choked on their sandwich as the words “verbal harassment” flashed menacingly across their mind. To be fair, it is a cheap laugh to call the intern a piece of shit; I could see it as a throwaway line on Workaholics or in some ribald comedy produced by Seth Rogen, and I would be sitting there on my couch or in the movie theatre chuckling right along. But as you’ll sometimes see at open mic night at your local comedy club, it’s all fun and games until the person with the mic sets his or her sights on you.
I’ll admit it — I was upset. Sure, I’m no stranger to being called a piece of shit; my own parents had leveled that accusation at me during my turbulent adolescent years, and one or two ex-girlfriends have probably called me worse things. But when a manager — not yours, per se, but one among a handful in your office — who you hardly know beyond the rote pleasantries of the daily work grind calls you a piece of shit, joking or not, it might force you to do some introspection. For example, am I, in fact, a piece of shit? How could Carla Canary know that about me? Maybe she knows more about me and my shittiness than I at first thought? Maybe she’s one of those mystic savants, maybe she possesses the power of clairvoyance. Assuming she is or does, then what skeletons does she know I keep in my closet? Did she look into my soul and see the time when I was in third grade and I lied to my mom about finishing my math homework so I could play video games early? Maybe she knows about the other time I unleashed a fart like Zeus’s thunderclap in my sixth grade English class during silent sustained reading and blamed it on the nerdy, quiet kid everyone picked on because I knew he wouldn’t have the guts to call me a liar. Maybe Carla Canary is simply an expert interpreter of character, a mentalist that would give Patrick Jane a run for his money, and can see right through me like French négligé.
To be fair, blaming your ass gas on an innocent bystander could be classified as shitty behavior.
What was on the surface an endearing tease about my professional growth during my internship transmogrified in the paranoid conspiracy theorist’s lair of my mind into a damning and not altogether untrue assault on my integrity. With a magician’s flourish, Carla Canary had strung together an incantation — abracadabra and a witch’s tit, “now you are a piece of shit” — that untethered me from top to bottom and left me as exposed to my coworkers as post-coitus Adam and Eve. So while I laughed off the joke with a playful, “Damn, that’s ice cold!” and proceeded to click back and forth between the same thread of Outlook emails with still no internet connection like a thunderstruck idiot, I quietly died an existential death that would make Sartre toss in his grave. And as I complained to my supervisor, who we shall name Trina Teller, shortly after about feeling disrespected and embarrassed at Carla Canary’s “inappropriate comment” and “unprofessionalism” while in the same breath making vague resolutions to whine to HR about it, I could not help feeling that maybe God survived the still-burning embers of what was left of Good Shepard Bible Church. If Carla Canary could take one look at me and determine that I was a piece of shit, what would God say in his all-knowing omniscience?
Trina Teller and I decided that moving forward, she would discuss the incident with the head honcho of our organization, El Jefe, and would update me the following week. I wish I could say I spent that weekend with nary a thought in my mind about Carla Canary, my shit-stained reputation, or Carla Canary’s stand-up material based on it. Instead, these three squatters took up residence in my mind palace, ate all the food, plugged up the toilets with their bountiful deposits, and stubbornly refused to vacate the premises. All I could think about was the awkward and uncomfortable scene of Carla Canary and I sitting on either side of a long conference table with an HR professional force-feeding her the apology she would parrot back to me like Michael Richards apologizing for dropping the N-word. I did not want this.
The hurt ego I had been nursing was now giving way to the creeping specter of guilt and a sneaking suspicion that I was being a humorless twit. I needed answers, I needed to poll the people for some feedback. Was I justified or was I overreacting? So after consulting my mother and my girlfriend on the matter and automatically sorting what they had to say in the “Personal Connection To Me So Probably Biased” bin, I resorted to the next best thing: posting to r/careeradvice on Reddit. The denizens of “the internet’s front page” had this to say:
u/North_South_Side: “This sounds to me like the boss thought it was witty in one instant, and probably regretted saying it in the next. Does this boss regularly make jokes similar to this? If so, it’s a problem. Be ready to shut it down the next time something like that is said. If not, then it was probably a ‘foot in mouth’ incident, and I wouldn’t be too concerned.”
u/espee101:“It’s just a dumb moment. Unless it’s a routine pattern, I wouldn’t report it. Reporting it to HR will make people treat you differently – in a bad way – like they’ll be much more guarded around you, and you’ll find yourself not invited to social things. Especially if the manager (who had the dumb moment) is typically widely liked by others.”
u/ChizunaTakashiro: “Unless she’s an unrepentant asshole there’s probably a part of her that’s mentally kicking herself right now. She had an idiot moment. Maybe discuss it with her in private?”
u/lordgaga_69: “im reading ‘piece of shit’ to mean your now a part of this org. and this org is shit. like a really really weird welcome aboard.”
u/de_murloc: “i think you are overreacting. i have bosses that would joke around and banter like this, and bosses who dont and i have more of a connection with ones that are not afraid to joke around a bit.if u still have a problem with it tho, talk to them in private.”
u/3_littleByrds: “I don’t really get the joke. I think she just had a momentary lapse in judgment and in trying to be funny, put her foot in her mouth. I would just disregard it. It’s not a pattern and when people run to HR for every little thing, it makes them seem like the problem (I know people in this forum Love to go to HR over everything but it really does make you look like the issue – – unless it’s something truly severe) Just move forward.”
u/paywallpiker: “Don’t rock the boat”
u/reddirtanddiamonds: “Let it go.”
u/legalesesiamese: “It’s just banter man. I don’t think she realized she was offending you to the point of writing paragraphs about it online.”
u/SR414: “Looks to me like you are being overly sensitive about someone making one comment that on paper is unprofessional, not being given any other context. It seems like you are looking for people to back you up before you go crying to HR. If I were in your position I would HTFU.”
u/pau13rown: “if it’s a joke then it’s a joke”
u/DistinctBook: “It’s fine”
u/alrashid2: “Tell him to come for a chat outside”
u/cheap_dates: “Toughen up cupcake. This is nothing. Unless you are ready to ‘return fire’, it’s not an issue. How to return fire? Overwhelmingly. Tell them directly to can the frat boy behavior. Get a lawyer to tell them to can the frat boy behavior. Quietly start looking for your next job.”
The internet strangers will at least tell me things like “toughen up cupcake.”
Have you ever fallen into a deep sleep and dreamt a dream in which you were the unimpeachable hero — maybe you were mowing down Nazis with a gatling gun to save a litter of kittens or maybe you revised and redeemed the entire last season of Game of Thrones and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for your service — but were summarily ripped from the warm womb of your revelry by some jerk with a bucket brim-full of ice water? I’ve been spared this specific trauma, but if anyone ever asks me, I will say I did have a similar experience the time an internet stranger admonished me to “toughen up cupcake.” The truth often hurts, and the situation I’ve described in the foregoing paragraphs is no exception. Though it necessitated seeking recourse to an online forum infamous for its vitriol, toxic fandom, and propensity for hive-minded antics, I came to the realization that I was being a pathetic, prissy prude.
In the end, there was no half-baked apology mediated by human resources. I emailed my supervisor and explained that I wanted to let the whole thing go. The hurt, embarrassment, and upset feelings that my fiery, albeit wounded ego stirred up had ossified, leaving only a handful of numb lessons in their place. The more I reflect on how being called a piece of shit as a joke in front of most of my coworkers made me feel, both then and there at the time of the shit calling and later on as I look back from the deceptive vantage of hindsight, the more of the lessons I’m able to apprehend. Perhaps one lesson is, as Ethan Hawke’s spiritually unmoored Reverend Ernst Toller learns in First Reformed, “The man who says nothing always seems more intelligent.” To be sure, I may wind up learning and relearning this lesson until the undertaker chucks me and my big mouth into our 6ft-deep plot of dirt with an epitaph etched into the headstone that reads, “Here lies the gum flapper. Couldn’t purse his pucker for more than thirty seconds or it would have killed him. Ergo, rest in peace.” But I’ll continue to give it the old college try to anyways.
I think another lesson I’ve gleaned from all of this melodrama is the importance of putting your ego in check. Words carry weight — they can help or harm. The reality is that unless humans evolve beyond the need for a linguistic tool to communicate with each other, misunderstandings and misuses of language will inexorably happen. On the one hand, it requires us to be more patient, honest, and tolerant in working towards an understanding of what we mean when we say the things we do. It also requires us to say what we mean and to take ownership over how what we say involves others in the saying and meaning of it. On the other hand, it’s probably too romantic to think the pace of the world will slow down enough for folks to come together in a sharing circle and hash out what was meant and what was felt when Person A said that Person B’s momma is so poor she thought contracting AIDS meant the government would give her food stamps and tax breaks. The world can be a harsh, inhospitable place to thin-skinned pollyannas, which is why its wise to reign in the ego. Whether you eliminate the ego entirely by walking the Middle Way straight to buddhist enlightenment or, like me, you undergo a lifetime of verbal abuse condensed into the span of twenty-five years such that your ego becomes encased in a calcified armor more impenetrable than adamantium (exception: being called a piece of shit by your manager), make it so that the only thing breaking your bones are sticks and stones.
To that end, was it inappropriate for my manager to call me a piece of shit in jest in front of most of our office? Arguably, yes. Was I upset by being called a piece of shit by my manager? Affirmative. Have I moved on and did the experience fuel me up to write almost 3,000 words about it? The proof is in the last dozen odd paragraphs. Do I still need a full-time job?
The truth hurts.