Every time I pee in a pub urinal and spot a wad of chewing gum stuck in the grate, I’m reminded of a small injustice I witnessed as an 18-year old working in a formal London surveyors’ office. One day such a wad appeared in the only urinal of the male toilets. No big deal, you may think. Except a very senior manager was outraged – appalled that visiting clients may witness such an oikish artefact and draw negative conclusions.
An investigation, of sorts, was held. I say of sorts because there was a recently-started junior that the senior manager had taken a dislike to, and the assumption quickly developed that he was the offender. Of course, nothing was openly stated. He wasn’t confronted. It was all in what wasn’t said: at least openly. Office-conversations became animated by the incident – though turned silent at his approach. People looked away, back to their desks (this was pre-PC, believe it or not). Or they changed the subject, or offered a too-cheery “hello” as the lad under suspicion passed by.
At this stage I should add that, no – for once – this wasn’t me. I was also a recent-starter, and bubbled with enthusiasm for my first job in London – finally out of the provinces to which my parents had erroneously consigned me prior to my birth. But that’s the point. It could’ve been me. I was a rough-diamond from Essex with an accent the posh-graduates in the office loved to mimic. I had the manners and posture of someone likely to spit chewing-gum into a urinal.
But the other lad – a genuine Londoner (rather than someone over-egging their Cockney creds, as I was) – was the one under suspicion. Why? Because his attitude was wrong. Both comprehensive lads with barely an O’level between us – both thrown into a smart West End surveyor’s office full of born-to-rule estate management types I’d never come across before – my enthusiasm endeared me to my betters, meaning they forgave my ignorant use of language and my propensity to stand with my hands in my pockets. Meanwhile, he knew all-too-well how much these Toffs hated him and his quiet, chippy, resentment was soon noticeable.
I was noisy, stupid and loveable. I quickly became a sort of office mascot – like a regimental goat, though one in a cheap suit and scuffed shoes. Sure, we’d both been taken on because we were capable of talking to the painters and decorators they employed, as well as the gas-fitters that were the tenants for their largest residential estate. But while I saw an opportunity, he bore a grudge. And was soon gone.
I stayed three years: travelling up and down the land, learning about life, love and London while gaining the A’levels that took me to university as a mature student. And it was only looking back that the belittling and snobbery I endured on a near-daily basis actually strikes home. Mostly, I remember being a popular – if uncouth – member of the team. I lived in Fulham for a bit and, some evenings, would hang out with the office Sloanes (as they were becoming known) in the White Horse, Parsons Green, and other long-gone hostelries along the New Kings Road. They saw me as a gobby curiosity – a genuine cheeky-chappy. It was a role I loved.
So what’s my point? That, quite by accident – and largely through ignorance – I had the right attitude, which stood me in great stead. I prospered and enjoyed my time, to the point that – when I left – they promised to interview me for a post-college job (though I rejected a surveying career soon after). Meanwhile the other lad – streetwise and insightful – lost out, though I’ve no doubt he found his thing eventually. It was an occasion when knowing too much – and over-analysing human interaction – was, in fact, harmful. Meanwhile being the simple, jolly, fool (within-limits) opened doors.
Of course, outsiders will recognise the role played by both him and I. Uncomfortable in our own shoes, we’re so often either the sullen blackcloud of the office or the workplace jester or fool. What we’re not is the future CEO: taken seriously, respected from the off, trusted and clubbable. Given this, we’re immediately handicapped – starting from an inferior position with the odds stacked against us.
So we have an uphill battle, for sure. But, for me, the lesson is clear: we may as well start the attack from a position of being liked – not least because it will undermine rather than reinforce the prejudice. It’s a lesson I had to learn several times (not always as the good guy).
Oh – the chewing gum: it soon became apparent that the workmen upstairs were using the male toilets on our floor, and their renovation project also entailed constant deliveries of building materials and equipment, some from miles beyond London and with big burly crews constantly pounding the stairs and filling the lift. But by then it was too late. The damage had been done, and my fellow (not so) cheeky-chappy had another, partly self-fulfilling, layer to his resentment.