In Praise of No Praise

Office in a Small City, 1953 Edward Hopper, Oil on Canvas

Sometimes I hate emailing my boss because his replies, if any at all, are terse almost to the point of being cruel to someone like me, who writes almost as much as she talks. He writes, “Do this.” “Do that.” and, when he gets angry, he’ll attach an exclamation mark at the end. “Next time, don’t cc everyone!” or “The van is really dirty!” Yet in person, he is quite affable, and I like to think we have a good relationship. 

I arranged a Korean driver to pick him up from LAX this morning, on his return from Korea (we deal often with Koreans here. Sharp dressers, the lot of them, but on casual Fridays I mistake them all for homosexuals). When his plane landed, he wrote an email every few minutes:

“Tell the driver to meet me in ten.”

“No, wait, the plane is too large, can’t park yet. Tell the driver to meet me in twenty.”

Then, “Ten.”

I called the driver who said, “Tell your boss to call me when he is walking out. I’ll be at the curb within 5 minutes.” I did so and my boss replied, “Next time, follow my instructions! I hate waiting.”

I hesitated. Little barbed emails like this imply that I did something wrong and as a result, widen the crack I had put in our relationship in the first few weeks, when I made dozens of dumb mistakes (misspelled things in his calendar, double booked him for events in two different states, dispersed his personal information to strangers via email). But today, I felt I had followed his instructions to a T. What other people do or don’t do, I could not control.

I began to write back, “Uh…How did I not follow your instructions?” But thought better of it. I thought about how a young, emotionally intelligent Oprah or Dale Carnegie might ask the same question and rephrased it: “Okay, how could I have done things differently?”

He waited a few minutes before replying – and in these few minutes, I imagined him seething. “Goddamn this cheeky bitch. I’m firing her first thing tomorrow. She should know what she did wrong.”

But instead he took the time to type out one of the longer messages he’s ever sent me, explaining that I should trust his timing, that he was never wrong – ten minutes meant ten minutes – and that if I had communicated this to the driver, he would not have had to circle around LAX and my boss would not have had to stand on the curb for longer than 2 minutes. I said, “Thank you for clarifying.”

The funny thing is, all my past jobs (the ones that made it onto my resume anyway)required me to be detail oriented . I mostly wrote and edited stuff and caught plenty of mistakes made by other, less competent people – but now I’m working for a guy who moved to the states when he was a teenager, and, despite his own emails to me being filled with spelling and grammar bombs, still has the eagle eye to catch my spelling errors. It’s not his job to be accurate, it’s mine.

I wish I wasn’t so touchy about things like this; that I had the ability to let these little reprimands roll of my back, because honestly, I know how much is and isn’t in my control. But only shitty (and probably fat) assistants think like that.

I am not bragging, just exposing how inadequate my past work experience was, when I say that before I took this job, I had never been reprimanded at work. Either all my past bosses had extremely low standards for interns, or they couldn’t bring themselves to criticize free labor. But it was always, “Wow, you work really fast!” Or, “Wow, this is great!” “Wow! You wrote all that in ten minutes?” “Wow” is not in my current boss’ vocabulary. He does write “Great!” from time to time, but only in emails I’m cc’d on. Which makes me think: how much is praise worth, really?

If you live off compliments, you could starve to death being in my position now. I did live on compliments before – and before that, I lived off of A’s and my professor’s comments, which I hoped would reflect his feelings for me, but really only confirmed his opinion that I was a less than mediocre student of Slavic Literature (“Your writing is eloquent, Betty, but I still don’t really understand your point…”) The point was, there was no point. At least not the right point. I didn’t write the paper to better understand Chekhov – (I think I understand him just fine, even though I’ve only read that one story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog.”, I crafted the paper to get a reaction from my professor in a terribly misguided attempt at mixing academia with seduction. In the end, my thesis crumbled without ever having been built, my professor remained utterly uninterested and I got an A minus, a grade doled out from my professor’s pity, or perhaps his sheer discomfort from my haunting his office hours. (“If I give her an A, will she leave?”)

How is this all related? My point is that at my job now, I’m learning that I can’t work for compliments or praise because I already know it’s not coming, at least not from whom it matters most. It’s clicheed, but starting to make sense: the people who are happiest doing what they’re doing do it well and they like what they’re doing. That was one of the worst sentences ever written, but it is also true.

Aside from the fact that I’m writing this at work, I like my job, can’t really say I’m working for the money (because there isn’t much of it), and look forward to the challenges of the holiday season, of the new year, and whatever else awaits beyond. My boss doesn’t need to praise me – in fact, I’ll go so far as to say he needs to criticize me so that I may improve – (but not so much that he wears me down and drives me out, though as I said, he is affable. At the very least HE won’t be the person who fires me). Far from my calling, I have found something quite different: a break (not a mere pause, but a real, clean break) from praise; and in it, a different sort of work for my self.

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