Saturday is National Coffee Day, or so I’ve heard

Roasted coffee beans Español: Granos de café t...

Roasted coffee beans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it comes to coffee, I reckon there are three types of people. Did you catch that? Less than a year in the South, and I’m already using words like reckon.

First, there are those who do not drink coffee. Whether they were born that way or they deliberately refrain, I do not judge. I only feel a deep sorrow for that mug-shaped whole in their life.

In equally depressing news, there is a second group of people, those who only drink coffee when it is convenient. Their first cup of coffee each day is that dark liquid found at the office. Anyone who really loves coffee can never consider that generic brown liquid that sits on the burner too long a treat.  Especially if she enjoys cream, because there is no half and half at the office. There is only a powdered chemical labeled non-dairy creamer, probably meant to be saved for an apocalypse, not for peacetime use when there are still cows living and breathing.  Every day, though, I behold  people shuffling into the office like zombies, moaning, “I need coffee.” Don’t these coffee users know they can brew yummy coffee in their very own homes?

I’ve heard the most preposterous explanations. “Well, my husband doesn’t drink coffee, so it doesn’t make sense for me to have a coffee maker in the house.” I imagine their husbands don’t wear lipstick, either, but women regularly rationalize its purchase in a variety of shades. “I just don’t have time. I like to sleep until the last minute.” There you have it, proof that these people simply do not cherish coffee the way it deserves to be loved and cherished. We make time for the things we love. That’s why we don’t tell our family and friends, “Sorry, I don’t have time for you people, and besides, there are plenty of people at work with whom I can interact. It’s just more practical.” Office coffee is no substitute for real coffee, delicacy that it is.

By now, I’m sure you realize I fall into the third category. When I awake, I savor the anticipation of that simple luxury. My morning celebration for having gotten out of bed consists of two cups of coffee, each with a healthy shot of half and half. Sure, I could sleep an extra half hour by quitting this morning ritual. I could also give up scratching my cats’ ears, reading mystery novels and going for walks. I’d save a lot of time, but why? I work hard, and I think I deserve those small moments of pure indulgence. I don’t just drink coffee. I have a love affair with it. True coffee lovers don’t care if there is coffee at the office. Neither do those who don’t drink it. And yet, the zombies must be appeased. I can’t afford to have them eat my brain.

A Little Culture Never Hurt Anyone

English: The original Piggly Wiggly Store, Mem...

The original Piggly Wiggly Store, Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we prepared for our move from the Midwest to the South, my husband warned me I was about to experience culture shock. Things would be different in Southeast Tennessee, he surmised, and it could be difficult for me to adapt. I wasn’t worried, though, because I am no stranger to new cultures. Everywhere I’ve worked has had its own.

Some companies have carefully chosen the official cultures they strive to maintain and have gone so far as to publish them along with their values, on corporate websites. Working at such a company, it is common to hear people discussing whether a particular behavior fits the company culture, because if not, the behavior must change.

In my experience, workplace cultures are less deliberate. They’re complex. They’re about inexplicable rhythms and attitudes, and trying to rationalize them is like trying to explain why the line at the grocery store moves slower in the South than in the Midwest and I’m the only one who seems impatient. As far as I can tell, most work cultures seem to form organically through some combination of the nature of the industries themselves, the employees, management and the environment.  These cultures may not have official labels, but workers know them and the roles they play in them.

In a culture where upper management constantly changes the rules, you will find employees who feign compliance, knowing that in a week or two, policy will change again.  In a culture where any of the people with whom you eat lunch could be fired tomorrow without warning, you will find nervous employees on edge, fearing for their jobs in a culture of mistrust and fear. There are cultures in which people hope to stay under the radar and just survive, and there are cultures where managers work with their associates on ways to grow. There are cultures in which a death in the family is an an offense that requires an obituary as proof that you were not playing hooky, and there are cultures in which your coworkers sign a card, and the company sends flowers and encourages you to take all the time you need. You’ll find cultures where creativity and a sense of humor are encouraged, and cultures where signs of these traits are repressed. Cultures in which swearing is common, cultures where it is simply unacceptable. You’ve seen it yourself, I’m sure.

That’s the thing about going to work somewhere new. It’s more than the salary, the health insurance or even your actual job description. There are times when you love the work you do but can’t stand to go to the office. You loathe the culture.  Many of us, concerned about our long-term careers, feel we can only accept positions “worthy” of our professional status. We feel it is somehow wrong to take a job that might appear on paper to be a step down because it does not have the right designations in the title. If you’re going to spend 40 or 50 hours somewhere each week, though, you might want to consider the culture.

I’m not saying any culture is going to be a perfect fit. You may have days when you arrive at the office, ready to roll up your sleeves and accomplish something big, only to realize your supervisor has overslept again and everyone else is looking at pictures of someone’s cousin’s baby and discussing a neighbor’s stepson’s ex-wife’s botched liposuction. You may wonder why you even bother. You may feel like quitting. Or you may consider some of the alternative cultures out there, and embrace this particular one before you get a reputation for being a stick in the mud.

Parlez-vous Ball Bearings?

Champs-Élysées in the rain

Champs-Élysées in the rain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve never been to Paris, and since I neither play the lottery nor compete on Wheel of Fortune, I don’t suppose I’ll be strolling along the Champs-Élysées anytime soon. It’s probably for the best, because given the amount of difficulty I have speaking with strangers in my native tongue, the disasters that would ensue in French would be tragic. All my knowledge, my education, all my past experiences, would mean nothing without the ability to converse with even a child. People would likely find me stupid.

What I have done on one more than one occasion is accept a new job title in an unfamiliar industry. In a way, it’s like being in a land where you don’t speak the language.  As a reporter, I was articulate in APA format, column inches and the inverted pyramid.  As an insurance underwriter, I spoke deductibles, replacement costs and dec pages. As a student advisor at a university, I was fluent in transcripts, accreditation and matriculations.

When I learned that we would be moving to a new city, I polished my resume and applied for employment at every college,  university  or trade school I could find. When moving day arrived with no job offer, I applied for an entry-level position in the accounting department of a company that distributes bearings, power transmission supplies, electrical components and automation control devices. They hired me immediately, and I was scared. I didn’t speak bearings, pillow blocks or cam followers, nor did I speak the language of accounting. I’m not even that fond of numbers, but I was eager for work and a new challenge.

Without so much as a pocket dictionary of terms, I arrived at my new job the next morning and evaluated my situation. My journalism training would be useless. My understanding of insurance policies, moot.  My experience helping college students select the right courses, irrelevant. What mattered now was learning the language, because just as it wouldn’t occur to a Parisian to explain to me how a pomme  and a pomme de terre are very different foods, a seasoned employee does not realize she must tell the new girl the difference between an order and a purchase order.  I felt lost and stupid.

“Fake it ’til you make it,” I remember a fellow newbie telling me when we were in training at the insurance company.  I still rely on this wisdom, nodding with what I hope is a believable look of  comprehension while internally processing my new vocabulary.  I just might make it.