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.