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Herding Words: The less-subtle art of giving a f*ck

by Wendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) Right now, it’s a shocking time for employment. If you’re lucky enough to have a job, you not only need to give some fucks about it but the right sort if you’re going to keep it.

At 46, I’m blissfully aware that I give progressively less-general ones with each passing decade. While this is a truly delightful place to find myself, it’s also interesting to note that it doesn’t apply to my work ethic. It used to, though, back in my reckless twenties, and it took another decade of embarrassing public lessons to unlearn those habits and make new ones.

The emotional bank account

You need to keep one. This is not a place to bank your resentments; it’s a place in your colleague’s mind where they owe you a solid.

We all keep an Emotional Bank Account of our colleagues’ various debits and credits. You build credit by going out of your way to be a mensch, keeping your mouth shut instead of throwing someone under a bus, having backs in the corporate jungle and resisting the urge to massage your ego in company. Account managers are particularly bad at keeping up their emotional bank accounts. Every time you diss a creative, you get a debit in their mind. This is why it’s not your work they happily do until 2am. And that’s just one example.

Keeping your emotional bank account stacked up with credits is the secret to negotiating the invisible undercurrents that exist in every corporation on Earth. This effect is amplified with work friends, so don’t be thinking you don’t need one because you’re buddies with your MD.

Definitely gossip

At some point, gossip became something only the wrong sort of people do, and we’re assured it’s absolutely guaranteed to get us into trouble. The people who say that are gossip amateurs. You need to know what’s going on. Most people don’t.

The secret to pouring the tea is to make sure you have a tight triangle of trust — no more than three people you can gossip with freely who won’t spill it. Choose people who’re where secrets go to die, and start slow. If they happen to be people with the inside line on management, you’re winning hard. Outside of the triangle, you make nothing but positive or neutral comments. Inside the triangle, you dish. I absolutely guarantee this will be 50 times more informative than your weekly one-on-one.

Gossip is also a striking bonus for your mental health because there’s nothing like a good information purge to galvanise your will to live. There might even be science behind that. I only have personal experience to go by.

That’s just my face

I was working for Y&R Gitam back in 2003 and wrestling an Absa concept to the ground with my partner. He was a patient fellow, with the mattress-like uber forbearance that makes an art director great. Our creative director was a taciturn man who’d lost all his fucks a long time ago. After nearly 70 scamps of various bombed concepts, he suddenly peered at me and asked, “Why are you looking at me like I’m a [severely rude word]?”

It was that exact moment when I realised I have an unfortunate resting face, on which every fleeting emotion (rage, in this case) is etched with perfect legibility. So, I got two of my friends to teach me poker. Nowadays, while I still look like a well-contained psychopath, nobody can tell what I’m thinking or feeling, and there’s a healthy element of fear as to what that might be.

If you want to survive in a world that is unflinchingly capitalist despite your best Facebook rants, you need to be in charge of your face. Bluffing is by far the most-significantly useful personal change you can make.

Go where no one has gone before

I called my father Spock. This is why.

My dad was a corporate heavyweight and spent a lot of time chairing meetings with other heavyweights. One of these was a large decision-makers meeting that included a strident younger man who decided that my father’s 45 years in marketing weren’t enough to understand the finer points of psychographic targeting. He proceeded to unpack this in various tones of condescension for about 10 minutes. Throughout this diatribe, my father sat calmly, faintly smiling, with his hands carefully steepled. He let the young man dig his hole with every sign of attentive listening. When he’d finally finished speaking, the whole table drew a collective breath and looked at Dad. My father smiled more broadly and simply said, “Fascinating.” And the meeting moved on.

Learning to say less, never lose your cool and resist putting anyone down is, without a doubt, a ninja skill.

~•~•~

Anyone may be on time, fill in their timesheets, lay down boundaries, learn to listen and dress for the job they want. That’s only the beginning. If you want to keep your job in a climate of cut-throat redundancy, you have to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. Play the game, or the game will play you.

See also

  • Columns | Herding Words – Wendy Shepherd

Wendy ShepherdWendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) is a pharma copywriter and true-crime fanatic. She contributes the regular MarkLives.com column, “Herding Words”, which takes a sometimes irreverent look at copywriting, adland and the human universe in general. Other BHAGS occupy the rest.

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