Lunch. This morning I made the decision that today was the first day of the rest of my life and so instead of having Greggs for my lunch I have packed an elaborate meal of salmon and broccoli and wholewheat noodles. Because we only have half an hour and we are all the way up on the 11th floor we have to stay where we are or we won’t have time to eat. By now I am tired and a little grumpy and I wish today wasn’t the first day of the rest of my life because then I could have a steak bake and a fondant donut.
As I am the most popular people immediately flock towards my table where I am sitting, leaving the only other available table for the less popular people. I have been hoisted by own petard because though I crave solitude I now have to spend my half hour of lunch talking to everyone. When I open my lunchbox everyone makes impressed noises like, ‘Oooh’ and ‘Aaahh’ and I tell them what it is and how today is the first day of the rest of my life. I am glad they got to see that I am Eating Well because unless people actually see you eating this stuff you may as well not bother.
They ask about my book and I tell them about it. Irene – who does not need an assertiveness workshop and we don’t know why she is here – tells me if it isn’t any good in five pages she won’t even bother. Irene tells me I need to make it free to read on Kindle or she won’t bother reading it. I tell Irene that I am Poor and there will be no freebies until I can afford it. When everyone laughs I tell them, There will be no ‘lending’ or ‘borrowing’ of Red River until I am rich! And we all laugh again, except Irene who now has to find a new way to subtly undermine my achievement.
But I am tired and my food tastes horrible even though I’ve told them all how Really Nice it is. Luke is eating a Kit Kat and I want to slap it out of his hand and eat it from the floor. I am sick of talking about myself and so I ask everyone what books they like or what TV they enjoy but everyone is shy and says only the bare minimum. It turns out we have very little in common except for that we are all pushovers (not including Irene).
Luke talks about Game of Thrones and I make the obligatory joke that there are a lot of boobies in it and we all laugh until Irene says (quite inexplicably), I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT SEX SCENES IN GAME OF THRONES AND I AM LIKE NO, NO, IT IS A RAPE SCENE NOT A SEX SCENE.
We sit quietly until it is time to go back to the classroom.
Sunita separates us in to groups for more role playing. This time we are given a scenario and must act it out, taking it turns to be the one who needs to be more assertive. For our group we need to ask our boss for time off in lieu because they’ve made us come in over the weekend. It is my turn first and I am the employee and I am reasonable and assertive and do a good job. When I’ve finished someone gives me feedback and says, I just didn’t feel like you were invested enough. I nod and agree although feel this feedback is more about my acting skills than the content of my answer. Next, Luke is the employee and he goes from 0-100 and immediately starts threatening his boss with official complaints about his incompetency and selfishness. I say, Okay this was good but maybe you need to be a little less defensive? Luke agrees and has the look of someone dazed, as if he doesn’t know what came over himself. The woman who told me that I wasn’t invested enough praises his performance.
Finally, it is the turn of the quietest person I have ever met to be the mean boss and I think, Ugh this’ll be tough. But she surprises us all by suddenly becoming a total bitch and we all make noises like we are a Jerry Springer audience when she says things about being a team player and saying, Well you did ask me for more responsibility but now that you have it you’re asking for time off! It is a remarkable performance and when it’s over I tell her that she is a Secret Bitch and hides it well. We all clap.
The classroom is now hot and stuffy and there is a brief Palaver when we try to work out the air-conditioning and fail. A man from the office below is summoned to switch it on and then we all complain that it is too loud and the air is too cold. We are tired and don’t want to be here any more. Sunita asks two people she identified as the Best at the role playing exercise to show the class how it’s done. At first I think, Whatever, this will be totally boring. But it turns out they really are good at it and in turns I laugh and become angry and feel great pity for the one playing the employee. It is so good that it goes on for ages and we could all watch them for a long time but Sunita tells us we must get back to work.
I am given a piece of paper with a Feelings Wheel on it and we are asked to identify how we feel in the situations where we need to be more assertive. It feels like the kind of exercise they might give to children who have violent outbursts in classrooms. Nevertheless, I obediently write my situation down on my notepaper and consult my Feelings Wheel to choose my emotions when I’m in that situation (Anxious > Insecure). Then, we choose alternate feelings that we aspire to in that situation. I choose, Happy > Confident and we write down a way to get to those feelings by acting differently.
We are all desperate to leave and cannot remember what it felt like to have the wind in our hair and the rain on our skin. All we know is the whir and clunk of an aged air conditioner and the smell of Nescafe on each other’s breath. We have already played so many roles today that we have forgotten who we are and why we are here. Am I a mean boss or am I an overworked employee? Did I just dream that I was an author?
A girl next to me opens a can of Coke and I whisper, Where did you get that? Is there a vending machine? And she tells me, No I brought it with me. My heart sinks. I sip the lukewarm water from the broken water cooler and remind myself that we can finish at 4 because we only had a half hour lunch. At least, I think, the role playing is over with.
Sunita claps her hands together once, There is just ONE more exercise I want to do today, she says, and we all die a little inside. This time, we must be interviewers and interviewees. We must use a technique with the acronym SOAR(R) when we give our answers to the interview questions.
Exhausted, our group dutifully interviews one another and provides feedback. This group is lovely and we all lavish one another with praise even though by now none of us give a shit. But when someone finishes speaking we all say WOW! You are SO GOOD. I can’t believe how good that was! And it’s so sweet and kind that I am buoyed for a while by the generosity of human spirit we are all showing. However, we all decide we can’t be bothered when we have ten minutes left and instead we just sit there and talk about our jobs and how stupid job interviews are. Sunita comes in and expresses disappointment that we have given up on the task but I tell her, We are tired, We have pushed ourselves all day and now we have nothing left to give.
So she gathers everyone back to their desks and starts to round up the day. I am so excited to leave that I can barely understand what she’s saying. Only ten minutes left, only six minutes left, only four minutes left, only one minute left!! Okay, I think, we have overrun by two minutes now. Five minutes. Has she forgotten her promise? If we had a half hour lunch, she said, we could leave at four. But now it is twelve minutes past and we’re still here. Quarter past. Twenty past! By now I am apoplectic. I have not refreshed my email for several hours and this is something I like to do at least every 3 minutes if possible. I think of that blissful few seconds between refreshing and loading where there is a possibility of a new email with exciting news before the disappointment of seeing that there’s no email or only junk email and it is like actual drugs to me. I am jonesing for a refresh and Sunita has lied in order to con us out of half an hour of our precious lives and none of us are saying anything because we are all total pushovers and the whole day has been completely useless! Is this another one of her Derren Brown mind experiments or is she just pure evil?
Soon it is 16:34 and she is handing us more pieces of paper and everyone is shifting in their seats and when I am about to scream she finally says, Thanks everyone! Have a lovely evening and when you get a chance please fill out the online questionnaire that I’ve emailed to you all!
Chairs are pushed back and everyone crams their handouts in to bags and says goodbye even though we all get stuck in the lift together anyway and have to make small talk all the way down eleven floors. There is no signal and I cannot refresh my email. When I am finally outside I have to put up my umbrella because the drizzle is turning to heavy rain. We all say goodbye and I enjoy the fresh air, taking big gulps and remembering what it is like to be a real person again. I look at my phone: no new email. If I was to check my feelings on the Feelings Wheel I would say I was Happy > Cheerful.