Grumpy Secretaries

Why are secretaries so grumpy? As a former secretary, I know the job isn’t glamorous or ultra rewarding, but part of the job is to be welcoming and perky, so why are so many secretaries failing at this?  I know why my previous secretary job inspired grumpiness (his name was BOSS), but I didn’t let that get in the way of helping people who came to my desk.

Photo by Evan Bench, Nice Reception people at DICE in Stockholm, from Wikimedia Commons

Okay, that’s a lie.  I was grumpy, too, but only to certain people.  There was the older guy with wild blue eyes and a drooling smile.  He delivered the big packages from the mail room.  He’d use this as an excuse to come around my desk and get close.  I was grumpy to him.  After I complained about his invasion of my personal space, he eventually stopped coming.  No, he wasn’t fired, but should have been, in my opinion.  The mail room started sending somebody else to deliver the packages.

There was also the guy who did get fired for this sort of behavior.  I worked one summer as a temporary receptionist while my husband had an internship in San Francisco.  I loved the people I worked with.  They were upbeat, kind, and welcoming, and the men were fatherly.  However, this guy, a young jerk, began coming around my desk and touching me!  Yes, touching me.  Once, I was hunched over some project on my desk, and he leaned over the high counter in front and stroked my hair.  Yuck!  This all happened AFTER he had asked me out and I had made it clear that I was not interested and that I was unavailable.  I had just gotten married, for Pete’s sake.

I also frequently had to deal with copy machine problems.  Usually, the paper would get jammed or the staples would run out.  Occasionally, I had to change the toner cartridge.  Once, said cartridge exploded.  On me.  On my beautiful clothing.  On the machine.  On the carpet.  It was quite the mess.  I was grumpy that day.

I also lost interest in being bright and happy on days when my boss would yell at me.  I don’t like to be yelled at, and my reaction to it is to cry.  I usually did this in the bathroom.  I had to, for he had made it clear that crying was unprofessional.  I agree.  But it’s hard not to when you do your very best and still get reprimanded.  I felt that I worked hard, performed efficiently, and rarely made mistakes.  Yet those few times I did mess up, I got the authoritative talk.  That made me grumpy.

There’s also the situations in which a receptionist gets torn between two tasks.  I had been warned to never leave the phones, yet another employee, a senior employee, asked me to copy some blueprints for him.  I knew that I couldn’t leave the phone, but was I supposed to say “no” to this urgent request?  I got reprimanded for choosing to help somebody.  I felt helpless that day, and grumpy.

Those are the reasons I got grumpy as a secretary.  However, I am unsure why the next two secretaries I will tell you about are grumpy.

I encountered the first one when I entered her reception office smiling and in need of assistance.  I can’t remember what I needed, but I am pretty sure it had to do with my school-aged daughter.  I stood at the desk, patiently waiting, while this secretary just ignored me.  He eyes were glued to the computer, and perhaps what was happening there was important, but surely she could have acknowledged me and said something like, “I’ll be with you in just a moment.”  No.  Then, when she did speak to me, she did not look at me, smile, or make any sort of effort to pretend that I was a human being.  At the end of our exchange, I brightly thanked her.  She grunted and ignored me again.  Hmmph!

Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

My frustration over grumpy secretaries recently came to a head.  I spent each morning last semester entering a low-traffic area to make copies for my classes.  The machine stood behind the secretary’s desk, and she was always helpful, but not talkative or open.  She never smiled, and would not acknowledge me unless I spoke to her first.  I began to feel invisible as I walked by each morning, and I stopped saying hello to her.  I had given up.  If she wanted to be grumpy, let her!

Well, a few weeks ago, I went to make some copies for my upcoming summer class.  I took my two-year-old with me and worried that we would annoy this secretary.  To my surprise, as soon as we walked in, she smiled.  I explained to her that I had a lot of copies to make and apologized for the presence of my little rascal.  She assured me it was no problem and began playing with my daughter!  She gave her candy, played peek-a-boo, and kept reassuring me that her presence was no bother.  I was flabbergasted.

As we left, I made a remark about how I had hopefully made all of my copies for the semester.  I told her how I was teaching a night class and that I wouldn’t have time to come in beforehand to make copies.  It was then that she offered her email address and told me to email anything to her that I had forgotten.  She would make the copies and put them in my box.

I realized that I had been misjudged, something I am guilty of all the time.  And perhaps I had misjudged her, too.  I think she had assumed I was a young, annoying, brisk, uppity woman who taught classes and felt myself better than her, although I clearly had less experience.  I am mistaken for being very young all the time.  It is a curse that will hopefully be a blessing someday.  When I am with the teenage girls in my neighborhood for church activities, I am constantly mistaken for one of them, even by people who are younger than me.

However, I think that by bringing in my toddler with me, this secretary realized that I was older than she thought and that we had some common ground.  She told me of her granddaughter who is the same age.  Being a mother gave me some clout with her, and I am glad for that.  I am ecstatic to have found that there is a person past the grumpiness.

And maybe that’s my mistake:  not seeing the person behind the frown.  We all have bad days, and we should all try harder to make other people’s days better.  The next time I encounter a grumpy secretary, I will remember how I feel when I’m misjudged and try a little harder to swallow my pride, to forget about taking offense, and to try to make someone’s day brighter.  I need to stop misjudging these grumpy secretaries and start seeing them as people to be loved.  After all, I know exactly what it’s like to be sitting in that chair.