Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Role-Playing: Receptionist

I have been a receptionist since May 7, 2007. Prior to that my only real employment experience was work-study Office Assistant in my college dorm - basically just sorting mail and doing my homework (or reading trashy magazines. Don't judge me. There's no judgement here.)

My first reception gig was at a firm that, prior to May 7, 2007, did not have a receptionist for that department. Which meant there was no strict outline of what I should be doing, or much training beyond "here's how the phone works, here's how the mail works, call back if you have a question."

I had. NO IDEA. How to be a receptionist.

I had no script for how to answer the phone, nor any protocol in courtesy and manner of guest-management ("Do I offer them coffee?" "Do I call the assistant or the attorney?" "What's my boss's name again?"). And my one model, Jean - the main receptionist for the firm - was a snarky, bitter, gossipy woman who seemed to have it in for our department and for me in particular. [editor's note: fans of A Girl Named Zelda's writing may be familiar with this person as the notorious Jean from Upstairs, featured in A Girl Named Zelda's first play produced in NYC, This is Hell. We should disclose at this point that no names were changed to protect the innocent]

This woman was rude to guests, gave out incorrect information, called people to berate them for not answering their phones, and tattled whene'er she so pleased. I somehow sensed that this was not the proper behavior for someone in the service industry, and perhaps not a good role model for me to imitate if I wanted to retain my role as receptionist.

So. I made it up.

I've seen a lot of old black and white movies, and a lot of old TV shows. I know how receptionists act! They're unflappable, impassive, polite, but slightly lacking in a personality (unless it's a farce, in which case they're cartoons). They're efficient and reliable, they smile politely at your jokes, but they don't crack any of their own, or curse, unless they've known you at least six months (and sometimes not even then). They're reserved and professional. They can type really quickly. And they speak in hushed, dulcet, clear tones as they take your call. And they never complain.

They also always wear pencil skirts and hose with the seam running up the back leg, but um. No. That's not a good look on me.

How did I become a receptionist? I faked it. I played the part, like I was playing a role in a play or film. Until it became organic. Like any good actress playing a role, you want it to be organic so you stop thinking about it.

And in delicious circular snake-eating-its-head-ness, that first summer on the job, I wrote a play - entirely on the job, on a yellow legal pad - about a receptionist in Hell [see above editor's note]. She was unflappable, efficient, smiled politely, and spoke in dulcet tones - except when farce called for otherwise. In January of 2009 I played the part onstage.

Meta ain't got nothin' on me.

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