Let’s Welcome the Newcomer

February 15th, 2013 by Michael White

An author reflects on a good-natured prank opening the door to workplace camaraderie.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Part One: Over the course of my father’s banking career, his company underwent three mergers that resulted in transfers to offices in three Midwest states. After that, he changed careers twice, first to public relations, then to disaster relief. Do you really think he doesn’t know what it feels like to be thrust into the role of the new guy? And as his sycophantic only son, who regards him an intrepid survivor of the same ilk as the founders of this great newbie nation of ours, don’t you think I might also know a thing or two about being the new guy?   

Part Two: By the time I graduated from high school, I’d attended six schools. As an adult I’ve taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) at seven schools in four countries. I’ve also moved to 11 apartments in the 14 years since I graduated from college, and I sure as heck didn’t bring all my friends, neighbors or point-of-reference landmarks with me every time. Conclusion: I know a thing or two about being the new guy.

Part Three: In my experience, when it comes to transitioning to new schools, neighborhoods and workplaces where people don’t even make an effort to welcome newbies, the world feels awfully cold, competitive and confusing (I call this “The Three C’s”). On the other hand, when people do make an effort to welcome newbies, the world feels quite cozy, cooperative and comprehensible (“The Other Three C’s”). But how can we motivate ourselves to help create environments for newbies less oriented toward “The Three C’s” than “The Other Three C’s”? Should we perhaps begin by recounting the true-life tale of an American boy’s first day on the job at a pizza shop during his studies abroad in Ireland?

Part Four: When I was studying abroad in Ireland, I took on a part-time job as a server at Gino’s, a pizza joint in the city center of Cork. I was hired just before the start of the Guinness Jazz Festival. Though my manager didn’t believe in hiring dishwashers – opting for his servers to take turns running wooden pizza platters through the machine whenever the clean platters ran low – he asked me to assume this role (given the major business he was expecting that weekend) with the understanding that I’d become a full-fledged server the following week. I accepted, but less than a half hour into my first shift this very same manager rushed into the kitchen, shouting for me to run to the pub across the street for a longstand, acting as though the world would end if I didn’t do it right away. I didn’t know what a longstand was. I figured that either we didn’t have them in the United States, or they were referred to by a different name. Before I could ask for an explanation, my manager was already hurrying away.   

I noticed no obvious emergency in the dining room, but did as I was told, heading across the street where it must’ve taken me 15 minutes to push my way through the packed crowd and up to the bar. After finally winning the attention of the bartender, I was informed that he’d loaned out his longstand the week before and hadn’t seen it since, and if he did get it back he certainly wouldn’t loan it to anyone in a kitchen apron splattered with water stains and pizza sauce. I left empty-handed. When I couldn’t find my manager right away, I headed straight back to the kitchen where the stacks of dirty platters had multiplied like fishes and loaves, piling up on every countertop.

“Where’s that longstand?” my manager stormed in to ask. I reported my failure, then out of curiosity asked him to describe what a longstand looked like. But he only threw his hands in the air, then barked the name of a second pub down the road where my luck didn’t improve, just like it didn’t improve at any of the other pubs he sent me to over the next hour of awkward encounters with bartenders who either didn’t know what a longstand was (and couldn’t understand why I didn’t either), or else claimed to be too busy to retrieve one, too busy to call their bosses to ask permission, etc. Utterly letdown, especially now that his servers were stuck washing platters instead of tending to their hectic turnover of tables, my manager sent me on a final run to a well-known pub near campus, assuring me they’d have longstands to spare.   

“I’m from Gino’s and I’m here to borrow a longstand,” I shouted at the bartender, this time having elbowed my way through the crowd like someone owed me money. “Coming up!” the bartender shouted back, music to my ears. But then over the next 10 minutes he did nothing but continue to pour pints and pointedly avoid my aggravated gaze. 

“Longstand!” I finally cried, at which point he nodded, poured a few more pints, then leaned over the bar in front of me.   

“Is it your first night at Gino’s?” 

“Yes.”

“And was it a long enough stand for you?”

“Yes,” I said. “Oh . . . right . . . ha ha.”

I took my time walking back to Gino’s, aiming to appear as nonplussed as possible when I strolled inside.

“Was it a nice long stand?” my manager asked, slapping my back and bursting into cackles, as did the rest of the servers and cooks. For the next few hours, one by one they visited the kitchen to introduce themselves, help me catch up on the platters, ask me where I lived and what I was up to at the university, inviting me out with them later that night to further initiate me into the gang. “You did better than me, Yank!” one of the cooks professed. “When it was my turn, I came back with a coat rack!”   

Part Five: Though the prankish scenario just described may not prove an appropriate example for welcoming every new person in every situation, the good news is that the methods for making the new people in your life feel welcome are as limitless as your own capacity for creativity and kindness. 

Michael J. White’s work has appeared in Conjunctions, The New York Times Magazine and The Chicago Review. His first novel, “Weeping Underwater Looks A Lot Like Laughter”(Putnam), was nominated for the Barnes & Noble “Discovery Award” in 2010.