Tales from the Workplace: On Being Wrong With Confidence

One of my many jobs when working for the Public Sector in Canada was, believe it or not, continuity announcer. This was at a historic military site which did twice daily shows of Victorian military drill or marching band music (alternating days). Those of us who didn’t do either, got to climb up a rickety ladder to an even ricketier crow’s nest with giant speakers, extract a binder of snappy descriptions of what the audience were seeing, and read those out over the microphone. If you were lucky, the drill sergeant would have told you the order of manoeuvres for the day. If you weren’t, s/he would just be randomising them, and you’d have to flip feverishly back and forth in the book for the descriptions, and hope you weren’t accidentally mistaking enfilading fire for form-fours.

Which is where I got a very useful piece of advice, from more senior people in the announcing trade: if you’re wrong, be wrong with confidence. Because you will make mistakes, or have to suddenly truncate a description, or have a page blow away in the wind, or similar, and the worst thing you can do is to stammer and stutter and sound like you don’t know what you’re doing. If you say it wrong, but with confidence, most of the audience don’t know there’s a screwup, and you can apologise to the ones that do later.

Fast forward twenty years, and it’s my first time reading out the names at Redbrick University’s graduation ceremony. I’m really, really worried about mispronouncing someone’s name, so I’ve been looking names up, asking colleagues who are native speakers of various languages how to pronounce things, and, in the final analysis, reminding graduating students that if they’re concerned about pronunciation, to please write a phonetic transcription on the little card that the attendant will pass to me with their name on.

The ceremony starts, and I’m reading off the names, and feeling more and more confident. I’m remembering pronunciations, and I’m helped by the fact that many of the students have written their names phonetically, and then I come to a card bearing the name: Jorje.

Which I know perfectly well is pronounced, to transcribe it for English speakers, “Horhey.”

And the student has helpfully written, above his name, “Horhey.”

But, unbelievably, and with confidence and gusto, I say:

“George.”

I looked for him after the ceremony to apologise profusely, but never found him. Jorje, if you ever read this, may I say that I am terribly, terribly sorry.

Homecoming week

One night in the summer of 1994, around 3 AM, I woke up to the sound of a key in the lock of the door of my room.

This was when I was working for a Public Sector Organisation. It was headquartered in a town that had a Budapest-like divide between the wealthier and poorer sections. My main concern at the time was rent, so naturally I was living in the latter. But I also wasn’t unaware of the risks that would come with that.

However, there was also a nursing college in that part of town. Which had a residence, and which also happily rented out rooms to non-nurses if they had some available. A friend who also worked for Public Sector Organisation had stayed there the previous summer, so it came recommended. It seemed like the perfect solution: community, solidarity in numbers, the presence of other people working in the Public Sector who were new in town. And a security guard on reception.

Who didn’t work nights.

So I sat up in bed saying something that probably sounded like “whazzafluck?” Heart pounding, trying to cope with the fact that, despite all my security precautions, someone, someone who was not authorised to do so, was not even breaking into my room, but was actually. Coming. In. With. A. Key.

The door swung open, to reveal, not burglars, rapists or emergency services personnel, but two girls in their late teens.

The first one looked me straight in the bleary eyes and said, cheerfully, “Oh, hello. I didn’t realised they’d rented the room out again. Mind if I show my friend around?”

And then, while I sat there in bed trying to figure it out, she literally gave her friend a tour. It wasn’t a big room, so the tour was along the lines of, “this is the bed, and this is the cupboard, and this is the bookshelf, and this is the window and this is the desk…”

She then smiled, said goodbye, and walked out, closing the door behind her.

The next day the security guard was very apologetic, swearing blind that he hadn’t know she’d kept a copy of the key (I believed him, but not so sure I believed the building manager’s similar denial), and agreeing both to move me to a different room as soon as possible, and to keep my laptop in the combination-locked secure room until that could happen (1990s laptops being expensive and huge).

The story, as much as I could tell, was that she was a local girl who had run away from a bad home situation and used the nursing residence as a sort of halfway stop between getting away from her family and actually getting out of town. She’d just moved out one day, presumably having found a way to do just that.

So that explained the surreal reunion tour. With a biography like that one, the desk, the cupboard, and the bookshelf– your own desk, cupboard and bookshelf– do rather become very significant things.

And if somebody who’d lived in my house back in the day came by and wanted to visit, I’d be happy to let them in to relive the old memories.

Not, however, normally at 3 AM!