Friday, 29 January 2010
In an era when written communication was king, it was all easier; "Yours faithfully" belonged with "Dear Sir / Madame" and "Yours sincerely" with "Mr. [Last name]". “Yours truly” and “Yours respectfully” did the job equally well. Ever since email took over as the dominant means of communication, however, things have not been as clear-cut.
My analysis of several hundreds of colleagues' emails has revealed some notable trends. The most popular – and neutral – sign-offs are the usual suspects of "Regards", "Thanks" and "Best", as well as their various permutations. The former is commonly replicated as "Kind regards" or "Best regards", depending on the degree of formality. "Thanks" can be elegantly extended into "Thank you". "Best" typically stands for "Best wishes", “Best of luck” or that good old "Best regards". All rather obvious and not really worth discussing.
Things got more interesting as I delved deeper into my email archives. The lower layer contained somewhat less pleasant variations of the three classic sign-offs above. Firstly, there was a clear tendency to abbreviate. Somehow "BR", "KR", "Rgds", "BW", "Yrs", "Tks" or even as little as "Tx" did not entertain – instead leaving an impression that the sender could not be bothered to strike a few more keys. "Yrs" got me thinking about "years" rather than anything else, while "BW" looked more like a colourless TV solution. Interestingly, albeit in no way less ugly than the two common shorties for "Thanks", "ThanQ" or "TQ" appeared nowhere in my correspondence. I remain confident about those two – so watch this space.
On the opposite end of the pole sat overly extensive salutations. "Many thanks and kind regards" left me feeling anything but kind. "Best wishes for a good weekend" made me wish it was Monday instead. Finally, "Thank you very much indeed" put me firmly to sleep. Seriously, some people have too much time on their hands – or spend hours playing Typing Maniac.
Next in line were misplaced sign-offs. My personal favourites were "Please let me know" and "Apologies", both followed by a comma and a name. The former one certainly mobilised but would belong better in the message itself. Apologising made rather a negative finish. Both failed to resemble a salutation in its most stretched definition.
Then there was a string of somewhat relaxed sign-offs like "Cheers", "Take care" and "Bye for now", with or without an exclamation sign immediately after. Generally, forced friendliness came forward as a little sloppy. Take exclamation signs; while it is perfectly fine to use raised intonation in verbal business communication, the juvenile written "!" belongs on a friend's birthday card instead. "Cheers" is what I'd casually say in a pub, not put down in writing; "Take care" sounds mildly insincere when coming from anyone less than a good acquaintance. Worse still are foreign salutations such as "Ciao" and "Merci", oozing overcooked informality. Let's please stick to English ones – or then write the rest of the email in Italian or French, too. I'll have it translated externally and send you the bill.
One would ask, how do I sign my business emails? I am hereby happy to announce that, after three years of professional employment, I have modestly settled at "Thank you" and "Many thanks". "Much appreciated" is the most recent contender to dilute that list.
The only problem is that, most of the time, there really is nothing to be thankful for in business correspondence – let alone appreciate. It sounds like I may just start signing off with my first name instead.
Tuesday, 26 January 2010
I have spent a few hours today looking at dating websites. No, I wasn’t suffering from loneliness or lack of adventure – I was merely trying to answer some questions buzzing through my mind in the past few weeks. The questions were anything but easy: when a man invites a woman for "coffee" or "drink", can it ever be driven by friendly motives only? Is "lunch" really nothing more than getting some food together? Is a "walk in the park" merely a leisurely activity to keep fit?
The questions above really boil down to a more global issue of whether men and women can be friends. An overwhelming mass of material has been written on the subject, and I would be far too ambitious to stir it further. Personally, I never quite thought there was real potential for a cross-gender friendship. When I was younger, the idea of men both scared and outraged; after a certain age, men suddenly appeared in a whole new light – which, too, excluded friendship. The only time I came to doubt my own theory was for most part of the "When Harry Met Sally" movie. Having begun in a wonderfully ground-breaking fashion, the plot gradually digressed into predictability. I was heavily disappointed – the sprouting example of a cross-gender friendship turned into just another romantic comedy.
Despite not really believing in befriending men, I have on occasions failed to look beyond friendship “traps” men so frequently use. Take an example of a friend of mine at the time when we were both exchange students in Sweden. She was obviously liked by an IT person at the school, a middle-aged man from Sri Lanka. He bought her flowers, chocolates and lunch. He visited her at the dorm for some tea (the lass was smart enough to leave the door open) and told her compassionate stories about how lonely he was in a country of "cold Swedes". He was in great need of a "friend". There was a moment when my girl friend and I believed everything – until the point when I bumped into the guy at our local supermarket, accompanied by his wife and three daughters. Not his best "friends", clearly.
Another example happened to me personally. In a nutshell, a middle-aged Portuguese man disguised his dating agenda with a friendly face. Trust me, it looked nothing short of disgusting when he suggested we split the bill and made a scene about the prices at the restaurant – consequently attempting to follow me inside the hotel. He used to call me regularly afterwards to talk about "life" and even offered help with the job search. All very friendly, but somehow I stopped picking up his calls a while ago. Seriously, I have had better friends than this.
On a somewhat similar occasion, a friend of mine was chased by an ex-colleague with endless drink invitations – "just as friends" – until the point it became absolutely unbearable. Answering the victim's legitimate concern about the enormous daily effort he was making to meet her, the ex-colleague retorted that the effort was indeed "not at least more than normal when trying to schedule a meeting with a friend who is always busy". An unmarried female "friend" 10 years his junior? I don't think the assaulter's girlfriend of 12 years would quite applaud that – or the fact that her partner repeatedly referred to my friend as "attractive" and to men who fail to ask her out as "foolish".
A less dramatic example – but an educating one nevertheless – also happened to a close friend. Having freshly started dating someone, she was asked out for a "coffee" by a man she suspected was not entirely indifferent. After she filled the guy in on her new relationship situation and suggested having coffee in a company of mutual friends instead, the guy visibly lost interest. I can only infer that coffee tastes better when fewer people are involved.
The lessons learnt from the experiences are manifold. Firstly, I’d alert myself immediately if a man were calling for friendship out of compassion. If he were after real comforting, he'd call his mother. Addressing a person possibly more vulnerable than himself – such as a foreign student – would most certainly point at some hidden agenda. Secondly, I would beware of characters who carry out dating offensives coloured as friendship. If they needed a partner, they would ask you out. If they needed a friend, they would target someone they felt at ease with, not a member of the opposite sex they are visibly attracted to. Mixing the two sounds just as awkward as it is in reality. Thirdly, as gracious a meet-up solution as "coffee" is, taking it too seriously is not the best idea. Dilute your company with some female supporters and see what happens. Finally, I would treat every man overly eager to become my "friend" with utmost distrust. Can't they come up with something more convincing?
One of my failed male friends once suggested – rather interestingly – that no one-to-one interaction between a man and a woman – such as coffee, meal or joint exercise – could consist purely of friendship and would leave question marks hanging in the air. I tend to agree with it fundamentally. When I ask myself which men I would like to meet for a genuine one-to-one – other than my boyfriend – I can count one. The true buddy from university, a soulmate whom I have known for close to 10 years. But then again, we have never been left alone together – and, by the looks of it, will likely never be.
Note: Written under an external life disturbance; DOES NOT reflect the author's true views.
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
While there is certainly no shortage of rich people populating London, there are many more of us here leading a lifestyle incomparably less glamorous. When it comes to property agencies, I typically fall under the classification of a “young professional”, with monthly net income probably not exceeding GBP 4k. One can immediately see how I could never dream of affording renting in a prime London location, or even in its second – or third – best alternatives.
In fact, I never even aspired to do so. When I came to London 3.5 years ago and started the flat search, my demands for the place of living were as follows: (i) the rent should not exceed GBP 200 per week; (ii) the accommodation should not be shared with even the closest friend and (iii) the location should be within easy and prompt reach from Liverpool Street Station, where my first London employer was based. The first and the third point automatically excluded those so-called prime London locations such as Belgravia, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Notting Hill and South Kensington. Of the less prime but almost as pricey, Hampstead was perhaps the closest to satisfying my criteria, but then the “easy reach” would be a little stretched; it takes over 20 minutes Tube travel from Hampstead to Moorgate, and there is no direct connection with Liverpool Street.
I was thus left with less sounding options. Areas adjacent to work – such as Aldgate, Whitechapel or Shoreditch – did not attract me for their slight lack of character and relatively high rents – the latter largely induced by the proximity to London’s financial lungs, the City. My eyes fell on Stratford, the Eastern hub for the Jubilee and Central Lines, Docklands Light Railway and London overground train network. Since the area used to be rather a dump – which was invariably showing – the rents were affordable, if a little on the rising side given Stratford’s strategic future role in the London 2012 Olympics. Travel options to Liverpool Street were twofold: by Central Line (10-12 minutes, two stops in-between) and by National Rail (8 minutes, non-stop).
The rather modern building on Gerry Raffles Square where I consequently settled was situated next to Stratford shopping centre, huge Sainsbury’s supermarket and Theatre Royal – as well as a 5-minute walk away from Stratford Tube Station. The location’s major downsides were its classification as Zone 3 (spicing up my monthly travel pass), the alleged lack of safety (admittedly overshadowed by the notorious likes of nearby Forest Gate and Westham) and its undisputable lack of glamour with my fussy investment banking colleagues (who nicknamed my E15 postcode a sarcastic E45). Having weighed all the pros and cons, I went for a one-bedroom flat in Stratford, priced at GBP 175 per week.
Gerry Raffles Square building in Stratford - my first and second London home
The first few months quickly revealed several deficiencies of the property. For a start, it was on the first floor, with only a garage underneath. This meant that I was the immediate receptor of the enormous traffic noise from the ever-busy Great Eastern Road. What’s worse, the proximity of a large supermarket had a flipside in huge lorries arriving around 5am and stopping next to my windows. The height of the lorries almost made it possible for the drivers to peep inside my room. Let alone the passing double-decker buses, whose passengers likely perceived me as some reality show character. I eventually relaxed to the point of not reaching for clothes to cover my occasional nudity. It’s not like I ever was going to see those people again, right?
Secondly, the flat was rather small. I could not dream of inviting people to stay, as the sense of claustrophobia was close to unbearable. Even for myself, there was nowhere to turn. Add to it a joke of a kitchen – really a part of the living room – what they call a kitchenette in this country. Clearly not a housewife’s paradise.
Finally and most crucially, I was very unlucky with the neighbours. With all my due respect to India, I can barely stand Indian food – which was a daily menu choice of the next door flat, resulting in all sorts of stomach-turning aromas. What’s worse, my neighbours seemed to have placed their stereo system right next to my bedroom wall, and would not surrender to bedtime until about 3am. I think I would still recognise some of the Indian beats nightly penetrating my swollen head of an investment banking analyst. And the problem with the Noise Pollution team in this country is that they tend to arrive AFTER the noise has stopped, making you stay awake waiting for them and looking like a complete idiot making a false alert. But this is a topic for another story.
After one year in that location, I fled. Not too far, however. With my job, I could not dream of a thorough flat search, and instead opted for that one flat I viewed on the day I was sick (off – or more likely from – work), in that same building on Gerry Raffles Square. It was definitely an upgrade. I was now residing on the fifth floor and therefore less exposed to traffic noise. There was a guest bedroom and generally more space. The bathroom was much larger and better equipped. The floors had laminate surface and not those ridiculous fitted carpets the entire nation is so obsessed with. Best of all, I had a huge balcony for my bicycle, my laundry and myself. All the extra beauties dragged my monthly rent to GBP 220 per week, but it was well worth it. After all, my City friends were paying more for tiny studios in the so-called “prime” locations.
Not even after a few months did I regret my choice. I loved my second Gerry Raffles Square location so much it literally hurt to leave after one year. In July 2008, I left the country to spend eight months in Greece – after which, unexpectedly to my friends and myself, I came back. And looked for my third and current London abode...
...this time I was looking for a real trade-off in terms of proximity to work, character, connections and price. Stratford was history, as was the entire East London. After consulting some local friends, I focused my search on the south side of the Thames – London Bridge and Elephant & Castle. The latter was eventually brushed aside as a little too far and without many entertainment options. The former was walking distance from work and Tower Bridge. The first viewing – of a spacious property on the intersection of Shad Thames and Tooley Street – was a huge success.
I finally found a flat with a large separate kitchen – kitchen in the true sense of the word, not a kitchenette. The bathroom is blessed with a window, producing some panoramic views of London. The views themselves are incredible, the City skyline and Canary Wharf both observable from my 5-storey height. The street noise is within London limits. The heating had some hiccups in the beginning but is working perfectly now. In short, I would probably be close to an ideal state – had it not been for the price, which is somewhat above my previous Stratford location and a disproportionate share of my rather scaled-down income as a result of private-to-public-sector transition.
A well-known way to economise in London is living as a couple – in a one-bedroom flat but with two incomes. An approximate estimate indicates that a couple living together could reduce their monthly bills by a quarter each compared to living on their own. With this in mind, I seriously recommend to all single people renting out one half of their bed*. If you are not known for snoring, go to bed early and don’t go out partying too often, you would probably make a perfect bed mate. Really.
And if your future bed mate were an investment banker, appearing only occasionally in the early hours of the morning for an anxious nap before heading back to work – at this not able to stir their single limb – that would be even better. In fact, that would be close to perfect.
*not to be taken too seriously, if at all
Sunday, 17 January 2010
First, make sure to have your fancy, latest-edition BlackBerry always handy. Feel free to interrupt the mortals whenever you have to make a phone call – or send a message to the babysitter minding your children while your wife is polishing her toe nails at some exclusive salon. I would even recommend arranging for TWO BlackBerries and showing some class juggling them simultaneously. Do tell the person on one line to hold while you are handling the other and vice versa. BlackBerries are particularly useful at meetings. Rushing out to answer a call is more than encouraged. Forget about politeness. Your time is worth a million more than anybody else's.
Secondly, do hire a cool secretary who will belong to you and no-one else but you. There are two options here, depending on your personal preference. One would be to go for a supermodel blondie barely able to read and teach her a few basic phrases. The alternative would really be the opposite – a loud-voiced monster with over 20 years of secretarial experience and clout possibly as inflated as your own. Both would impress with their very different strong sides and shout from the rooftops about your good taste, selectiveness and importance. By no means forget to equip your assistant with a personal BlackBerry and make her answer all calls with "Good afternoon, you've reached the office of XXX, how can I help?" – regardless of whether the call is being picked up on a London commuter train at 5am or the actual office. Have all your calls automatically redirected to your secretary; by all means have her call up the people you are willing to speak to first before transferring to you.
To continue on the office subject, I would wholeheartedly encourage everyone to go for a corner arrangement. A nice view onto a high-profile London location – or indeed that of any other major megalopolis – would come in very desirable, too. Get some expert advice on the sleekest wooden furniture and decorate the walls with pictures of yourself playing golf with Tiger Woods or shaking hands with Barack Obama. You don't have to have actually met with them; Photoshop does wonders these days. Make sure to show your visitors who's boss – I would especially recommend one of those HUGE leather thrones every self-respecting world leader surely owns in great numbers. Seat your visitors in some scaled-down versions and throw a few Parker pens around. Even better, use an actual feather and dip it into actual ink every now and then.
Snack-wise, having a fruit basket delivered to you daily at a specified hour is an absolute must. Have your secretary order a diversified selection of exotic fruit, get them peeled, cut, arranged in a Chinese character, covered with cling wrap and placed in the middle of your visitor table. The sad part is that you are too important and busy for mundane activities like snacking. Just leave the fruit standing there untouched all day. The secretary may help herself after you have left; sharing with visitors is a big no. Albeit fruitless by definition, they should instead focus on dreaming of becoming as important as you are one day.
At meetings, either appear ten minutes late (mortals can wait) or be there one hour before to prevent any conspiracy. You never know if there are microphones smuggled into the room to steal your glorious words of wisdom. As discussed, make unlimited use of your BlackBerry(-ies). Alternate between interrupting others in a loud voice and silently staring at the speaker, arms pressed together and dissatisfaction spilt all over your face. I mean, do those people have any idea what nonsense is coming out of their mouths? Adjourn the meeting abruptly because you have a massage appointment. Don't forget to announce it loudly to others.
In conversations, never condescend to the level of your counterpart. After all, nobody's personal affairs are important enough for a conversation involving yourself. Certainly be polite and ask the speaker about their family; listening, however, is totally unnecessary. Your time is precious. Nod off in a distracted fashion and check out that BlackBerry once again. Or email your masseur for another appointment.
Having said all of the above, I would personally love to try out this “Look How Important I Am” game and – for once – feel really empowered. The problem here is that merely playing the game does not make one important; you’d have to be important already to play. Which means that, if I really wanted to have a shot at that fruit basket, I could either become some big shot or their secretary. Somehow the latter seems more appealing – if only I had the looks.