ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By
Joseph Walker

THE NEW GUY

There’s a new guy in the office.

I don’t know his name, but he seems nice enough.  He’s pleasant, but kind of quiet.  He seems bright.  He smiles a lot.  A few days after he started here he asked me to provide some information for a project he’s working on, and he asked nicely.  It took me a few days to get the information, and he was nicely patient.  And when I delivered it to him, he thanked me.  Nicely.

So clearly he’s . . . you know . . . nice.

When we walk by each other in the hallway we smile and say hi.  Actually, he says, “Hi, Joe.”  I just say “hi” because . . . well . . . I don’t know his name, and I’m embarrassed to ask.  I mean, he’s been here for a couple of weeks.  I SHOULD know his name.  But I don’t.  So I just say “hi” when I see him.  And I smile.

Last week I overheard one of his colleagues talking to him.  I listened for a minute to see if his name was mentioned.  The new guy mentioned the other person’s name a couple of times, but the other person never called the new guy by name.  It occurred to me that maybe the other person didn’t know the new guy’s name either.  Maybe nobody in the office knows his name.  He’s just . . . the new guy, and he’s doomed to be the new guy even when he’s not new anymore because nobody knows what else to call him.

I passed him in the hall again yesterday.  As usual, he said “Hi, Joe.”  And as usual, I just said, “Hi!”  Well, actually, I said “Hey, how’s it going?”  If someone says “Hi, Joe” and you just say “Hi” back, it sounds like you don’t know his name – which is a bad thing, especially if you really DON’T know his name.  So you have to say something else, something that sounds warm and familiar – like you DO know his name – without . . . you know . . . actually KNOWING his name (by the way,  I understand that President Obama is masterful at this.  Because, let’s face it, there’s no way he could know the name of every person who knows HIS name.  So he is often in this situation, and he has to make it seem like he knows the names of people he doesn’t really know.  And they say he’s great at it.  Which is comforting, in a way, to think that we’re really not all that different from the President of the United States when it comes to not knowing the names of all of the people we say “hi” to . . .)

But I digress.

I know – big shock.

So anyway, I pass the new guy, he says “Hi, Joe” and I say, “Hey, how’s it going?”  And I move on down the hall feeling pretty good about how well I’m coping with not knowing his name, when I hear a familiar voice behind me.

“I don’t know you!”

It was Sylvia, one of the kindest, most genuine people I know.  Sylvia is uber-friendly, gregarious and warm, a welcoming mother figure to everyone in the office.  She had been walking a few paces behind me, and evidently she didn’t know the new guy either.  But rather than just smile and say “hi,” Sylvia did what Sylvia does.  Not only did she announce that she didn’t know him, she asked him his name, told him her name and engaged him in conversation – clearly an interpersonal tactic aimed at getting personal information out of him.  Before long they were chatting like old friends about some things they had in common.

And suddenly for Sylvia, the new guy wasn’t the new guy anymore.  He was Mitch, a colleague with children, hobbies, interests and a little shared history.

I was stunned – and a little embarrassed – by the ease with which Sylvia negotiated that transition.  Turns out it doesn’t take much to turn an unfamiliar face in the hall into a friend.  You just have to get over yourself and reach out a little.  Ask a question.  Learn a name.

And just like that: no more new guy.

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— © Joseph Walker

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