For ten years I worked for a giant New York corporation. It doesn’t matter which one, at least not for the purposes of this essay. But I will say that it made enough money for its employees to hold expensive and often questionable team building events.
Please note the language here. Team building event. Merriam-Webster defines an event as “a noteworthy happening.” Princess Di’s wedding was an event, as was her funeral. D-Day was an event. Obama’s election was an event. Going bowling with Marge and Bob from accounting is not an event.
Yet it’s described as such, like many things in the corporate world – the mundane made important with inflated language. You can’t just use something, you must utilize it. You’re not simply talking to someone, you’re reaching out. You don’t agree – you’re on the same page.
Conversely, “harsh” words are euphemized. Employees aren’t fired but let go, as doves from a cage. My own company had its own euphemism for a euphemism: Adapting to Scale, or AtS, as in “His ass was AtS’d.”
I’ve been to my fair share of team building events. My first was at a workplace previous to the big corporation. A motivational speaker talked about conquering our fears. Then we were given planks of wood, on which we wrote the excuses we were using to keep us from doing what we really wanted. Mine were, “Not enough money, I don’t have a job there, I don’t know the language well enough.” What I wanted was to go abroad, but I couldn’t get my shit together. Then we were taught to karate chop the board in half. Which we all did, even Carol from, you guessed it, accounting.
Eighteen months later, I was in Beijing.
Since then, my experiences have been less life-changing. I’ve been on a scavenger hunt in Maryland in the pouring rain with the Beltway sniper on the loose. I’ve built a bicycle from scratch, which began so competitively, another team snapped at me when I glanced at their progress. (When we learned the bikes were being donated to needy kids, people calmed the fuck down.) I’ve slogged through a relay race at Chelsea Piers, which became fun only after a manager’s pants fell down as he attempted the hula hoop. I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs more times than I can count (though I can’t remember what I am).
The worst, however, was sailing.
Annapolis, a rainy spring day. We broke out into small teams and were assigned an instructor who’d help us three times around a course. The first team to do so was the winner. On my team was Sarah, our cynical legal counsel, Fitz, an older gentleman, and Larry, the same manager who dropped his trousers relay racing.
It started out fine. Our blonde and freckled instructor, let’s call her Lindsay, couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. Cheerfully she showed us around our boat.
“The port is the left,” she said. “Starboard is right. The bow is the front, and the stern is the back. The rudder’s at the stern and steers the boat. Who wants to own the stern?”
Sarah and I backed away. We were equally unenthused. “How about you, Larry?” Lindsay asked, grinning.
Larry smiled back. “Sure, why not,” he said.
Lindsay went through the rest of her instruction. Loopy on Drammamine, I barely paid attention. Something about a boom, coming about, luffing, and a jib. The lazy sheet, the main sheet, the main sail. With Larry at the helm (was that right?) and Lindsay happily helping us along, I thought I wouldn’t have much to do except keep the boat from tipping over, the way I did the one time I went sailing with my friend and her uncle. But I was sadly mistaken.
We pushed out to the water. Lindsay called to Larry: “Can you untie us from the pylon?”
He unlooped the rope from a wooden pole. “This thing here?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she snapped. “Good idea.”
I glanced at her. Was that sarcasm?
Things only got worse. She barked her orders, using the terms we had just learned. When we hesitated, she repeated herself more and more loudly, till finally we tried something, which was inevitably wrong.
She was meanest to Larry. “Tack!” she kept saying to him. “Steer into the wind, like I already showed you.” There was hardly a breeze. He’d adjust the rudder, but it wasn’t good enough. “Steer into the wind, not against it. You’re completely out of the wind now. You’re not doing right. YOU’RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT!”
“I’m trying,” Larry would say.
Only Fitz seemed unscathed, following Lindsay’s instructions without batting an eye. Sarah and I kept glancing at each other, furtively though since we didn’t want to get yelled at.
I don’t know why none of us said anything. “Could you please change your tone?” we could have asked. Or, “We’re all new to this, please be more patient.” Maybe we figured it wasn’t worth it; it was a one time thing and wouldn’t be too much longer.
But it felt long. It felt like an eternity. Once around the course, then again. While the other teams managed to speed ahead of us, smiling and waving as they passed, we inched along. I stared silently at the dock across the wide expanse of cold gray water and thought, I can swim it.
“Angela,” Lindsay said suddenly.
I jumped ten feet.
“Go straighten the jib,” she said, nodding towards the front of the boat.
Shakily I stood. What the fuck was a jib? I made my way to the front and wandered around. I had no idea what to do. Was the jib the line that went around? Why did it need straightening?
“Straighten the jib, Angela. Straighten the jib. STRAIGHTEN THE JIB!”
“I don’t know what a jib is!” I said finally.
“It’s that sail,” she replied, surprisingly calm. “It’s caught behind the line.”
I saw it. I pulled it out, and it puffed with wind. I minced back to my seat.
Maybe that was all it took: asking. But corporate born and bred, none of us liked to admit we didn’t know something.
As we finished our last turn, Lindsay had Sarah hold the boom. At the last minute, she decided to turn the boat – “Coming about!” – but Fitz didn’t move fast enough. She jumped in and took over, and suddenly the boom was moving, knocking Sarah to the deck. Lindsay didn’t even notice.
We came in last.
Back on shore, word traveled quickly about our experience. While Fitz was oblivious and Larry would diplomatically remain mum, Sarah and I blabbed to anyone who’d listen. “She was so mean!” we whispered to our colleagues. “She yelled at Larry the whole time.”
I thought it was all over. Back in my hotel room, I took a nap – I still felt the movement of the water – then went down for drinks. As we stood around, Wendy, one of the organizers, came up to us.
“I heard what happened,” she said. She was like an overly optimistic Martha Stewart. “And I told Lindsay’s manager.”
“What?” Sarah and I looked at her aghast. Larry’s moan was almost inaudible.
“You can talk it out with Lindsay now.”
“Now?” The last thing I wanted was to “talk it out” with our demonic sailing instructor. What I wanted was to finish my drink, eat a good dinner, then watch HBO in my room.
She came up to each of us during dessert. Kneeling by my chair, she said, “I wanted to say I’m sorry. . .that we lost the race.”
“That’s okay,” I mumbled.
In the end, it was a team building event. As a team, we trembled in fear of Lindsay and floundered with her orders; together we came in last. Together we remained silent, unwilling to admit our ignorance and fear. That was what corporate life had taught us – never admit you don’t know something, never ask, “What’s that?” Only whisper about someone’s behavior to other people, instead of telling them to their face. In that way, we came in first.