Secret Handshake

This week, I have done something new. I have suggested to an employee that he was not invited to come back next semester to teach.

Yes, I have fired someone. This could be a moment for angst, but it’s not. After consideration, it seemed like the right move for a variety of reasons. I will not go into any specifics, but it does set me thinking about environments and interactions.


In 1993, I resigned my job teaching high school. It was because of book censorship, but it was also because I wasn’t a good fit in that particular working environment. I had been ruminating about returning to grad school for some time. High school teaching was good for me because it professionalized me in certain ways. My ego as a young bright college TA was insufferable, and high school teachers don’t fit in well when they are obviously full of themselves and their abilities. I chafed in an environment where I felt my opinions were not valued or taken into account in the decision making process. There were other things, and even though I enjoyed interacting with the students, you know, I wasn’t a good fit for that school. At the time, leaving was dramatic and angst-laden, and I felt like a young martyr to idealism. Make no mistake, I’d do the same thing again. But looking at this with older eyes, not only was censorship the issue. I didn’t know the secret handshake.

What do I mean by that? There were people that stayed at that high school for years. They were doing their job and finding their work rewarding. I didn’t dislike my job, but I didn’t swim through that environment well. Nor did I want to. There were certain things about the culture of teaching in that particular school that made me feel stifled, and in the end, I was happy to get out.

No one is always satisfied with their job, 100 percent. As Bryon gets older and closer to the end of his career, and the rules shift and change, he chafes more and more. But we can’t place the blame of discontent solely on an employer. No, sometimes we don’t grasp the culture or something. We don’t perform well. We don’t know how to succeed in that environment.

In a nurturing workplace, education and reform about the incongruence between employer and employee can be undertaken, but we can’t change that sometimes there’s gonna be a mismatch. Through no fault of anyone’s really, someone doesn’t have the tools to succeed or meet the expectations of an environment’s culture, and so we move forward.


And there are lessons here about timeliness and grace in a wide variety of social arenas. How do we know when it’s okay to get closer to someone? How do we know when, for example, we want to stop being friends, and it’s okay to date? Man, I sweated bullets there! Or how do we know when something is no longer working, and when we should back away.

Or when someone really wants us to hang out in a conversation, versus when we are being intrusive? How do we know when someone is sincere? Or read appropriate feedback to get the appropriate results?

How do we know when we belong to a group?


Although I would have been the last person to have even ventured forth on an article like this in my youth, I have to say that being a social outcast has not only helped me to foster fierce independence, but it has also given me an excellent feeling for when someone doesn’t want me around. Unless there has been some investment in friendship before that (in which case we’re in break up territory, and that’s a whole different zone), I can treat the indifference of others pretty cavalierly. I hate Earl Grey. I may be someone’s cup of Earl Grey.

Other points of success in an environment: do you share membership in a group that has the same values and goals as you? do you all have the same expectations of socially acceptable behavior? do you respect boundaries? Seems logical if you think about it.

What makes me think a lot right now are the transitional places. Let’s talk about two places I am right now as examples.

As a writer, I am in the state called by some “neo-pro.” I have some recognized talent, and I submit my work. Some editors, agents and writers in my genre know who I am and are friendly toward me at an acquaintance level. Other editors, writers, and agents are even more friendly toward me than that, but each meeting with a professional is a careful meeting, just like dating, because I’m still feeling out the territory.

I’m still trying to learn the secret handshake of the publishing pro. When someone treats me like I know the handshake, I feel like a visitor to an awesome candy store which I can visit occasionally. Some day I will know the handshake, and I’ll move into a new circle, with a new set of rules that I’ll have to learn. But…I don’t get to ask about the handshake. I have to put myself in places and watch, and be as nice as I can, and when certain things happen and I learn certain things, I can function in that culture.

However, among my fellow neo-pros, unless I am Earl Gray to their taste, most of the folks I know, we know the secret handshake. We have a similar shared culture, and we can talk within that culture, and have a pretty good idea of how to behave to be accepted. It is a safe place to be.


At work, I am much more entitled. I am a supervisor, which means I am the one that people are watching regarding the handshake. So, you know on Project Runway, when Tim Gunn gives a contestant advice, and the foolish contestant says, “That’s just Tim’s opinion. I’m gonna do what I want.”? In this environment, I’m Tim Gunn. I’m the cue to what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in this work environment. When I go out of department, I also know the secret handshake, and while I’m not Tim Gunn, I am a respected peer contributing to the meeting at hand.

BUT if I go to a meeting of the trustees, I am the one watching for the cues. I don’t know the handshake, and my point is to again wait for the world around me to be revealed.

Social stuff is complicated. The message here isn’t that you need to toady to get ahead, or that you need to get as much power as you can so you don’t feel uncomfortable. The message here is that success in any environment is more likely if you learn and follow the culture of that environment. Environments that make you uncomfortable, that you don’t want to learn the culture of, that make you uncomfortable, or you just can’t function in, well, that’s not a good fit for you, and there’s no shame in that clash if you are asked to move on.

Of course, if you find yourself being moved on more often than not, you might want to take a good look at what flavor of tea you are.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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