I was in London not so long ago when I was approached by a clipboard.
Not being a Londoner, clipboards to me invariably say, “Excuse me, would you spare a moment of your time for xyz cause so that, even though you are not particularly invested in said cause, we can bombard you with emails, texts, letters, tweets and pigeons until you feel so unbearably guilty you will hand over your pitiful savings to save the okapi/raise awareness of dandruff/petition the government for better chewing gum removal on our nation’s streets?”
The clipboard got to me before I saw him and suddenly my friend and I were trapped.
“Excuse me,” he said, and I feared the worst. “Do you like films?” This was new. This was unexpected. Suddenly I was on a first date with the clipboard and we were sharing our interests.
“Yes,” I panicked.
“Would you like to see a free film?” The clipboard was asking me on a second date!
“Yes,” I panicked.
“Okay, give me your name and somebody will call you so you can claim your tickets to a free showing of a film about to come to the UK.” (I shan’t say which film out of fear of violating a confidentiality agreement that MI5 would have been proud of.)
“Yes,” I panicked. “Wait!” Suddenly my streetwise savvy kicked in. I knew it was in there somewhere. “What’s the catch?” I asked smugly.
“All you have to do is fill in a short questionnaire afterwards letting us know what you thought.”
“Aha! I… oh. That’s quite reasonable.”
The call came the next day. I was chirpy and cheery as I answered questions about my gender, age and film-going habits to the woman seeking to discover into which demographic (a horrible American word which is actually an adjective, no matter how much it pretends to be a noun) I fell. Then came the hammer blow.
“What is your occupation?”
I froze, phone in hand, as an icy chill ran down my spine. My heart rate doubled and I broke out in a cold sweat.
“I… uh…” I responded eloquently.
What I should have done here was said, “Unemployed.” The woman would have said “Thank you”, ticked the box saying ‘Unemployed’ on her piece of paper and carried onto the next question. But I didn’t do that. I started speaking at about 20 words per second.
“Well, I mean, I graduated with a Philosophy and Literature degree in July, you know, from a good university actually, but um, well I’m intending to do an MA next year, and um, well the thing is, I was hoping to do some English teaching work in the mean time, but it’s a bit thin on the ground, so um, I haven’t found anything yet…”
I tailed off, my eyes welling up through the circumlocutory strain of it all.
“Oh, it’s okay!” the woman on the phone said, giving me a verbal hug. “You’ll find something, don’t worry!”
I was ashamed. Not of the fact that I am unemployed, but of the fact that I had been so afraid of admitting it outright that I had invoked pity in a stranger whose only job was to ask me a series of multiple choice questions. It was like having Facebook crack open a tub of Ben & Jerry’s for you when you list your relationship status as ‘Single’.
Yet I do it all the time. I know I’m not special. Lots of people graduated with a humanities degree in the summer and lots of them are yet to have found gainful employment. The British people are by their nature rather lacking in sympathy for such people, and I can’t blame them; if I just kept my mouth shut a little more then I would get the steely and apathetic shun I’m begging for.
Still, I insist on lying to myself. I avoid family dinners where I might get asked the dreaded “So what are you up to now?” Even when filling in a university alumni questionnaire on subsequent employment and study — a piece of paper which will almost certainly simply be fed into a heartless, unfeeling computer — I felt the need to find ways to add caveats and conditions to the ‘I am not currently employed’ option; I’m pretty sure I filled in so many contradicting sections that it ended up being the kind of response that the term ‘statistical margin of error’ was designed for.
But to err is human, statistically or otherwise, and it is easy to feel the need to prevaricate upon questions about your employment status when you see friends and peers successfully working their way along graduate recruitment schemes or travelling the world with money from God knows where while you’re listening to Counting Crows on loop and obsessing over which font on your CV is more likely to get you temporary Christmas work at the coffee shop on the High Street.
Maybe I should just save the okapi instead.