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Intimidation and desks

AMERI-THINK:The American office desk is a symbol of status and power, as is the waiting-time you – the supplicant – spend in the outer office before you see the desk. (NOTE: In Los Angeles – and especially in the film and television industry – a special formula applies, wherein the relative importance of the executive you’re about to see is inversely proportionate to the waiting-time you spend in his outer office, and to his height – i.e., a two-hour wait should produce a man who is short).

However: the more senior the executive, the larger his desk; so, the Big Boss will sit behind a surface that a family of ten could live on for a year. Unless it’s roughly the size of a platform at Calcutta railway station, it doesn’t count. The point is that desks are Macho, and desks intimidate. They also protect ... interposing a beautifully grained and polished fortress between Big Boss and you.

You are placed at an instant disadvantage. First, you will have to shout across vast spaces in order to be heard. Big Boss will also ensure that your guest-chair is low, and the desk-rim level with your mouth. This gives him a chance to say ‘What? Can you speak up? I can’t hear!’ until you are thoroughly rattled. Second – and most important – it places you too far away to judge whether Big Boss is stupid or smart. If he is seated behind his desk when you come in, you won’t know if he’s tall or short. Or thin or fat. You will not spot his contact lenses or recent hair implant. Or the fact that he’s just had the bags beneath his eyes done.

The large desk will be housed in an equally impressive office, with breathtaking panoramas of city skyline beyond slimline venetian blinds, over shaded landscapes of plush carpet. It should look like J.R. Ewing’s office, presided over by a Barbie-doll secretary who is also an acolyte. Already it’s two against one.

BRIT-THINK:Brit executives understand intimidation, too – but their style is somewhat different. Surprisingly senior men – especially in the upper echelons of government and broadcasting – have scruffy offices with half-dead plants producing mutant stems on dusty window-sills. They bend over desks which appear to have been bought second-hand at an industrial close-out. The ‘phones have dials, the typewriters are antiques, and so are some of the secretaries. The tea lady shrieks, ‘tea, dear?’ from the corridor each time she passes, and sloshes stewed brew into half-melted plastic cups. ‘that’ll be 7p, dear.’

In short, Brit-boss lacks glossy props. But (and this is important) he is on his Own Turf. Despite the seediness of the surroundings – perhaps because of them – he hopes to project a sense of class ... superior intellect, breeding and education, which – as every Brit knows – are perfectly consistent with being down-at-heel. Brit-boss has also been brought up to believe that a man in command can afford to underplay his hand.

Unfortunately, the pitch works only on other Brits. Visiting Yanks are not sufficiently conversant with the subtleties of the class-system to be impressed. What they see merely confuses them. They do not think about Oxbridge or the Corridors of Power or the Old Boys’ Net. They simply return to the hotel and wonder why such a Big Cheese looks real Shlep.

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