The Language of Loss –– Or, Soon, This Email Will Stop Working

A Story, by Anonymous

Wellp … Damn.

I just got laid off. It’s happened again – another round of spring layoffs burned through my company like a grease fire at a weenie roast. Last year’s flames focused on the sales department and this year it’s the Content Development Weenies that got burned. OK, so I lost my job. But what really hurts most is the loss of friendships that will occur when I no longer see/hang out with/labor with/argue with my former coworkers.

It happened on a Tuesday that began normally enough, save the addition of an odd meeting with an HR* representative. An unexpected/unannounced meeting with an HR rep is always ominous and quite often spells B.A.D.N.E.W.S. People were soon talking/texting to find out who all had these weird meetings. Multiple members of the same team, in many cases more than half of them, had the exact same meeting time/meeting room booked with the same HR rep, even though each meeting invite was sent individually. Once you grasped the numerical significance of those involved, it was no longer clear if this meeting was for keepers or losers. There were quick glances to faces and desks as we tried to judge if it was best to be on the list or off the list. “Oh, she’s on the list … and so is he? Sweet! It’s the good list! Oh wait, he’s on the list too? Damn it!”

Once we saw the packets waiting for us, we knew, but we still didn’t want to believe, so we sat and waited to be told. No one in the room was my co-worker anymore. That was over. The walls of division were up before you could name the feeling “completely alone” that crept out of your brain stem and down your spine. We each processed the information individually. There was no “us.” The room was sticky and moist. Anger. Tears. Total shock.†

It was over. They said something about benefits and severance. It was all in the packet. I walked out alone­ beside people I no longer worked with. I’m glad they called it “severance” because that’s what it felt like. I walked to a desk that wasn’t mine clutching an exit package that shouted “not wanted.” I wasn’t worth my pay. My face was hot. I’d become a disease no one wants to catch. A group was hugging. A grown man I’ve worked with for years was hunched over his desk, shoulders convulsing. He was silently weeping into his hands and he hadn’t even been laid off. To look any very-suddenly-former co-worker in the eyes was to burst into tears. We were lost. Our language failed us.

When big “L” Loss happens, our language changes. I’m no brain scientist^ but I would link this to our primal Fight or Flight trigger located deep in the non-thinking brain base. When that instinct trigger is engaged, our language falls in line as our bodies enter Complete Freak Out mode, preparing for either Fight or Flight.

Wellp… Damn.

We had until the end of the day to put “personals” in a corrugated cardboard box (manufactured in perfect casket-sized proportions), clear needed files off the company computer and transfer needed knowledge from current projects to remaining team members. I sat. All of my “transfer knowledge” amounted to one short sentence: “Fuck you, Language Leaning Software Company.”§

I couldn’t think. Before all this, the phrase, “Well…Damn it!” was my usual go-to when the going got rough. After receiving my exit packet, it became the decidedly more concise and country, “Wellp…Damn.” I don’t need the “it.” Extra weight. It’s time to travel light.

Then there’s the inclusion of the country-sounding “p” at the end of “Well.” No one in the institution of language learning that had suddenly unemployed me was bothered by the p’s inclusion when I began using this statement in the office that I was about to leave for the last time. We’d already stopped editing each other. This extra p helped bring forward the idea – one that lives deep in our fight-or-flight brain base – behind the song “Country Boy Can Survive.” Hank Williams Jr. knows what we have long forgotten in our computer/language learning/data collection work. In this time of loss we must answer the call to flex our deep primal muscles, even if we can do so in a strictly linguistic sense. If you try both expressions you have to admit that “Wellp … Damn” feels a hell of a lot better rolling off the tongue than its correctly spelled and grammatically advanced counterpart.

And, dammit, it just feels better to swear like a country farmer right now. It’s empowering and that’s a feeling that’s in short supply right now. I’m just trying to survive. My old job was all about how things sounded, and whether they could teach people things. Wellp … damn. Now I’ll say what I want to when I want to say it and if you can’t understand me don’t think I’m going to put this on myself and self-shame and self-edit and worry about it one bit.

I didn’t accomplish anything the rest of the day at my former desk. I stared at nothing and did nothing. I felt terrible and decided I’d rather feel drunk. By the time I got downtown the main hangouts were crowded with language nerds who all appeared to be three beers in. People wanted to know which “team” you were on and I figured this was the last time not being on one automatically put you on one. You were either jobless or buying a round for someone who was.

There was talk of going to a matinee but no one was in the mood for Silver Linings Playbook. Django Unchained would have gotten some takers but wasn’t showing anymore. Someone was saying they saw this coming – totally saw this whole thing coming like a fucking total mile away. Someone else was shouting about who can suck what and who’s been a total and complete whatsucker this whole time and now they can finally say it. Advice was given about who can sit on a dick and twirl.¶

Back in the office, allied squadrons of the still- and suddenly not-employed let fly barrage after barrage of workplace F-bombs. Everything got F-ed. We were working hard to put the F back in FLT.‡

The retributive bile was to be expected, really. We’d lost our mooring. We’d been debased so we lashed out to debase others with our remaining power ­– cruel language. We were hurt and we’d have rather been drunk and angry than hurt. Whether I saw this coming or not, I needed people to think I did and the one person I really needed to think that was me: Now I am master of my destiny. I hated that stupid job anyway and I’m glad I’m out! There was too much bullshit. Honestly, I feel bad for the people who weren’t laid off. It’s going to be terrible there. Get out while you can.

I’ve been listening to old Dylan albums. I’ve been chipped off the rock and I’ve got nowhere to go. I guess this really is how it feels to be a Rolling Stone.

The day of layoffs was followed by the quarterly “all-hands” meeting. In this case it was the “all hands minus those just severed from the still-bleeding corporate body” meeting. I’m told the CEO talked about what “we” (hold on – I guess I need to get used to saying “they” now) need to do as a company and said “the most important thing about the business is the employees” and also said the layoffs were conducted “first and foremost with the utmost respect.” Really? Thanks for telling us through the grapevine, because we would never have guessed it otherwise. Behold the dark side of language – its power to enable us to express things that aren’t true. Maybe that’s why we invented language in the first place, to lie ourselves out of our messes our actions got us into. If a coffin-shaped box with no advance notice is respect, what does the absence of respect look like?

I’m sorry that this story is so negative. It just came out. I’ve spent too much time recently drowning my feelings in drink sold at bars and clouding my judgments with smoke that can put you behind them. Maybe the company was bloated. I’m not a finance guy. I don’t know. I just wanted to be on the other side of the cut. I loved the company too much to leave. I thought I was part of the core. That’s why I’m writing what sounds like a stupid breakup letter instead of doing a job search. I don’t want a new job. I want you to want me back. I don’t mean to sound needy, but if you ever change your mind, let me know.

There were bright spots, I guess, or at least moments of fleeting poignancy: the hugs between two co-workers who were always fighting about how things should be done but were now fighting against the idea of not being able to fight with each other at work anymore. The maintenance man who cried as he handed out the cardboard “personals” boxes. The feeling of a weekend that had zero work responsibilities looming over it.

Then there were the emails that flashed across the darkness of that day. We’d become unemployed and didn’t know when our email accounts would stop working so we cast goodbyes out like bottled messages into the sea. We sent out pure language, heart to heart. Language is how we relate, how we labor, how we express love and how we love. I love you. I already miss you and I wish you the best. These washed up on my virtual shore:

“This email will stop working in a bit. It’s been a great pleasure working with you.”

“After today’s product layoffs, I’m headed off to new adventures. But I couldn’t leave without saying how much I’ve enjoyed working with and learning from you all ­– both personally and professionally – the past few years. Thank you for the impact you’ve had in my life.”

“Goodbye. I will dearly miss you all.”

“I guess you’re gonna need my personal email now.”

“It’s been an amazing 8.24536 years. I’ve learned a lot from it, the company and everyone I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”

“Farewell friends. I wish you all luck! I think you’re going to need it.”

Oh, and final important note: if you see us language nerds around town in the next few weeks, more than likely at a bar downtown, don’t feel like you have to say all this mumbo-jumbo about feeling bad and sorry and the cosmic whatnot owing something or turning bad into good, or even some stupid story about how you know because your cousin, or was it your aunt, lost her job that she really loved because – just stop. Please. If you have to say something, start your sentence with “Wellp” and end it one word later with “Damn.” And buy us a round.#

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10 Comments

  1. katie says:

    that was painfully, stunningly beautiful. I’m not sure what else to say, so…

    wellp, damn.
    love to you all!

  2. Wellp…damn. Beautifully written.

  3. Ros says:

    I just wanted to say that I really appreciate this post. I think it captured my experience beautifully too, even though I was one of the ones let go in Rosslyn.

  4. Dave Aronson says:

    Wellp… damn. Been there, done that, so my only question is: is it pronounced the more southerly way, “day-amn”, or do you just get it over with quick? 😉

  5. Keili says:

    As a matter of fact, I am glad I’m not there anymore. If I’m not downtown for y’all to buy me a beer, come up to my place and I’ll give you a glass of wine. Fuck ’em.

  6. Bernard says:

    I’m glad someone wrote this actually; I read it several times already. It bridges a gap in my story. Unlike many, I barely felt or saw anything that morning. I made it to the office just on time for the unwanted one-on-one meeting, knowing exactly what would happen. I barely saw anyone else and left immediately after it because, paradoxically, I hadn’t been told I had to.

    • Keili says:

      I expected it, too, as soon as we heard it was coming. Getting dressed that morning was surreal–do you put on makeup and heels knowing you’re just stopping by to get expelled, or should you just wear your bathrobe and sweatpants? Tell your husband you’re going into the office to get laid off and he can meet you at the bar after 10…

  7. Loring says:

    Beautifully written. I hope to share beverages and stories with you all.

  8. Mich says:

    I miss my job too. I’m trying to go back to work with those nerds.

  9. Cardo says:

    Reading this helped sum up what I was feeling in 2001 when I got laid off at another company BEFORE coming to what was then FLT. Having left RS in 2010, I have to say better things are on its way for all of you.

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