Laura was sitting at her desk, which was so new that no one had bothered to even peel the sticker off of the surface. After having spent an hour staring at her computer screen, she began to pick at it, occasionally looking up to see if anyone had noticed she had no idea what she was doing here. Her cubicle was conspicuous only by its plainness. All the others that she had seen had been customised. Even if it was only a photograph of a person’s mother, it was still more interesting than Laura’s.
She had arrived at the building ten minutes early that morning, but had hung around outside until just before she was supposed to start, too nervous to go into the building, and if a secretary hadn’t poked her head out of the door and called Laura’s name, she probably never would have made it inside. The secretary had then given her a floor and cubicle number, and told her that she could take a twenty-minute break whenever she wanted. That had been all the information she had been given.
She checked her watch, and then looked at the big clock above the door. Both said it was only half eleven, but Laura couldn’t take it anymore. She picked up her bag and headed for the break room.
She sat down at a table in the corner, carefully avoiding the eyes of the two women who were already sitting around chatting, and took out the bagel she had bought at the station that morning. Pulling a face at the rocket the deli had put in, she ate anyway. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself by picking it out.
“So you’re our newest Stereotypist are you?” someone said as he sat down across the table from her.
She looked up slowly, taken aback by the attention “Stereotypist?” she asked.
“They didn’t tell you at your interview?”
“I didn’t get an interview.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“They do that a lot round here. It saves money on advertising apparently.”
“But how do they find us?”
“No idea. I try not to think about it. I’m Toby by the way.” He said, holding out a hand.
“Laura,” she replied, shaking his hand.
“Nice to meet you.” He said with a smile. “So if you didn’t get an interview, did anyone actually tell you what you’re meant to be doing?” Laura couldn’t tell whether to be insulted or thankful that someone was going to help her.
Toby laughed. “They like to throw people in at the deep end here. It’s a bit mean really.”
“Well anyway, we’re stereotypists.” Laura stared at him blankly, and he grinned again. “We write stereotypes. You know, like how everyone thinks that the Dutch all wear clogs and smoke weed, or how Americans are all fat and lazy.”
“My personal favourite is the one about how all chefs have a thing for collecting ceramic spoons.”
“I’ve never heard that one.” Laura said, an apologetic tone creeping into her voice.
“Damn, they must not have processed it yet.”
“Yep. We write an application, submit it to the board, and if it gets approved, then the stereotype comes into play.”
“So,” Laura began slowly, “we just make things up?”
“No no.” Toby said almost indignantly. “It’s a lot of work, we’re almost anthropologists. We have to study cultures and international relations, things like that, take everything into account. It has to make sense. Like my chef’s thing. A mathematician wouldn’t collect spoons, but a chef would.”
“I suppose that’s logical.”
“Unless we’ve got a deadline of course. Then we can make it up.” He said with a chuckle. “That leads to some interesting things.”
“So does this really work? Do the things we write, they actually form people’s opinions?”
“Oh yeah. I don’t know how they do it, but it really works. For example, why do you think mad scientists all look like Einstein? He worked in the Swiss office before he made it big in physics. He decided that he wanted to be the stereotype for scientists. It’s a bit weird, I have to admit, but he was a brilliant stereotypist in his day. Pity he gave it all up to change the face of science.”
“Is that really true?” Laura was amazed. Having studied physics, she’d always felt a little idolisation for Einstein.
“Of course it is. Mind you, that level of involvement is quite rare, but there’s some leeway for personal attachment. Just try not to be too negative. We had some issues back in the 30s, and occasionally you get some crackpot who slips through, but they get weeded out pretty quickly.”
Toby looked at his watch. “We should be getting back to our desks, we’ve been out nearly twice as long as we should be. No one will mind,” he added quickly, seeing the panicked look on Laura’s face, “but it’s best not to provoke the higher-ups.”
They walked back to the office together, and while Toby explained a little about the ins and outs of office life, Laura, who feeling much better about her new job, began to formulate her own stereotype.