Work Vignettes: the verbal warning (Awkward Coffee #1)

An off-white, disposable coffee cup with a plastic lid, placed on an off-white surface, against a blank white background.

Image credit: John Beans (

September 2002 (14 years before autism identification).

It’s Monday morning. The start of a new term. Last week was College Enrolment Week.


(Just a few days ago, I had been clad in a cheap, over-sized, garishly yellow “Here to Help” staff polo shirt. Small, black insects had clung in loose but numerous clusters to the stingingly bright, sweat-soaked synthetic fabric.

For one extended workday, I’d been assaulted by noise, questions, crowds, confusion, chaos, jostling and overwhelm. Body odour, food smells, raised voices, untidy piles of papers, leaky pens, thirst. No hiding places.

Afterwards, I had trudged, head pounding, sweaty-polo-shirt sticky and migraine sick, back to my friends’ flat. I’m staying with them short-term while I find somewhere else to live, after a recent, sudden relationship breakup.

After a brief slump in their sofa, some food, and brief interactions with my friends and their two-year-old daughter, I’d lain myself down on the mattress in their spare room and cried until I was too exhausted to stay awake.)


My line manager has invited me to the college canteen for a coffee.

“I need to talk to you about last week.”


“I know it was a very busy time, but I have to let you know that some of your behaviour was unacceptable. It’s one thing to get flustered, but I absolutely cannot abide swearing.”

“I’m really sorry. You know I’ve just recently come off the medication the doctor gave me. It takes time to get out of my system – they didn’t stop the prescription soon enough. It’s making it difficult to control myself.”

“I really think that’s no excuse. This is a college. It is not acceptable to speak like that in front of students.”

“I know that. I’m so, so sorry. I’m just having a really difficult time. The breakup was awful. You were away when it all happened. It’s so hard. It’s going to take me a long time to get over it. I’m really stressed at the moment.”

“I know you’re having a difficult time. We all have struggles. But it’s important to keep your personal life separate from work. You mustn’t let these things come out in front of people.”

Clattering from the kitchen.

Chatter from nearby tables.

Searingly bright sunshine streaming through the window behind my manager, silhouetting her face and making me squint at her through barely-open, scrunched-up eyelids.

I can still see the spidery clumps of dark blue mascara that coat her eyelashes, but perhaps it’s my mind’s eye filling in the blanks.

I can feel my face getting hotter. I imagine it getting redder. My eyes…

“Let this be a warning on this occasion. But I cannot have this sort of thing happen again.”

“Okay. I’m really, really sorry.” The tears have started. I bow my head towards the table, so that neither of us sees the other’s face.

I realise it’s going to be time to get back to the office soon. There’ll be students to see.

[Image description: An off-white, disposable coffee cup with a plastic lid, placed on an off-white surface, against a blank white background.]

7 thoughts on “Work Vignettes: the verbal warning (Awkward Coffee #1)

  1. It’s the crying that gets me. If I’m told I’ve made a mistake, even if it’s just a misunderstanding, it’s hard to keep the tears at bay. I could explain, but I know from experience that the explanation will be more complicated than I can efficiently articulate, and I wouldn’t be understood anyway. I get that horrible sinking feeling, and then, yes, I cry. Which only makes things worse because nobody expects a grown woman to cry when she’s told off.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sorry to hear this, sounds really rough.
      Honestly, it’s their people skills that are trash in this situation, they are so busy making sure you know a social rule that they aren’t hearing your huge amount of stress you’re under….really, they should be offering you some pastoral support like time off work for stress or something, or suggest you go see your doctor, or take some leave, instead of reducing you to tears.

      best wishes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It doesn’t happen often – I was thinking in particular of a situation years ago, which was caused by a misunderstanding. Once that was cleared up, things improved. Also I should say that at my current workplace, it has been noticed that I’m very stressed, and support has been offered.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the kids words! This was a long time ago. I did have some time off, but in retrospect it wasn’t enough. Plus my use of the meds I’d been prescribed very temporarily at the time had been mismanaged.

        I realise, looking back and also thinking about some of my experiences in the years that followed, that a lot of what I was experiencing was PTSD. The relationship I’d just come out of was hugely destructive and (emotionally, not physically) abusive. But – like the fact that I was autistic – I didn’t realise this at the time.

        And neither did this manager. But she was still insensitive. It still makes me angry to this day that she was more bothered by my using a bit of bad language at a really stressful time than by the fact a comparatively young staff member she was responsible for was having to manage work whilst dealing with a very traumatic life event.

        Liked by 1 person

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