How to Business

Business Opinions - May 15th, 1981

by Nigel Hughes

The Executive Secretary

There are only two kinds of executive secretary: the highly competent and the highly incompetent. For some reason, there is no such thing as an “average” executive secretary. You either get the sort of girl who could run the Pentagon without having to put in overtime, or else the type who can’t switch on her typewriter without fusing the lights. Selection of the right girl is therefore crucial. After all, nobody wants a secretary who is too good. You need somebody you can outshine. On a blurry Monday morning, that can sometimes mean having a secretary with the IQ of a slab of tofu.

One such lady I once worked with. This girl was employed in preference to Yokozuna Wajima’s sister, if you can conceive of such a crass piece of candidate selection, and was not really an executive secretary, I must admit. She was made responsible for the filing and fairly soon the mystery arose as to why, although we continued to correspond with the outside world, none of the files was ever full. There were no papers lying around in excessive quantities on desks in the office, and the shredding machines were not per­manently clogged. So the letters must have been put somewhere. Eventually the mystery was solved. The brilliant girl had discovered on her first morning our alphabetical files for sundry correspondence, and had thereafter filed every single letter, in and out, under “D” for “Dear Sir”. For such brilliance we gave up our chances of free sumo tickets.

Not that I set particularly high standards, of course. What a man needs in a secretary is really not much. Who needs typing skills? Who needs a smiling face? A smiling face is no good to a man who has been involved in important business discussions in a Shinjuku bar until 4 a.m. the previous night. Who needs short­hand? Worst of all, who needs somebody who gets on well with the overseas bigwigs? Any secretary who does anything other than making our visitors’ life as purga­torial as possible is liable to get the elbow. We don’t want to give them happy memories of their business trip to Japan, do we? They might come back for more.

What to look for when hiring an executive secretary is skill in coffee making. That is vital. So is the ability to tell incoming callers that her boss is on a business trip when really it is only his brain that has gone walk­about. The ability to distinguish Pakistani carpet-sellers from major customers on the telephone, and to find within two minutes that letter I think I wrote last September, was it to UK or Peru, on that project that never quite got started. This is all you need in a secretary.

Never look at an applicant for the job who has already had experience in your line of business. She’ll be set in her ways, totally incapable of adapting to the individual nuances of your style of operation. Weed out the good-looking applicants. This process will take longer if you’ve been in Japan for some time. One’s sense of values tends to become fuzzy, and a higher proportion of the female population seems to be good looking with every day you live here. The only known antidote is to watch a few heats of the Miss Japan contest on television. Let me add at this juncture that I have nothing against good-looking young ladies (or at least, not as I write, but I fancy my chances for tonight). But as executive secretaries they are totally unsuitable.

Take warning from the tale of one gaijin who sat moodily in his office one  afternoon watching  bis gorgeous secretary painting her fingernails. It was his birthday, and he had been forgotten. All he could do was to stare into space, being driven deeper into his depression by the tantalising smell of his secretary’s latest perfume, an exotic concoction distilled from some unfortunate civet cat’s reproductory organs. Suddenly the secretary turned to her boss and said, “You look very sad today. Why don’t you let me cheer you up? Come and spend the evening with me at my apartment.” Well, need I say more? The gullible fool was a trans­formed man. The smile returned to his lips and the sparkle to his eyes, just like the dog in the Kennomeat advertisement. That evening they left the office toge­ther (the gaijin and his secretary, not the dog and the Kennomeat), and after one and a half hours of enjoyably cramped proximity on the Sobu line, they reached the secretary’s apartment.

“That was a hot and sticky journey,” said the secretary, kicking off her shoes. “Just relax a moment while I go and change into something more comfor­table.” With that she slid back the shoji and slipped into another room, leaving our hero in a tremble of anticipation.

Three minutes later, she slid back the door again and cried, “Surprise!” Surprise indeed, for behind the door were his entire office staff, together with all the food and drink needed for a wonderful birthday party. However, even more surprised than the gaijin were his staff, who were greeted by the sight of their boss wearing nothing but his socks.

No, find yourself an unmarried menopausal harridan for a secretary, somebody who has long since given up expecting anything out of life. Only such a person will be content to make the sort of sacrifices that coping with the barbarian businessman will demand of her every day.

If this particular analysis of the boss/secretary rela­tionship reads like an extract from Teach Yourself Male Chauvinism, so it should. Japan is the last bastion of sexual inequality, and it is up to those of us who remember the days when men and women could be told apart, at least by the size of their hand­bags, to keep the weaker sex ground down. Which is what we are already, come to think of it.