The accidental welcome

25th September 2015 at 01:00

The hair and beauty department have new uniforms. Like the Pink Ladies in Grease, they stalk the corridors in glamorous packs, resplendent in mauve polyester. “I look like a bloody plum,” one learner told me, but most of them seem happy enough. And I’m sure they’ll get used to the electric shocks from the mix of man-made fabric and metal door handles.

After a quiet summer, the canteen staff are getting used to serving piles of learners with piles of chips again. It seems the best-laid plans of Jamie Oliver are yet to filter down – it’s mostly staff who eat from the salad bar. But the one food that unites staff and students is the daily portion of Angel Delight. It’s been raspberry for four days now and it tastes a bit like bubble bath. I fear revolution if we don’t soon get butterscotch, or chocolate at least.

There are new staff – and new roles for existing staff. The cocktail of excitement is laced with a heavy dose of confusion and a garnish of mild panic.

The campus services staff are back too, and one of my favourite places to visit on my rounds is their staffroom. “’Ey up, vic!” is the usual greeting, followed by a joke and a quick question about any crossword clues that are proving particularly tricky. It’s an ever-changing scene, with staff drifting in and out between jobs, but there’s usually someone to talk to – and something worth talking about.

The staffroom was repainted over the summer, so some of the more questionable posters have at last disappeared, but the warmth and welcome of the place is the same. They asked me to turn their Christmas lights on last year and I was honoured.

It’s not the only part of the college that’s had a lick of paint. The foyer is looking shiny too, with fresh paint and new chairs. Even the plants have had a dusting. “Welcomers” manned the door during induction week: well turned-out staff with name badges and smiles. There’s a fine line between being made to feel welcome and being made to feel like you’ve been accosted by the scary perfume-brandishing lady in Debenhams, but they did a great job.

Americans do this type of meeting and greeting very enthusiastically, everywhere from churches to shops, and it’s typically well received. But it doesn’t go down quite so well here. I once worked a shift at TGI Friday’s in this sort of role; even for this extreme extrovert, it all felt a little awkward.

We British want to be made to feel at home, but would rather not have too much shouting about it. Perhaps we should teach a generous but not too effusive welcome as a British value.

The difference between deliberate and accidental welcoming can be huge. Both can exude warmth and generosity and can transform terror into ease. But sometimes the deliberate welcome can feel a little forced. With so many new students and staff, there are loads of people to be made to feel at home, but next year I wonder if the campus services staff might do it better with one of their friendly “’Ey ups!” I’m not sure they would wear the name badges, though.

Rev Kate Bottley is chaplain of North Nottinghamshire College. @revkatebottley

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