Art of the Bluff
Even in Washington, there is such a thing as too-naked ambition

By Sandra Beasley
Sunday, July 13, 2008

THE INVITATION, engraved with the logo of a red shield and golden lion, came addressed to our journal's editor-in-chief. A technology magazine was hosting a re-launch party at the Finnish Embassy. None of our senior staff members could make it.

"You want to go?" asked my boss. "It would be a good chance to hobnob."

I was only a few months into the job. "Hobnobbing" meant pretending I was five years older, five years more qualified and pressing my newly printed business card into as many hands as possible. The scheduled entertainment wasn't promising -- an expert's commentary on nuclear energy in America -- but there would be free Finlandia vodka.

"Sure." I looked more carefully at the invitation: 7 p.m. dinner. 8 p.m. lecture. "Does this say 6 p.m. sauna?"

Apparently, saunas are a tradition of Finnish culture. When the day came, I tucked a swimsuit into my purse. At the reception's check-in desk, a woman handed me a name tag.

"I love your magazine," I said, though I hadn't seen it. "Smart redesign."

Why did I just do that? I wondered. Washingtonians are known for networking, but there's an equal compulsion to fake familiarity. Time after time, I've asked a new friend the name of his law firm and, though I've never heard of it, nodded sagely in response. When in doubt, bluff.

The foyer of the embassy was gorgeous: high ceilings, teak floors. Also: filled with men. Only men. Had I missed the memo that science is for men? Just then, a blond woman dashed toward me, smiling. "Oh, we're late!" she said. "Women are in the sauna!"

We bustled down a flight of stairs without introducing ourselves. In the changing room, I watched my new colleague for a cue as to just how "traditional" this sauna would be. She seemed comfortable -- no swimsuit, no hesitation. The door closed behind her.

Okay. If she could act like this was an everyday thing, then so could I. I stripped down, set my shoulders back and followed her in.

Turns out, getting naked is an everyday thing -- when you're the sauna's Finnish hostess, as she was. My fellow editors, on the other hand, were swaddled in various layers of towels. They were going around the room, introducing themselves: Center for Science. Science magazine. National Science Foundation.

A good bluffer knows when to fold her cards on the table. I'm not a good bluffer. "My magazine reviews books about, um, science," I said. I grabbed the nearest thing to cover myself -- a birch branch, dripping in scented oil -- and draped it gently over my most private parts.

"No, no," the blonde said. "You really need to whip it. It's better if the person next to you does it." She nodded at a middle-aged woman sitting next to me. "Let her do it!"

I looked at the woman, still wearing her pearls from the office. She seemed nice enough, but I couldn't remember her name, and she was about to hit me with an oily tree. I closed my eyes and breathed in steam. There was vodka upstairs, waiting. Lots of vodka.

When we dressed and went back upstairs, there was vodka, but no men. Except one: the featured journalist, fidgeting apologetically in his tweed jacket.

"I'd rather not take off my clothes right before I speak," he said.

There I was, with the man of the hour's undivided attention and a stack of business cards in my pocket. But I don't read up on nuclear fission in my free time. I was

afraid to ask about the Yucca Mountain project without knowing whether to pronounce it Yuck-ah or Yoo-kah. So, instead, I jabbered away about holography research I'd done "back in school," leaving out the fact that it had been in high school.

After everyone reassembled, the ambassador led us to a buffet table heaped with glistening dishes. He welcomed us, partially in Finnish, and we applauded as if we'd followed every word. People picked up their china and circled, complimenting the display, but no one around me took any food. I wondered what the problem was.

A silver-haired man leaned over. "The ambassador said there's reindeer carpaccio on the table," he whispered, "but no one wants to ask him which plate it is."

"Mmmm, Rudolph." I said. "Bring it on."

I was bluffing, but, hey -- I was in good company.

Sandra Beasley and column editor Sandy Fernandez will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at noon.

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