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