Being an intern is sort of like being a teenager, in that you are expected to demonstrate the competence of an adult and the subservience of a child. It's awkward. You are puny and small, yet if you step outside your bounds, you will provoke irrational rage, as revealed with exceptional profanity by Barbara Morgan, communications director for Anthony Weiner, who railed that a Weiner intern who violated a non-disclosure agreement was a "slutbag." But if you stay in your lane, you are subjected to ridicule, like the Senate intern whose enthusiastic email asking fellow interns to say the Pledge of Allegiance was mocked of all over the Internet. Fail to take your menial tasks seriously, and you might get fired, or cause an international racist incident, like the NTSB intern who confirmed to California's KTVU that the names of the pilots of the crashed Asiana flight were joke names like "Ho Lee Fuk." Former unpaid interns for Gawker, MSNBC, Saturday Night Live, and Conde Nast are suing for compensation. It's been a tough summer for interns.
And that is why I'm here to help. Due to a combination of both fortunate and unfortunate events, I started my career with a lot of internships. After a while, you start to see recurring patterns. So here are some tips on how to be an intern, from an old intern pro. These are important things you need to know so you can avoid the mistakes made by me and so many other interns who have failed spectacularly before you.
The specter of death hovers all around. First of all, you don't need tips on writing your resume. The typeface doesn't matter. You need help with bigger problems. Your existence is a reminder to your adult coworkers that they have passed their sexual prime and are sliding towards the inevitable obsolescence that precedes death. You have spent the last four years living among people roughly your age, and you will be shocked at the number of comments people make about how old you are almost every day.
There are sexists. Former Weiner intern Olivia Nuzzi wrote in the New York Daily News that when she and several other interns were introduced to their new boss, he thought of a hilarious joke: refer to all the interns as "Monica"! Because Monica was the name of an intern who pretty famously slept with her much older boss, the president of the United States.
Sometimes the sexists are women. Fine, perhaps Weiner's behavior is to be expected of a not-really-reformed sexter. But look how Weiner communications director Barbara Morgan described Nuzzi in an interview with Talking Points Memo: "Fucking slutbag. Nice fucking glamour shot on the cover of the Daily News. Man, see if you ever get a job in this town again." Advice columns are full of old people telling young women to dress less sluttily. It gives you the impression that every female intern wears a miniskirt everyday. This is obviously false. It's just that your body has not yet begun to decay and corrode into middle age. Some people, both male and female, will hate you for this.
Your ambition is tiresome but insufficient. Morgan described meeting Nuzzi like this: "She... like accosted me at like our petitioning thing to be able to become my intern, begged me to be my intern, sent me something within like 20 minutes of meeting her and then proceeded to — she came in the next day and was like, basically, 'I want to be your bitch all summer long, that’s all I want to do is be your righthand person.'" What a go-getter? Or monster? It's not clear.
Your tasks will be rudimentary but you must perform them with gusto. Morgan says she told Nuzzi, "I was like, 'OK, well, it’s not really glamorous, like, you’re going to do clips, and you’re going to do media catching, and you’re going to do x, y, and z and maybe I’ll get you to the point where you’re like doing some other stuff.'" Did Nuzzi perform x, y, and z well? Morgan says no. "She sucked. She like wasn’t good at setting up events." Worse, "For the four weeks she worked there — she didn’t work weekends, so twenty days total." Think about that for a minute: an intern so uncommitted to her job that she didn't even work seven days a week. It's not clear whether Nuzzi was unpaid, but in her piece for NSFWCorp, Weiner refers to her fellow interns as volunteers.
You are expendable. Morgan publicly apologized for her cussing. She tweeted a charming photo of a "swear jar" stuffed with money. She still has a job, because she has allies. The NTSB intern was fired. In fact, a search through the Google News for "intern fired" brings up many fascinating results from years past. In 2011, an intern for then-Rep. Allen West was fired for a pro-gay retweet. In 2009, when an unpaid intern for Sen. Michael Bennet said an hour with the senator would cost one $2,400 donation, she was fired. In 2000, a Spokane Spokesman-Review intern was fired for using the term "Nazi priest" in a headline. In 1970, a U.S. Education Office intern was fired for a "'revolutionary, atrociously obscene' slide show."
Have an open mind. When I started one internship, three editors separately took me aside to warn me about one famous predator in the office. He never said a single inappropriate word to me. I choose to take this as a compliment.
Wear glasses. Some sexist men think women are stupid. Since these men operate on visual cues, a simple smart person accessory like glasses will do wonders.
Refine your brown-nosing game. Egos are fragile. Morgan told TPM, "And then like she had the fucking balls to like trash me in the paper. And be like, ‘His communications director was last the press secretary of the Department of Education in New Jersey'... You know what? Fuck you, you little cunt. I’m not joking, I am going to sue her." It doesn't have to be this way. I was once praised for being far less of an insufferable suck up than my fellow intern. Another example: George W. Bush once referred to an aide by the rather dismissive term "Altoid Boy." Altoid Boy went on to become Assistant Secretary of Commerce for International Trade and Promotion and Director-General of the United States Commercial Service.
Stay on top of the latest tech thing. Your new colleagues are steeped in status anxiety and age anxiety. If you work in politics or media or, I don't know, many kinds of other industries (all industries?), then you are in an industry in which "30 under 30" lists are ubiquitous and the early adoption of communications technology is critical to survival. Play off this. Use it. Claim you use Weibo. Watch your colleagues gasp in horror. Wrinkle your nose in shock: "You don't use Weibo?!"
Revel in your cultural ignorance. Your older colleagues will persistently ask you if you have ever seen the cultural touchstones of generations past. Without fail, they will moan and shake their heads when you have not seen the bad music and movies that were briefly popular when they were teens. Your older colleagues will seek out these confrontations intentionally, because they get a masochistic thrill out of it. One time I made an editor gasp when I said I'd never seen Rocky. You know what? Rocky sucks. Don't pretend you've seen Rocky! Just savor the moment. Someday a youth will make your heart palpitate by saying she's never seen Mean Girls.
Stay under the radar. If you become scandalous as an intern, you will find yourself with few allies, even if all you did was retweet a dumb thing. Wait until you are famous like Jonah Lehrer to become scandalous, because people will continue to defend you, even if you, like, make up quotes from Bob Dylan. If this is not an option, go live in Europe until your friends have climbed far enough up the ladder to give you another internship.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.