Friday, January 22, 2010

Napping employee has me rethinking my thoughts about privacy

If you read this blog regularly (thank you), you know I am a big believer in privacy and generally not a fan of the many ways in which technology has infiltrated our public and private lives. I have also said that I am immensly thankful that cell phones, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, etc. were not around when I was a misbehaving teen and a reckless 20-something. Some of my more impulsive antics would have provided great fodder for today's online rubberneckers and I (and everyone else of my generation) really dodged a bullet there.

My general position is that, just because you have the ability to snap a photo of someone and send it around the world, doesn't mean that it's appropriate. But, something happened here in Toronto recently that has me rethinking my views on our right to privacy. If you live here, you already know that yesterday, commuters on our subway system witnessed, photographed and shared a photo of a fare collector in full slumber (reclining, eyes closed, mouth open) as he was "working". As I write this, the photo has gone viral and news is spreading around the world.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is investigating the situation and my normal response would be to echo their request that we not "jump to conclusions" but this time I'm going to break my own rules and declare this unacceptable. This is not the place to rant about my belief that unions breed complacency but, as an entrepreneur who has steered my company through the worst recession in my lifetime with zero government help or support, during which time I had to bear the injustice of a garbage workers' strike based on ridiculous, outdated demands, I have had enough!

The taxpayers of this city have put up with too much for too long and, all things considered, have been very loyal, gracious and patient with the TTC in the face of ongoing fare hikes with no improvement in service. From an etiquette point of view, I have to say that I have always been disappointed with the level of service of TTC fare collectors. Even though I always greet them pleasantly, most never even raise their heads when I try to buy a ticket and many manage to conduct the entire transaction without lifting their eyes from their newspaper. I walk away feeling thoroughly invisible.

As a result, this group has failed to build any goodwill with me and I have difficulty digging deep to find any compassion for this particular employee. So, this time around I'm going to go against my instincts and, I say to those who would share this photo virally, post away! Maybe it will finally shake things up.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Have Reality Shows Killed Etiquette?

The other day while at a salon, I had the chance to watch a program I have never seen before and hope to never witness again. It's called My New BFF and the premise involves a co-ed group of people, who,
for no readily discernible reason, are competing to be
 the (albeit fake and temporary) best friend forever of
one Paris Hilton. In the segment I caught, a 19-year-old
woman was voted off the show, thereby losing her
opportunity to spend six months trailing behind this
creature like one of the lap dogs she purchases and
discards at will. What struck me was how the unfortunate
contestant took the news - she broke down in tears and,
sobbing loudly, told the camera that her life was over and
she didn't know how she would be able to continue.
I appreciate that most teenagers have not yet developed the ability to put things in their appropriate context but it saddened me that those tears wouldn't be shed for something more worthy of pursuit, say a university
scholarship or an opportunity to study overseas.

As it happens, I don't share the country's fascination with reality shows. I watched the first Survivor in the summer of 2000 and while I thought it was a novel concept at first, I lost interest when the contestants started to behave badly and I abandoned the genre after that. I know there is a reality show hierarchy of sorts and you could make an argument that shows like American Idol celebrate talent while My New BFF represents just a sad opportunity for people who are looking for their 15 minutes of fame. But I am unable to stomach any of them.

The problem is, I suffer from fontrum. According to the Urban Dictionary, fontrum is the act of feeling embarrassment for people who don't have the common sense to feel embarrasment for themselves. The symptoms of fontrum include a queaziness in the pit of the stomach followed by an overwhelming sensation that if you don't remove yourself from the situation in question immediately you will be faced with indisputable proof that the human race is, in fact, doomed.

My particular strain of fontrum is so acute that I am unable to enjoy live performances of any sort and even have to change the channel during painful Academy Awards acceptance speeches.

Evidently, millions of people are not afflicted with fontrum, and, some actually take pleasure in watching other people make a complete ass of themselves in the heat of competition. And it seems that the people who produce reality programming have no bottom. Just when you think the bar has gone as low as it possibly can, something else comes along to challenge your assumptions.

But my main beef with the reality genre is that there is no place for etiquette on these shows. Moreover, etiquette, civility and manners are viewed as weak and worse still, bad for ratings. While I can't place the blame of the decline of etiquette squarely on the shoulders of reality programs and their creators, they have certainly contributed in the following ways:

Lack of discretion - A civil approach to life is one in which the gory details of your personal affairs remain private. Dirty laundry is not for public consumption and it is certainly not for mass consumption. Moreover, rather than retreating after bad behaviour goes public, the perpetrators seem very pleased with themselves and in some cases, go on to win the million dollars, shot at love, bachelor/bachelorette, job with the Donald, in spite of their indiscretions.

Nice guys finish last - Richard Hatch set the standard on that first episode of Survivor and it's gone downhill from there. Perhaps it's naive to think that someone can win a competition on brains, diplomacy and finesse but celebrating someone who has none of these qualities doesn't bode well for the future of civility.

Misplaced ambition - In her brilliant book Generation Me, Dr. Jean Twenge theorizes that for many of today's young people, self-esteem is much more important than accomplishments, and I believe that the proliferation of reality shows feeds into this phenomenon by making icons and celebrities out of people who are famous more for their diva tendancies than any meaningful contribution to the world.

Lack of awareness - I am particularly annoyed by the reality shows whose focus is to document the exploits of various groups of young, beautiful, rich slackers (see The Hills, Laguna Beach, Princes of Malibu). That these do-nothings are able to aquire fame, magazine covers, fashion lines, CD recordings, etc. by virtue of being born into the lucky sperm club is a really sad aspect of our current culture. Free of the need to work, they could be using their wealth and privilege in so many positive ways but they choose fame over philanthropy.

Exploitation of children - If the definition of etiquette is a "sensitive awareness of the feelings of others" then parents who exploit their minor children for reality show fame are the worst etiquette offenders of the lot. As a parent, I am hypersensitive about my children's privacy and I believe that all children deserve to reach adolescence without the unwelcome baggage of magazine covers, embarrasing photos and Internet discourse waiting for them.

Friday, January 8, 2010

New Year's Resolutions for a More Civil Society

They say if we don't learn from history we're doomed to repeat it and yet, despite multiple failures, each January many of us resolve to stop doing some things (e.g. smoking), do less of some things (eating) or do more of other things (exercise). Statistics show that most of us lose our momentum after about six weeks, as the heady exhilaration of January 1st gives way to the dreary reality of mid-February. And yet, hope springs eternal. Each New Year's Day brings the promise that this year we will be more diligent, less prone to temptation, tougher on ourselves. We will succeed.

This year, in keeping with my increased interest in all things etiquette, I decided to focus my resolutions on things that would help me be a more civil participant in the human race. I have chosen these resolutions for a couple of reasons. The first is purely self-serving in the sense that they don't involve dragging my exhausted self to the gym at 6 a.m. on a weekday morning, saying no to chocolate or limiting myself to one glass of wine. In fact, they can all be seamlessly integrated into the normal course of a day. The second and more important reason is that, despite my interest and passion for manners, I am a work in progress, constantly stifling my baser insticts as I strive to move through the world in a more civil way. I'll let you know how I'm doing six weeks from now.

1. Limit the use of profanity - From time to time, we find ourselves in a situation in which it seems no other word in the English language will suffice to express our level of shock, horror, rage, etc. as adequately as dropping an F-bomb. One simple four-letter word conveys so much and immediately signals the gravity of a crisis. But we can do better, non? Resorting to expletives is crass and unimaginative. Cultivate a richer vocabulary so you can rant in style.

2. Give people the benefit of the doubt - If there are people out there whose only interaction with me was on the worst day of my life, they must hold a very low opinion of me and likewise, I have come across many horrid creatures in my day and walked away feeling that I have the full measure of that person...and it's not pleasant. But everyone has bad days, when the world conspires against you and after hours of mounting frustration, you finally snap on whatever hapless soul happens to be in the line of fire. Try to reserve judgement of anyone until you know them better. On the flip side, if you've given someone many opportunities to display their good side and you still haven't seen it, stop wasting your time.

3. Personalize whenever possible - If you read this blog regularly ( thank you!) you'll know I am not a fan of the group e-mail, holiday card, announcement, etc. I have heard all the arguments for why this approach is efficient, necessary, acceptable, etc. but I believe that relationships are created and maintained with a personal touch. As much as possible, ask, thank and apologize to people personally.

4. Three little words - And while we're on the subject of asking, thanking and apologizing, never underestimate the power of these words: Please, Thank You and I'm Sorry. I promise you that it is not possible to say them enough or to overuse them. In fact, I wager that the majority of full-on fights in intimate, social and business settings could be alleviated or avoided all together with these words.

5. Complain in the right way - I am a consumate complainer. By that I mean that, when I encounter poor service, I express myself to as many people as will listen. Let it be noted that I also provide feedback on excellent service as well. But there is a way to complain and a chain of events that one must go through in order to do it properly. Start with the person who is the source of your ire and give them a chance to explain and/or apologize. If the individual in question does not care, you are free to speak with their manager and to keep going until you get the resolution you desire. If you keep it clean and professional, it's acceptable to complain on Twitter, but not until you have at least attempted to resolve the situation through mainstream channels.

6. Count to ten - One of the reasons I became interested in etiquette is that I am blessed with a very short temper (a family trait passed on by my father). In my early 20s, it controlled me and, realizing that I couldn't go through life being a servant to this very unpredictable master, I started to find ways to keep it under wraps. Like many traits we're born with, it never really goes away, but I've learned various techniques to tame it. One is the old cliche of counting to ten. It really works: sends the rage back down to the pit of my stomach where it belongs and stops harsh words from forming in my mouth.

7. Lose the desire to be right - I'm one of those people who hates to be wrong. Isn't everyone? And if there's one thing that really irks me, it's when people argue with me about factual things that are easy to prove. Someone told me a long time ago that if I could lose the desire to be right, I would be much happier and I've been struggling with it ever since. Of course, there are many occasions in life when there is a need to set the record straight or defend oneself from unfair accusations. But there are also many less drastic situations where simply saying "I must have been mistaken" evaporates the tension and improves a relationship.

8. It's not all about you - I have two business acquaintances (who shall remain nameless) who know absolutely nothing about me. Why? Because they've never asked. It's not that they haven't had the chance. We've spent lots of time together, much of it in social settings, but they have never felt the need to ask me anything about my life. Of course I know a lot about them - their wedding plans, difficulty finding a housecleaner, life goals, etc. but I have not been given a chance to reciprocate. As humans, we love to talk about ourselves. It's only natural! But, remember to ask after each other. Even if you are profoundly uninterested in another's life, etiquette dictates that you at least inquire about the basic things - family, summer holidays, new job, etc.