Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Five Ways Reality Shows Are Eroding Civility

I am not a fan of reality shows.  I watched the first season of Survivor and enjoyed it but the novelty wore off quickly and I've missed the ensuing episodes.  I've never watched American Idol or Dancing With the Stars and after accidentally tuning in to Jersey Shore one night, I've avoided that channel ever since.  In the early 2000s, I assumed reality programming was an overhyped fad and, as soon as everyone came to their senses, it would pass and we would be back to professionally scripted television.  But as we all know, that didn't happen and year after year, just when I thought the bottom of the barrel had been scraped dry, it turns out there was more detritus clinging to the wood waiting to be peeled off and served up to millions of eager viewers.

Friends who like some reality shows are quick to chastise me for painting them all with the same brush.  They claim there is a distinction between the ones that are based on talent (So You Think You Can Dance Canada) and those which exist just to follow around a bunch of boring people (The Real Housewives franchise) as they go about their highly-staged lives.  I can concede that there is a difference, marginal as it may be, but from an etiquette point of view, I'm going to speak of the genre as a whole and its negative impact on a society which is already suffering from a downturn in civility.

Devaluing Accomplishment - Last week,former Real Housewife of New York Bethenny Frankel, was third on Forbes list of the highest paid female entertainers.  Think of all the amazing actresses you see on TV, or talented struggling actresses you know, and then think about the fact that someone whose claim to fame is being loud, obnoxious and ungrateful on screen, has "earned" more money than all of them. When the 20-something candidates on Paris Hilton's dreadful My New Best Friend, were voted off the show, many of them sobbed on camera because "their life's dream had been quashed".  Um, shouldn't those tears be saved for not getting into the university of your choice or landing your dream job?

Rewards for Bad Behaviour - Reality show producers figured out early on that immature, inappropriate and shameful behaviour sells (think the duplicitous Richard Hatch on Survivor Season One).  Since then, they have unleashed a steady stream of shameless contestants who lie, cheat and steal their way to the prize.  Kind, decent people need not apply and if they do make it onto the shows, they are voted off the island early on because they don't get ratings. What's more, some contestants (think Omarosa), have been able to parlay their bitchy behaviour into a post-show career.

Lack of Discretion - It has always been considered poor etiquette to air one's dirty laundry in public and I believe, with the rise of social networks, it's even more important that we protect our own privacy and that of our families.  It's bad enough that the people who appear on reality shows are indiscreet about their own lives, but in their unrelenting desire for fame and money, they draw innocent children into it (John and Kate Plus 8), with no thought to the long-term consequences.  In some cases, the revelation of deeply private information can play a role in tragic consequences such as the recent suicide of the husband of one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Glorification of narcissism - We are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic and the proliferation of reality shows is only making it worse.  Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, and a recognized expert on this topic, claims that "the explosion of shallow celebrity culture promotes narcissism as not just acceptable but desirable. Celebrity gossip and happenings are now found on mainstream news channels. The social models we see are often advertisements for a narcissistic lifestyle".  The result is that, instead of being appalled by the antics of many reality stars, people dream of being like them.

Misplaced values - Kim Kardashian, a child of Hollywood wealth and privilege, rose to fame on the heels of the well-planned leak of a sex tape.  She used that as a jumping-off point for a "career" that includes a top-rated TV show, paid appearances at events and a string of endorsements.  This summer, in the midst of a crippling U.S. recession, she got married before cameras, in an over-the-top wedding that was estimated to cost $20 million. While everyone has the right to the wedding of their dreams, what kind of message does this spectacle send to young girls? Considering that success has come so easy to Kardashian, imagine the message she could have sent if she had donated even 10 per cent of that money to charity?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why You Need to Stop Being Late for Everything

While browsing at a small-town thrift store last week, something shiny caught my eye. Hanging on the wall behind the cash register, was a large, cartoonish costume that looked like a burlesque dancer, complete with a garish gold bikini and tassles on the nipples. It was crudely made - white fabric haphazardly stuffed, and an apron-like hook to go over the wearer's head. Sewed to the midriff was a paper sign that read: "I was late for work today".

I asked a staff member about it and she explained that if an employee is late for work, the store owner makes them wear it all day. "Does she really enforce it," I said? When the cashier nodded, I asked if she had ever had to wear it. "Only once," she said, "It was so embarrassing that I started to set my alarm 15 minutes earlier."

As I left the store, I did a small fist pump for the employer who had managed to teach her staff the importance of showing up on time in a way that actually worked but still had an element of fun.  Obviously this tactic lends itself to the atmosphere of a funky thrift shop and would probably be inappropriate in a law office or any other environment where the tardy employee would be meeting with clients.  But the notion that you could shame people into being on time was intriguing.

I have worked with, and employed, people who have been habitually late for work and meetings and while I have attempted to help them understand that their behaviour is disrespectful, disruptive and will decrease their opportunities for promotion, I have not been as successful as the thrift store owner.  

While some of the chronically tardy accept responsibility and are truly apologetic, most believe they are innocent victims of circumstance when in actual fact, being late is the result of many choices that are within their control.  They all have excuses and they're not even good ones: My husband takes a long time in the bathroom. I got caught up watching TV. I forgot I had no clean clothes. My mother called.  I was reviewing my stocks online. I like to eat breakfast slowly. I was having a great dream. It's snowing. 

Obviously I understand that in our fast-paced society, we are all late sometimes.  A kid's meltdown, unexpected road construction or a subway outage can derail event the most organized among us.  But occasional lateness is quite different from chronic tardiness characterized by a complete inability to arrive anywhere on time that is generally part of a lifelong pattern.  

Psychologists have difficulty pinpointing if always-late people are deliberately disrespectful or if they are actually unable to estimate time.  Those of us who generally arrive on time go through a mental process when we are faced with a deadline.  We determine the number of minutes between where we are now and where we need to be and develop a work-back schedule that includes an inventory of everything we need and/or want to do in the ensuing time.  Using past experience, we note how long it will take to complete each thing and if it's obvious we don't have enough time for everything, we eliminate things from the list or do things less "perfectly" than we would like.  As the time ticks down, we check the clock frequently, don't start things we can't finish and look for efficiencies along the way. We may repeat this process several times as we navigate our day.  

Unsurprisingly, people who are always late, don't activate this process and no one can say with certainty whether it's deliberate or innate.  They really believe they can sleep another fifteen minutes, watch ten more minutes of TV or stop at that trendy coffee shop with the huge lineup.  Despite the fact that it has taken them 20 minutes to style their hair every day for the past ten years, they will allot 15 minutes today, thinking they will somehow defy gravity and do it faster.   

Diana Delonzor, author of Never Be Late Again: 7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged, is a reformed late person who retrained herself and now helps others.  Delonzor says that being chronically late goes well beyond poor time management and different people have different reasons, although they're not always conscious.  Some use it as a form of control and rebellion against authority, others lack the willpower and discipline to follow through on actions.  Some people just have an 'absent-minded professor' personality and are always getting lost in their thoughts and activities. She says that being ten minutes late for work everyday for a year amounts to one week's paid vacation.

So are they just irresponsible or do they suffer from an inherent lack of self-discipline?  Well, if they're looking for an office job, it doesn't really matter.  In order for a workplace (and society in general) to function, we need some kind of order and one of the simplest ways to maintain that is to organize our time.  While DeLonzor is proof that a habitually late person can be reformed, it's very hard to change lifelong patterns and once you have the reputation for being unreliable, you can lose friends, get skipped over for promotions and even get fired.

None of us has the luxury of a job that only calls on us to do things we find easy and conveniently overlooks our weaknesses.  For some, tardiness is a weakness, for others it might be teamwork or providing feedback.  We all have to work at overcoming the stuff that just doesn't come naturally.  If you're unable or unwilling to do that, then you're probably sentenced to a life of working on your own, which is not necessarily a bad thing but even then, you will not be able to avoid the odd meeting, wedding or dinner with friends.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Charities - Show Some Gratitude

"It's better to give than to receive" is one of the many lessons my parents drilled into my siblings and me in an attempt to raise kids who would turn out to be good citizens.  To my seven-year-old self, the words rang a bit hollow. In my limited experience, getting something was much more fun than giving something and anyway, I wondered, "Why does it have to be one or the other?  Can't they both be equally virtuous?"

As an adult now, I understand the sentiment and I have experienced the thrill of giving to someone whether it's a gift, financial assistance or volunteer time.  And as a parent, I'm doing my best to help my children realize how fortunate they are to live in a great country with loving parents who are able to provide for them and nurture them.

With that goal in mind that, last December, I asked them to take $20 from their piggy bank and purchase a toy for less fortunate kids.  Neither was thrilled with this request but they approached it differently.  One of them reluctantly agreed, knowing that resistance was futile but the other pushed against the notion, railing about the various injustices his father and I have perpetrated against him and how 'it's just not fair'.  This was disappointing but not discouraging.  At their ages, it's not important that they "get it", it's just important that they "do it".  They will figure out why later.

After a quick trip to Toys R US, we took the subway downtown, making a day of it by taking in the decorations at Nathan Phillips Square and the windows at The Bay, before our final stop at the CHUM/City TV building, where we would drop off our gifts to the Christmas Wish program.

We walked into the building and came face to face with a mountain of toys so high it almost hit the ceiling.  No one was there to greet us so we lingered in the hallway for a few minutes, the boys clutching their bags and looking enviously at the toy mountain.  Finally, a security guard came up and sat down at a desk.  When it became obvious he wasn't going to talk to us, I told him we were there to donate something to their Christmas toy drive.  Without looking up, he gestured to the toy mountain and told us we could just add our stuff to the pile and went back to his paperwork.

While I didn't expect anyone to do cartwheels over our generosity, I had anticipated that a heartfelt 'thank you' to the boys would be the final step in my afternoon of teaching.  Instead, they left feeling a bit sad and full of misplaced jealousy that some other lucky kids were going to get all those amazing toys.  Totally deflated, I didn't even bother explaining that they needed to be distributed between thousands of children.

I have no idea of this was a case of bad timing and I have every reason to believe this is an organization and a program that is truly committed to helping.  We will donate again this year and I'll continue to emphasize the importance of giving with no conditions.  That said, charities must accept that they need to meet donors halfway, acknowledge them, thank them and in cases like this, understand that they are playing a role in the development of future donors.