Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When There's Bad News, A Little Accountability Goes A Long Way

Don't be afraid to face the music...

There's a situation happening in my kids' school.  We live in a high-growth area and we've been informed that plans are afoot to build a new school and move some of the children there in 2014.  Depending on how invested parents are in a particular school, news like this prompts various degrees of panic and within a few weeks, the rumours were flying.  To allay their fears, some school board officials offered to meet with parents and answer questions.  An email distribution list was created, parents shared their questions and concerns and, since we were no longer officially in a communications vacuum, the rumours died down.  To make things easier for the school officials, we even sent them our questions ahead of time.

Alas, the meeting was cancelled for no reason (at least none that was shared) and postponed for at least eight months.  Follow-up emails were not answered. 

Without the benefit of an explanation for their sudden change of heart, speculation ran rampant and most people concluded that the school board officials had "chickened out" once they saw the questions.  This could be true.  Or it could be something else much less damning but we don't know because we weren't told.  While chatting with a fellow parent, I suggested that no one can get upset with you when you are sharing information in a kind way.  It's a bit of a throwaway line but what I mean is, any time you're in a situation where you have to tell people things they don't want to hear, the medium is almost as important as the message.

I have had many opportunities to share disappointing, unwelcome or just plain "bad" news in my life and I know without a doubt, that it is always better to face the music, stand in front of people, and tell them what you know.  Even if you know nothing, even if you can't answer a single question, you need to stand there, listen to your stakeholders, acknowledge their fears, address what you can, promise to follow up on things and apologize where necessary.  And, where there's an issue of importance to a group of people to whom you're accountable, don't cancel a scheduled meeting.  Even if you think your presence will not be beneficial, be honest and let them decide if they still want to meet with you.  They probably will and if they don't, they'll appreciate your honesty. 

When You Can't Fix the Big Things, Fix the Small Things

Always communicate!

Is there anything more frustrating than a slow-moving airport check-in line? I found myself in one of those the other day, the old-fashioned kind where there are no self-serve kiosks and the whole transaction must be completed in person with an airline staffer and a computer.  I had two colleagues to keep me company but we were all tired, famished, and somewhat cranky.

The line's progress was glacial, there were only two airline employees and each time someone reached the front, it took an inordinate amount of time for them to complete the process.  There was much conferring with supervisors and phoning for assistance.

When it was finally our turn, the employee explained that they were having trouble with their computer system and apologized for the delay.  As the most cynical member of my small band of travelers, I thought this excuse smelled faintly of "the dog ate my homework" but my kinder companions accepted his apology with trust and grace.

But it would have been better to have that information while we were in line.  Periodically, one of the staff members needed to come into the line, explain the situation, offer apologies and go back to his post.  Instead, they were so caught up in trying to fix a big problem that they missed an opportunity to fix a small problem.  No one likes to be inconvenienced but why compound it with a lack of communication?  Yes, you might have to put up with a few grumbles and eyerolls, but by communicating, you are showing your clients that you care about them.

If something is wrong, just tell people.  They'll still be upset but at least they can't accuse you of lack of communication.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Is Profanity Really As Bad As All That?

Bleep, bleep...

I ventured to a clearance outlet store yesterday.  I usually try to avoid these places, not out of snobbery, but because I hate the long lineups that seem to be a fixture in any retail outlet that promises to save, save, save you money.  But, I needed something that is out of season and therefore, unavailable in "normal" stores.  I found what I was looking for quickly and joined a line of about 20 people waiting to be served by one cashier.  The wait was unpleasant, the surroundings were unattractive and the temperature was stifling but since I anticipated as much ahead of time, I settled in and read the news on my Blackberry to pass the time.  Aside: what did people do to alleviate boredom before smartphones?

When I was second from the front, a customer arrived out of nowhere laden down with purchases and promptly walked up to the cashier.  The man in front of me, with a heavily pregnant wife in tow, told her loudly that there was a line and she belonged at the back of it.  She looked around and murmured sweetly that she didn't notice there was a line.  Personally, I think she was faking it and taking her chances but no matter, she shuffled to the back, professing her innocence all the way.

When it was his turn to go to the cash, the loud man seemed agitated and jumpy.  From what I could see, he was trying to negotiate a transaction that was either outside of the store's policies or that the cashier was unable or unwilling to complete.  In the meantime, a second cashier arrived back from her lunch break so I was served immediately.  As I was paying for my purchase, I could sense that things were getting quite heated over at the other cash station as the man's irritation bubbled over and a few seconds later, he yelled, "Bleep this.  I'm so sick of this bleeping bullshit.  This is the reason I waited in the bleeping line for so bleeping long" and marched out of the store.

For a rare moment, everyone was silent - the employees, the people in the lineup and the other shoppers milling around the store - and just stared slack-jawed at the man, unsure if their ears had deceived them.  Somewhat unwisely, the cashier left her post to chase after him yelling, "Swearing is not tolerated in our store under any circumstances.  You can't treat me like that".  While the people still in line seemed sympathetic, I don't think they appreciated having to wait even longer while she attempted to avenge the injustice.

My own cashier was quite taken aback and I had to wait a few minutes while she composed herself.  With my Scottish background, I'm used to profanity-laden outbursts, fueled sometimes, but not always, by an excessive intake of alcohol. I told her that the guy probably just had a bad day and this might have been the final straw and we can never take these kinds of things personally.  She responded with conviction, "A grown man needs to be able to handle himself without using those words."  Anxious to move along, I nodded my head but the thing is, while I care about etiquette and civility, I actually don't find profanity that offensive. I'm not saying we should all give up on polite conversation and start tossing around swear words in every conversation, it doesn't shock or bother me that people resort to it when they're pushed to the limit.  To me, they are just words and they're incredibly uninspired ones at that.  I've known enough amazing wordsmiths in my life who can cut people down to size in a much harsher way without a single four-letter word.  For a great example of this, catch Maggie Smith's portrayal of the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.

When people reach this level of anger, they're usually dealing with a bunch of their own stuff and the circumstances that finally send them off the deep end are just the final straw.  The person on the receiving end usually just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Maybe I'm cutting the guy some slack because I have had my fair share of awful customer service experiences where I too, have felt so belittled and stepped upon that I wondered if swearing like a drunken sailor could be the only thing that gets through to an uncaring store employee.  My husband, who is often on construction sites where handling problems with profanity is the norm, says it's liberating not to have to dance around issues with political correctness and politeness when you can take care of it swiftly with a few choice swear words and move on.

I'm not advocating that workplaces everywhere should adopt an anything goes approach to coarse language.  But, I guess for me, actions speak louder than words.  What's your take?  Are the words important or the fact that someone has been made so angry that they felt they had no choice but to use them?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Should You Interview Your Childhood Bully?

Why me?

I didn't have a childhood bully.  Like every other kid I had moments of extreme humiliation and embarrassment as a result of occasional bullying but I didn't have my own personal bully, someone who picked on me relentlessly over a long period of time.

But I witnessed a lot of bullying and mean-girling as a child and teenager and while I didn't actively participate, I'm ashamed to say that I stood on the sidelines and never attempted to rescue someone from their tormentor.  My parents taught us the importance of kindness and compassion but for most of my school life, my desire to fit in was greater than any sense of obligation to help others.  Looking back, I can see that I was just too insecure in my own skin to come to the defense of someone else.  Although I squirmed when I saw girls being bullied, I was just so relieved that it wasn't me that I stayed silent.  My inability to speak up has haunted me in the intervening decades and I often wonder whatever happened to one girl in grade five who was bullied every single day because she was poor, socially awkward and often wore her brother's hand-me-down clothes. I hope she's happy and fulfilled and that she never thinks about those days but what if she's permanently scarred?  What if the bullies, and me through my inaction, had such a negative impact on her confidence that she never hit her stride in life?

So I was intrigued by a Salon series,Interview With My Bully which encourages adults to track down their childhood bullies confront them and write about the experience. The published essays are fascinating.  Though the authors are successful, accomplished, mostly-happy adults, they have been unable to let go of the painful memories caused by a childhood bully and have tracked them down in the hopes of answering the question that has been bothering them for decades - Why me?  Some of the bullies are truly apologetic and welcome the chance to relieve their own conscience.  Others are surprised that they were capable of inflicting so much pain and are shocked to hear that they have been on someone's mind for so long.  And sadly, a few are still the horrible people they were at age 10, like the woman in the most recent essay who went on Facebook immediately after her interview to insult the person she had bullied as a child.

Most of the essayists are in their late 30s or early 40s which not only tends to be a time of reflection or renewal but also often coincides with their own kids reaching middle school.  They came of age at a time when bullying wasn't properly addressed in the school setting and in fact, many teachers could be considered bullies themselves.  Yes, I'm talking to you grade six gym teacher.  Today, bullying is discussed at length.      School boards have sweeping zero-tolerance policies.  Celebrities pledge their support for anti-bullying campaigns and in theory at least, children are supposed to feel more comfortable talking about it.  And yet, it continues.  Here in Toronto, there is a very disturbing case in the courts about a disabled youth who was bullied so mercilessly that he committed suicide.

Were you bullied as a child?  Were you a bully yourself?  Or, like me, did you stand by and do nothing while someone else was bullied?  If so, you'll find these essays very moving and maybe even be inspired to get in touch with some of the people from your school days.

Monday, February 6, 2012

If you're going to give someone the finger, make sure it's for a good reason

(AP Photo/NBC)

This is the perfect place for me to express my discontent with the world...

This morning I was crossing a busy street shortly after rush hour. Although I had the right of way, my presence on the road was holding up several motorists eager to make a left turn before the light changed. The driver of the first car in the queue was so impatient that she executed the turn as far as she could go without actually running me over and when I finally cleared her car, I swear I felt her bumper brush the bottom of my coat as she sped away. I immediately felt a tingling sensation in my right hand and I recognized it right away. I wanted to give her the finger. My body was telling me to do something that my mind knows is obscene, especially for someone who cares about etiquette. But I understood the impulse. In situations where you don't get a chance to voice your discontent to an anonymous jerk, it is a handy solution. By simply raising our hand and extending the middle finger, we are saying, "I see what you're doing and I can't stop you but I'm here to tell you that I am a human being. I deserve to be treated with some respect and I'm not going to tolerate your actions."  

So, is that what British rapper M.I.A was thinking when she decided to use a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform live at the Superbowl to give the audience the finger while proclaiming, "I don't give a shit"?  Probably not.  Like Janet Jackson's notorious 2004 wardrobe malfunction, the incident has been grossly blown out of proportion by U.S. media. Superbowl broadcaster NBC has apologized to viewers for its lateness in obscuring the gesture and in a statement, NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said, "The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing, and we apologize to our fans." I think what gets our southern neighbours so riled up in these situations is not so much the gesture itself but the perceived insult to football, a sacred part of American life whose importance borders on religion for many fans.

Do I think that a musician known for controversial behaviour giving a billion viewers the finger is shocking? Not really. M.I.A. is very outspoken about her causes and has been called both a 'refugee icon' and a 'terrorist sympathizer". I am however, annoyed by the forum she chose to make the statement. If you're really that against the world and corporations and everything they represent, is the Superbowl - a highly-commercialized event broad-casted to a billion global viewers - the best place to express it? I assume she received a big paycheque for her few minutes on stage and would have been well aware of what is and isn't considered appropriate and the restrictions placed on artistic 'creativity'.  At one time, most of us have dumbed down campaigns, presented plans that didn't represent our best work and resorted to what's safe rather than what's exciting.  We do it because the people who are paying us want it that way.  Like it or not, when we accept cheques from clients, we need to respect their brand, abide by their notions of what is and isn't appropriate and try not to embarrass them in public.

So, back to my desire to flip the bird to that driver this morning. I truly believe that our society functions better when we're all behaving ourselves but there are so many cases in life when anonymous people disrespect our boundaries, take what isn't ours, treat us like crap and then move on before we have a chance to protest.  So, I'm not going to say on an etiquette blog that it's ever appropriate but I understand the impulse and won't judge you if you fall victim to your baser instincts. Just make sure there are no cameras around.  You don't want your anonymous gesture to come back to haunt you.