A few years ago a co-worker told me about some research she’d read stating that, if we own cats, our lives are controlled by these feline friends. I laughed at the time but now I’m thinking that study may have been correct.
What’s the first thing I do in the morning? Feed the cats.
Where do I sit? Anywhere the cats are not.
Have I ever changed the channel on the TV to pacify my cats? Of course. If one of them seems agitated by what they’re hearing or seeing on the screen, click goes the remote. Well, sometimes I just mute it for a time.
If both cats are showing me a lot of attention, I’m fairly certain that in their furry little minds it’s time for dinner. Even if it’s only 3:00 in the afternoon.
My world is better with my cats, so I don’t mind their control. I do, however, sometimes get annoyed with others controlling my life. For example, my local grocery store chose to stop stocking my favorite juice. I know the manager there so I asked him why, and he didn’t have an answer. They sold plenty of it. Perhaps it was a supply issue, he suggested.
At my job I had to work a series of pretty crummy shifts because of a co-worker who took a whopping eight weeks off for her daughter’s wedding. As you might imagine, this woman is pretty controlling in a number of ways–how many brides would allow their mother that much oversight?
Management approved this time off and couldn’t hire anyone to replace her or they would have been overstaffed when she came back. Not that they should be worrying about that. She’s asked for another three weeks off in the short time since she’s returned.
I don’t know who I’m more critical of in that case, my co-worker or management.
Of course as I gripe about this I wonder if there are areas in which I’m taking advantage of anyone else. I don’t think I am–I’m pretty sensitive to that sort of thing–but you never know who might be muttering under their breath about you.
Anyway, the bottom line is, none of us has complete control of our lives.
Perhaps some of you have been taught the communication technique of “echoing” or “mirroring.”
After listening to a colleague’s thoughts or explanation of a situation, you summarize what you heard and, in your own words, repeat it back to them, prefaced with something like, “what I hear you saying is…” I think it’s suggested for personal relationships, too, but that’s a different topic for another day.
I’d learned about this approach to understanding, but hadn’t truly had a chance to use it, when I began a new job at a major corporation in the southern U.S. I was learning, through one painful lesson after another, that the direct approach was rarely appreciated here. Instead, a passive-aggressive, read-between-the-lines method of communication was considered professional and respectful.
For example, if someone asked for my help with a project that afternoon, and I knew my own deadline would preclude me from being available, it was best not to say, “I’m sorry, the Acme project is going to keep me busy all day. I won’t be able to help you.” The preferred response was, “As soon as I’m done I’ll come over.”
To me, it was dishonest and disrespectful to imply there was a good chance I’d be able to pitch in when I knew full well it would never happen. What I didn’t realize was this was code for, “no way will I have time for anything but my own work” and those raised in this area of the South clearly understand this convoluted language.
The lesson slammed down on me one day when I was called into a meeting with other managers in my department. They wanted to discuss a program our superiors were enthusiastic about, but was difficult to make practical. It sounded good. For one week, a manager and an hourly worker would partner together and train each other in their respective responsibilities to help understand the highs and lows of the “other side.”
In practice, this idealistic program was fraught with problems. While my colleagues agreed on the surface it seemed like a good idea, the stories they told me illustrated how frustrating it really was for everyone involved. However, it didn’t matter what they thought, they were mandated to make it work, and they were hoping I might have some fresh ideas.
I mirrored back a summary of what I’d heard them tell me. “It sounds like you’re being asked to manage a program you believe has possibilities, but what you’ve been doing so far hasn’t been working.”
The meeting ended with that statement. Two of the women walked out in disgust at my “rudeness.” Another sat there staring at me, as if she didn’t know what to say. A fourth pulled me aside and lectured me on professional behavior and respecting the feelings of others.
As someone who always, always considered the sensitivities of my co-workers, to a point where one of my supervisors listed “too nice” as my greatest fault, this was a shock. I struggled to understand, tried to explain the method of communication, and asked what I “should” have said.
I never got a response to the latter, and they brushed off all my explanations. In retrospect I believe there was something else going on. There had to be. I said nothing insulting, my intent and manner were respectful, practically deferential.
Yet communication is different in various regions of the country, and for that matter, the world. Those women would have fallen flat on their rears if they brought their communication expectations to a company in New York, just as I would have been told to be more straightforward.
Minnesotans pride themselves on what they term, “Minnesota nice.” You drive a few hundred miles south, and people who hear that phrase will think you’re being facetious. “You know, he was (air quotes) ‘Minnesota nice.'” What’s considerate in the Upper Midwest is blunt and coarse in the South.
How did I handle the frustrations of this communication block? After two years of the underhanded words and behavior of others in my department, I quit. I didn’t have the strength or wisdom to fight it, or the savvy to appropriately adopt the same thinking. I didn’t even fully understand what was going on.
Experts will tell you that when indirect communication is used, a knowledge of the culture is essential for understanding the meaning. That’s a challenge when you’re unaware of the depth of the cultural differences, even in your own country.
What I saw as disrespectful in what I earlier called “underhanded words and behavior,” people whom I came to respect believed was considerate, putting the other person first. Of course you don’t tell them you can’t help them. That’s rejection. So they developed this method of (as they see it) kindly saying “sorry, I’m not available.”
Communication is more than words, although some try to limit it to such. It is knowing the people around you and the environment you are living in. It is understanding when the issue being discussed isn’t the issue you’re dealing with, when to fight for your rights and dignity and when to maintain that dignity by bowing out.
It is being human, and letting others be the same.
It’s with immense relief I can say I finally found my lost pair of glasses.
Ironically, they were very near to where I was long certain I’d find them, yet somehow I’d never looked in that particular odd spot. I finally pulled out a flashlight, and the extra amount of light did the trick.
Most of the time I wear contact lenses, and the glasses are a back-up. On occasion, however, they are necessary, and while thankfully I hadn’t had dire need of them in the two months since I lost them, the time would have come.
With my prescription, it is impossible for me to get glasses for less than $300. Don’t bother telling me about any discount outlets or such, because they can’t or won’t deliver for less than that amount, no matter what they advertise. Since I’m out of work right now, that cost is far beyond my reach. I was getting a little scared.
I was very amused to make another discovery: a small stash of improvised cat toys under my bed, in the far corner. A loosely wound ball of yarn, a baby bootie, some crumpled up foil, among other things, were piled together, evidently placed there by one (or perhaps both) of my cats. If I had to name one of them, I’d say it was Mimi, for she is by far the more clever kitty.
It brought to mind a mini-mystery at a favorite job I had several years ago. The office had an honor snack bar in the break room, and all nine or so employees could pretty much be counted on to pay for their candy, nuts or gum, with only the occasional memo going out saying we were short by 25¢ and would the guilty party please pay up. Inevitably we’d then end up with an extra two or three dollars the next time the honor bar was traded out.
Then, suddenly, we began to be short by significant amounts. Ten, fifteen dollars. Again, the memo was sent, and again, we over-compensated for the loss (each of us certain that in an absent-minded moment we’d taken a snack and forgotten to pay). But we were perplexed. Why the sudden dramatic change? (Excuse the pun.)
One employee would knowingly blame another, whispering the suspect’s name in the eager ear of a giggling gossip. It began to be uncomfortable.
This went on for months, and our executive director was exasperated. The honor bar was going, he told us, no matter that we always paid up, there was a problem and he wasn’t going to tolerate it. We were embarrassed and remained confused. A dollar here, a dime there, that we could understand. But this was too much.
Then one day one of the women noticed a suspicious piece of paper peeking out under the supply closet door. She opened it up, but other than what she’d already seen, the small room was spotless. She peered behind the door, and there was our answer. An enormous pile of wrappers, half-eaten candy and…mouse droppings.
Since that corner was hidden once the door was open, and no one ever closed the door behind them when entering the closet, our house mouse had been able to effectively hide his crime for quite some time.
We got a good laugh at how picky he was. Not a speck of any Snickers bars remained, but the Skittles and licorice, no doubt distasteful to mice, were barely touched.
Unfortunately, our executive director was not impressed we’d found our culprit and solved the mystery. The honor bar was gone by the end of the week.
We’d spent months secretly suspicious of each other, quietly trying to catch the one of us sneaking off with snacks without paying. Sadly, some of that animosity remained for the rest of the time I worked there.
The answer isn’t always obvious, and people don’t always easily give up their conclusions, no matter how clear the evidence may be that they were wrong.
All you can do is live your life with integrity, and trust the gossips will do themselves in.
I have an offbeat sense of humor, and sometimes things I think are funny fall flat.
I guess that’s true of many, if not most, people at one time or the other, but it doesn’t feel terribly universal when you’re sitting with a group of your peers and realize either you weren’t as hysterical as you thought, you were totally off with your reference, or your peers are your peers because of job title, not age, and they’ve never heard of the (very famous, Oscar-winning) film you used as a punch line.
In my case, I was working at a major bookstore, and we were having some annual pre-holiday training. The staff was split into small groups, and the various managers led their groups in practical exercises.
Quentin, one of the assistant managers, was in charge of my team, all seven of us. I was in my 40s, Quentin was maybe 30, and the six others were no more than 25. I should have known better.
“You have a customer who’s going on vacation to Turkey with her husband in January, and she wants to put together a Christmas stocking with things he can use for their trip. What would you suggest?” Quentin asked his bored employees.
The suggestions were made half-heartedly. A map — a travel guide to Turkey — some games or crossword puzzles for the plane trip. My team members were missing the obvious.
“A DVD of Midnight Express,” I said.
No one got it. In fact, they’d never heard of the movie. As it turns out, none of them were even alive when it was released. Well, Quentin may have been in diapers, but he still wasn’t familiar with this iconic film. I was left with the option of either explaining my joke (usually a bad choice) or telling everyone to ask their parents.
For those of you not familiar with Midnight Express, it’s a fictionalized account of the true story of a man arrested for smuggling hashish out of Turkey. It was a tortuous experience, and eventually he escaped, before certain death in the Turkish prison.
Okay, maybe not the film to watch before a vacation to that beautiful country. Still, I laugh at my own joke even today, more than ten years later.
The stereotypical requirements for a desirable spouse go like this, “attractive, intelligent, with a good sense of humor.” Translation? “Someone I’m attracted to, who is as smart, but not too much smarter, than I am, and who laughs at the same things I do.” I know there are people out there, even other people on that same job (who sadly were on a different team), who would have laughed at my joke.
My friend Laurie would laugh. That’s one of the reasons she’s been one of my best friends for more than 35 years. We may find humor in odd things, but we’re sharing the joke. Her husband has the same brand of humor, and it’s helped get them through some tough times. In fact, they can joke about the pitfalls of marriage, something some of my friends forget to do.
You have to laugh, or you’ll go crazy. Find the humor and share it.
And hang on to the friends who can’t help themselves and laugh with you.