Category Archives: confrontation

Hello, world!

Hello, world!

….If anyone is still out there.

It’s been a busy, exciting, and sometimes stressful few month behind this blog. I’ve been taking an unintended, but much-needed break, and once I got into the non-momentum of not-posting, no post seemed worthy of being the first post…of the new year. After a 2….3….4….month hiatus. Or what-have-you.

But I miss the blog (I don’t miss the columns, as I never quit them, of course) and the only way to pick up again is to just do it, eh? So here we go–easing back in with some good advice from Carolyn’s chat today. She’s stated this philosophy in various forms many times, and I think it’s important, so for today will just share it with you:

You know, it’s okay to choose not to do something just because you don’t feel like it. I don’t advise making a habit of choosing this option, but if you’ve baked for the last three bake sales, for example, it’s okay to say you’re sorry, this isn’t a good time, and you’ll be happy to make something next time. And your unspoken definition of “isn’t a good time” could really, justifiably, be that you’ve been looking forward all week to sitting on your butt and watching a movie.

I see getting comfortable with the word “no” as a multi-step process, especially if you’re starting from a point where there’s a sense of personal risk attached to every “no”–as if everyone will hate you or think ill of you for letting them down. The first step is paying attention to when your feelings turn resentful–that’s the advice you’re referring to, I assume–and recognizing that’s your body’s way of telling you that you’re giving to the point of giving yourself away. Accordingly, you start to step back gently from there.

Once you get comfortable with that process, I think you’ll start to make out patterns–of things you like to give and don’t, of people you like to give to and don’t, or situations when it’s okay to extend yourself and when it isn’t. The second step is to put those patterns together: You’ll see the beginnings of an outline of who you are. You’ll see which are your healthy relationships, which are your passions, which are your vulnerabilities, and what just drains the life out of you. Seeing these clearly will help you say “yes” and “no” to things based on anticipation of how you’ll feel, instead of just reacting to how you feel in the moment. That means you’ll be able to make plans–and decline them–with a growing sense of confidence.

Sometimes you’ll mess up, sure, and overextend yourself here or blow off a worthy cause there. But even those aren’t the end of the world, they’re just life.  One lazy /selfish/entitled decision does not a lazy /selfish/entitled person make. That’s step three, fine-tuning your ability to recognize when to offer help and when to look at the ceiling and whistle and hope nobody spots you. As long as you’re at peace with the cumulative result, you’re fine.

Amy Dickinson on Apologies

Who better to deconstruct the art of the apology than an advice columnist?

Amy Dickinson spoke on this topic today on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.  The piece was inspired by Ginni Thomas’ recent attempt, via voicemail, to elicit an apology from Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991.  The show then spins off into emails and phone calls from listeners.  Listen or read a transcript here.

The lesson?  In short, demanding apologies doesn’t work.

I must say–Amy’s been on NPR for years, but I’ve never heard her before…I like her voice–it’s very calm, but firm.

On being–and paying–upfront

If there are two things I’ve learned from the advice columns, they’re 1) Don’t date married dudes and 2) Don’t expect to be paid for work if you haven’t billed for it.

Both were featured in Annie’s Mailbox today.

LW1 is depressingly predictable:

Dear Annie: I am at a crossroads and need your advice. For the past two years, I have been dating an older married man who works at my office. I started seeing him after my husband and I split up.

Our time together is limited. He comes over to my house once or twice during the workweek and spends some time with me every other weekend when my kids are with their father. We are in contact by cell phone, and I text him throughout the day and evening. We are never together in public unless it is out of town.

My problem is, he has told me he will leave his wife, but he hasn’t yet. When I don’t see him on a night he is supposed to come over, I get angry. He later apologizes, and I forgive him. This has gotten to be our regular routine.

I feel like I have wasted these past two years, but for some reason I keep coming back for more. Should I give up? — P.H.

Le sigh.

LW2, while perhaps less cliche than the “other woman,” is just as common.  Year after year, bitter doctors, lawyers, plumbers, roofers, and interior decorators write letters, complaining that their friends and family are taking advantage of their services in (what’s supposed to be) their off-time.

Thing is, though, most times the person complaining hasn’t made it clear what their services cost them–in time, expertise, or supplies–and therefore how much compensation they require.  For example:

Dear Annie: I respect and love my ex-brother-in-law, “Joe,” like my own kin.

I am a carpenter’s apprentice with excellent skills. Joe, along with several family members, called and asked for my help with some repairs on his home so that he could receive family and friends after his second wife died last year.

I agreed, for a fee, but didn’t specify the price. I told him I’d leave that up to him. The repairs were extensive. I fixed two roofs and the interior ceiling, replaced shingles, patched many holes throughout the house, put up window coverings and painted most of the interior.

Knowing that this is my livelihood and I am currently out of work, I expected to hear from Joe when I finished.

// //

I gave him a two-month grace period before I mentioned the money. He responded as if I were being disrespectful of the dead. He yelled at me and hung up the phone.

Now I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do I sue him for the repairs or let it go? — Sick and Tired in Connecticut

Should the XBIL have yelled and hung up the phone?  Of course not.  But clearly the arrangements had never been clear from the start.  How do you agree “for a fee,” without saying what the fee is?  How do you sue, when there was no agreed upon payment?  How is it a grace period, if the person you’re gracing isn’t aware that you’re counting down the days until you lower the hammer?

S&T and the XBIL should have reviewed the repairs, and S&T should have given an estimate.  It doesn’t have to be what he would charge a regular customer–of course he’s free to cut friends and family as good a deal as he wants.  But it’s asking for trouble to expect unspoken, unwritten, undecided payment.

Further, as an expert in the field, it’s not fair to ask non-experts to determine how much to pay.  Say the XBIL gave S&T $1,000.  No doubt that’s far less than the value of the repairs.  And yet it also seems like a pretty large sum to pay to a relative and friend doing some fashion of a favor.  Would S&T be affronted to be paid so little, or embarrassed to take so much?

Plus, how should the bereaved XBIL know what the going rate is for window repair and roofing, or when S&T expects to receive a check? Nobody wants to be taken advantage of, but most people don’t want to stiff their loved ones, either.  They just don’t know what’s appropriate.  I expect even if LW2’s phone call had gone well, and XBIL was eager to pay, he still would have asked, “how much do I owe you?”

It’s easy to think that with friends and family, talking about money will be awkward and unpleasant–so it should go unmentioned.  But the awkwardness of telling your buddy how much you’ll charge him to repair his roof is nothing compared to the awkwardness of attempting to sue him for not paying you the fee you didn’t ask for.

A little yelp, please?

In an era where means and modes of communication and socialization seem to multiply every week, I’ve generally been impressed with the way Miss Manners has adapted her typically staid approach to etiquette to accommodate questions about facebook, texting, etc.  So I was particularly interested to read the following letter which (though names are mentioned only indirectly) refers to, the community reviewing site (where, as it happens, I’m also fairly active):

Dear Miss Manners: It is in desperation I turn to you to teach proper etiquette to the 20-plus crowd for dealing with problems they have with businesses they patronize. I refer to the all-too-common practice of leaving the place in a huff, rushing to the computer, and yelping about the experience over the Internet. The resulting scathing reviews sharply cut into the business’ customers and revenues. The damage can be severe. Loyal and appreciative customers can do nothing to repair the victim’s reputation.

One extremely popular Web site makes all its money by charging businesses $300 a month both to select which reviews come first on its site and to answer the charges of the negative reviewer. There are reports that businesses who refuse to pay find the good reviews vanishing from their sites and bad reviews taking their place.

I, personally, am horrified by the bad reviews I see. The highly respected ob-gyn who successfully steered me through an extremely difficult twin pregnancy was given a one-star review by someone who visited his office once.

She announced to him she had decided not to have children. He engaged her in what he thought was harmless banter. She flounced out and gave him a scathing review. He lost patients. I just related this story to strangers at a coffee shop, and they immediately knew who the doctor was and were amazed that he had a bad review from anyone!

Professional restaurant critics visit restaurants several times with friends before they write their review. While not every review is glowing, all reviews give credit to the business for knowing its trade.

People who expect and deserve good service from the business they patronize politely bring any shortcomings to the attention of the owner/manager and give them a chance to rectify the situation.

Gentle Reader: Since your one example is on behalf of your doctor, Miss Manners will assume that you do not have a professional interest in suppressing complaints. But is she mistaken in detecting an edge against all who use this method of making their grievances heard?

She does agree that dissatisfied customers and clients should first complain calmly to the person or business itself. Reputable people have thanked her for doing so, always saying how much they prefer the chance to make amends instead of losing patronage without knowing why.

But not every person or company is conscientious— or even reachable. Reviews have been a much-needed outlet for those who have been given the Your-Call-Is- Important-to-Us runaround.

Besides, such sites contain recommendations as well as complaints. Why don’t you write one for your doctor? Although Miss Manners considers it injudicious, at best, to banter with a patient over an important issue, she might be swayed by strong evidence of professional competence.

Those of us who use these sites have all seen this–restaurants with mostly 4-star reviews, whose averages are dragged down by one or two one-star-but-I-would-give-no-stars-if-I-could rants.  But the beauty of these sites is that the reviews don’t just give a score–they tell a story.  When I’m cruising through in search of a hotel, restaurant, or salon, I don’t just look at the score.  I read the reviews to find out where the strengths and weaknesses were, and decide if that’s something I’m worried about, or not.

Further…one bad review in a slew of average-to-good ones isn’t going to impact my decision much.  Reading and comparing makes it pretty easy to tell when a bad experience was a one-off, or even if the reviewer’s just a nutjob.  Five or more poor reviews–well, at that point I don’t even care too much what the place does to rectify problems, because it’s apparent that they’re just not doing that hot of a job in the first place.

This writer declares, basically, that there’s extortion going on between victimized businesses and slanderous review sites.  You never know what’s going on behind the scenes, I guess, but I wasn’t scandalized, or even really surprised, by anything I read on Yelp’s guide for business owners.  In my own experience, positive and thoughtful reviews are encouraged, while rants without basis or direction are unlikely to earn the coveted “Review of the Day,” or help their writers toward “Elite” status.  This is supported by a chart illustrating the distribution of reviews at the link above.

The writer also claims there’s “nothing” loyal customers can do to reverse the damage of bad reviews, a complaint Miss Manners deftly dispatches–write your own good review!

To return to the original question, though, what do you think?  I agree that if there are problems with service, the healthy and mature thing to do is bring it to the attention of management, and allow them to try to fix it.  On the other hand, if a review accurately reflects what a disappointed customer experienced, well, why shouldn’t they post it?

A Little Help Please?

I’ve written before about parents and coaches and kids’ sports and how nasty it seems these events can get.  Abby has posted coaches’ pleas for parents to behave themselves, along with codes of conduct (and another).  Parents have written to the columnists wondering how their kids turned into such bad sports, etc.  But this week, I learned about a new low in children’s athletics spectating etiquette humanity, and it didn’t come from the columns, but from my family’s own experience.

My cousin, J., will be 10 in May–she’s hilarious, happy-go-lucky, and one of my most favorite people.  J. plays on a YMCA girls’ basketball team in Denver, CO, and her game last weekend was the scene of this debacle.

J. does her own thing, for sure.  For one thing, she’s the only member of our extended family with any interest in playing sports (and the motor skills to do so).  Literally since she was able to express a preference (about 2 years old), J’s opted for jeans, t-shirts, and short hair over dresses, skirts, and ponytails.  I remember when she was just learning to talk, if you told her she or something she was wearing was “cute,” she’d respond with “not cute, cool!”

So at the last game, J’s team won by a bundle (yay!) but during the course of the competition, both the opposing coach and parents of kids on that team made repeated snide remarks that the winners had cheated by having 2 boys on their team.  I’m sure you’re connecting the dots here–because J. and one of her teammates don’t look and dress like the other little girls on the team, many of the adults (oooh, would we call them adults?) at the game assumed they were boys–and beyond that, became insistent and insulting when corrected.

Things escalated quickly.  Nasty words were spoken.  Things got physical–no one was hurt, but someone’s cap was knocked off.  There was an arrest.  There was a suspension.  The whole thing was a shameful display of Adults–some thoughtless, some downright cruel–Behaving very Badly.  Grown ups insulting each other’s children in front of their own children?  Actively passing on their own prejudices and assumptions to their kids?  At a kid’s recreational event?  It just doesn’t get much lower or uglier than that, etiquette-wise, or, um, person-wise.

Despite being mortified and scared by the whole thing, I hear J. has bounced back well, and her mom is actively rallying friends in the area to come out to their game on February 6, when they’ll have to play this same team again.  So if you’re in the Denver area, would you think about stopping by (Feb. 6th @ 11:00 am. 1551 S. Monroe St., Denver) to cheer for J’s team and coach, and demonstrate to “the others,” and the kidoodles, what it means to be a respectful spectator and a good sport?  I wish I could be there.

Backrubs are good! Mean people suck!

It’s so easy (it’s so easy it’s so easy it’s so easy)

In most cases, we know, it’s practically impossible for an advice columnist to speak both specifically to a writer’s own situation, and also give insights for the masses. They can’t get all the information they need to lead the writer in the right direction based on three sentences in a letter.

That’s why so often they fall back on “seek counseling” or, if the writer is a minor, “talk to a trusted adult.” These answers aren’t particularly helpful, but neither are they harmful. They’re not particularly satisfying to readers (nor to the writers, I imagine), but at least it’s an answer.

But there’s (at least) one area where columnists can be specific, while also broadly helpful to readers across all types of columns: giving people the words to bring up difficult, contentious, or embarrassing subjects with colleagues, partners, and, in today’s case, strangers on the subway.

Today Miss Manners printed a letter from a woman frustrated with fellow commuters who take whole subway poles for themselves by leaning on them, preventing others from holding on:

Is there a polite way to confront these violators? After all, it is another breach of subway etiquette to speak to strangers (unless there is an unusual event, of course). On the occasions when I have tried a gentle request not to lean, I have usually been met with hostility.

Miss Manners assures her that there is, and it goes a little something like this: “Excuse me, may I hold on here please?”

So simple…yet so effective. For the rider who has been seething for years over this breach of transportetiquette and assault against her safety and personal rights, plotting in her bubbling brain the poster of subway rules she is going to passive aggressively and surreptitiously post throughout the city, such a simple, neutral request probably seems to come out of the blue.

If she’s anything like me, she practiced it in her head over and over and over again. And tried it. And it worked. And, hopefully, it made her day.

Miss Manners is great at these–turning potential confrontations of the offenders by the offended into simple, gracious interactions. Undermining the lecture in manners they want to give by reminding them to simply use their own.

Amy is also great at this. Her forte is less in reminding people not to be crazy, and more in helping them approach potentially embarrassing conversations–the co-worker who is unaware of their fatally bad breath/obnoxious and interfering habit, the partner who gives lame gifts (at Christmas or in bed…), the neighbor who has overstepped their picket fence.

When we feel like we’re being put upon, we tend to seethe until the issue seems too huge for us to approach, and we don’t know what to say, because we’d rather just never face the person again than address what is bothering us. This is the niche where advice columnists have real power and the good ones have real skill–they have the objectivity and distance to see the situation for what it is and spell out in simple, non-confrontational but efficient terms, a script for handling these difficult conversations.

They make it look so damn easy.