Civility has its limits

About six months ago, journalist Liz Clancy Lerner asked me, “Can someone ever be too nice?” My short answer was yes, followed by a number of examples that were obvious, like in cases of violence, rape, and other extreme scenarios.

But recently I thought again about how complex civility can really be. There isn’t a fine line that designates when it is appropriate to be unkind and when it is necessary to play nice.

I typically err on the side of being nice or friendly. I do this to “save face.” That’s how I was raised. What will people think? How will it look if…? That was always the question and primary concern in small town Iowa.

As I grew older I began to embrace the side of me that was more forthright and more assertive – which often times made some family members uncomfortable. But it has been an asset to me many times in recent years, and I’m happy now to own it as part of my persona.

Even still, I have trouble putting my new “assertive Jen” mode to meaningful use. It’s great when I’m joking around, and it comes out full force when I am pushed too far. But what about those middle-gray times when it’s not black and white? I still play nice and save face. And I’m left wondering, “Did I react the right way?”

I work near a spot in town where an art event was going on Friday night. Needing to use the restroom, I knew I could just pop into my work building and use the facilities there. As I walked into the lobby, I saw some familiar faces – cleaning people and the security guard “George.” He is an older man, probably in his late sixties. Unlike a few of his security guard predecessors, George has been professional with me when we’ve interacted. Surprised to see me after work hours, he asked what I was up to, told me I looked nice, and then gave me the key to the ladies room. After doing my business, I returned to George’s desk and made a little light chitchat. I didn’t really care to visit much with him, but thought it was the nice thing to do.

George told me how pretty I looked again. I thanked him – I never mind a good complement. Then he said to me, “You should come back here and sit on my lap.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Could this sweet old man really be making a pass at me? I asked him to repeat himself to ensure I had heard him correctly. “I said, ‘You look so good. Why don’t you come back here and sit on my lap?'” he replied, with a chuckle.

Having been one of many women in that building who had received inappropriate looks and advances from previous security guards, I was well-practiced at my response. “George, you should not talk to me that way. I am a married woman and that is inappropriate. Don’t you realize you can lose your job? Other guards have been fired for this sort of thing.”

George replied, “No, no I doubt that. See, a man can say anything he wants to a woman. As long as he isn’t touching or raping her or holding her arms against a wall he isn’t doing anything wrong.”

“ARE YOU F*@&!#$ KIDDING ME?!” I thought. Did this man seriously just say that?! Yes. And he meant it. He seemed shocked that I thought making those sort of advances was inappropriate in the workplace. I replied, “Well, it’s not okay with me. Don’t talk to me that way again.”

So far so good. Assertive. Civil. Firm. To the point.

Then I did something I don’t understand, and it happens all the time. I reverted to a friendly mode, keeping the mood light but serious, and as I walked away smiling I said, “It’s not cool George. Not cool.” I shook my finger at him. “I’d like to see you try to say that with my husband around. He might not be so nice!” George laughed and I left the lobby.

When I arrived back to my husband I was furious. Furious with George, but angry with myself as well. Why hadn’t my anger been so intense when I reacted to the guard? Why did I feel the need to make nice?

It's hard to find relevant images sometimes. I picked this one because I liked it! Source: http://mystylishbump.blogspot.com/2011/04/think-happy-thoughts.html

I do this all the time – try to smooth things over after a confrontation. Even when I know I am standing on firm ground and am in the right, I still try to gloss over the situation with humor or smiles.

Of course, I was proud of myself for asserting that it was wrong to say those things to me. In the past even that response would be difficult to summon. Let me give you a comparison: 7 years ago my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. One of his family members (not his kids or grand-kids thank goodness) said it was his own fault for getting cancer because he didn’t listen to his doctors. I was highly offended and angry. That is not the sort of thing to say when someone has cancer metastasized to their bones.

But what did I do? I said, “Well, I don’t know about that. I’m sure he listened to his doctors.” Then I talked amiably for a few minutes, gave her a hug saying how lovely it was to see her, and I left (angry on the inside, smiling on the outside). Why? First, I didn’t want to start a family feud. Second? Well, that is what I thought was proper behavior. In 2004. But it’s not “proper” to roll over when someone bad mouths a person you love. And it’s not okay to mislead someone into thinking something is not as serious as you really feel it is by smiling or joking around after the fact.

In the end I am realizing there are times when being nice is completely inappropriate.

George needed to know that sort of behavior was unprofessional. My relative should have been told her statements were offensive. It was my responsibility to be assertive and call them out on their behavior with confidence and gravity rather than alleviate their guilt and discomfort with humor and lighthearted banter. However I may have been socialized as a child, it is my duty to address my fear of conflict, deference to others, and lack of confidence when asserting my perspectives. And maybe next time, I will be able to leave my offender with a bitter taste of honesty rather than the sweet flavor of pseudo-civility.

Advertisements

Rejection is a drag

I’ve been looking for a job in my field (art) for a little over two years now. Job-hunting during a recession isn’t really how I had envisioned my post-MFA years, but then I was a little idealistic (okay, a lot). My attitude six years ago somewhat reminds me of those Xtranormal animations that make fun of academic careers in the liberal arts (I finally understand all the weary looks!):

I like to think this hefty dose of reality (courtesy of the job market, the economy, and the nature of higher education) has improved me personally and artistically. It has certainly broadened my perspective.

This economy makes it especially hard for those in the fine arts to find work in their field. But on March 5th I saw a job ad that was so completely, absolutely perfect for me I couldn’t contain my excitement. I spent five days on my application, laboring over every sentence on every document the university requested. Everything had to be flawless. It was by far the best application I have ever assembled.

In early May the call came: I was invited to interview by phone with the search committee! This alone was a triumph. An interview! Finally an opportunity to show people what I can do! Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I prepped for the interview extensively. Over-prepared is more like it. But this obsessive research and rehearsal came in handy, because the next week I received the ultra-coveted invitation: an on-campus interview!

The interview went wonderfully. After nearly twelve hours of meetings and meals and tours, I was released back to my hotel feeling excited and cautiously optimistic. The feedback I received was incredibly positive, leading me to believe that indeed I had done well. Yes, I had made a few faux pas, but nothing serious. Of course, I would spend the next month analyzing those “mistakes” anyway, wondering how I could have done better. But in the end I knew I had done my best to convince the search committee that not only could I do the job, but I would do it with unparalleled passion and excitement.

I had already worked on visualizing the whole thing coming to fruition. I envisioned getting the phone interview, how it would go, getting the on-campus interview and how it would play out. Just to cover my bases I visualized both phone and email scenarios. Now, after the job interview had passed, I had to imagine receiving the job offer. That was where my hopes started to elevate even more. I could really see myself moving there, living there. I knew what salary I needed to justify the relocation. I imagined suitable homes and visualized packing and moving to my new town. And I dreamed of leaving my current job; packing up my desk, saying goodbye to everyone, handing in my building pass, walking out those doors of a place that would no longer feel so familiar. And though it is a job for which I am very grateful (any job is better than no job right now), it is also a place at which my skills are wasted – if not discouraged at times. A place where I stifle who I am so I can pay the bills. I really liked the idea of flipping that scenario on its head. At my prospective job, I could be everything I am and still pay the bills. Talk about win-win.

So, I waited. And waited. One week. Two weeks.

That’s when I became nervous. Had I told too many people about the interview? Did I jinx it? Did I fail to send something the committee needed but didn’t outright request? Was I too wishy-washy about some things, too certain about others? Was I too candid with my prospective boss? My excitement waned as the days passed. It began to seem unlikely I would get the job. Silence has a way of eating at my confidence. But I kept hoping. “You never know,” I told myself.

After three weeks I decided to check on the school’s progress. I emailed the department head and asked after the progress of the search. Four days later came her reply. She had just received an offer acceptance from a different candidate. I didn’t get the job. She wrote some very kind words about knowing I had a bright future ahead of me (which is very nice, as she didn’t need to say anything at all), but I was crushed nonetheless. Truly disappointed. Rejected. And back to square one on the job search. That discouraging, frustrating job search.

Some people say I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up, but it was hard to do when everything seemed so perfect – serendipitous in fact. (And when so many people agreed that this job seemed the perfect match for my personality and skills. Consensus really killed objectivity on this one.)

Many folks say there was a reason I did not get the job (as in – God was looking out for you, or something better is in the future). The jury is out on that one. Meanwhile I am waiting for that wondrous thing called “hindsight” to kick in, but I have yet to get to a place where hindsight applies.

Others say, “This is how it works.” And they are right. It can take years (if ever) to get a position in the fine arts. But me? My thinking is a little different – and still very idealistic.

I’m convinced – based on many blessings in my life – that I can defy the odds.

I believe I can do what other people say cannot be done. (I have done it in the past. I can do it again.) And with that attitude comes a healthy dose of perfection paired with impatience. Not the best combination of traits for someone who feels like that one chance to prove herself lies somewhat in the hands of perfect strangers. Naturally, I needed some space from all this job business.

Lucky for me I had a vacation coming just a week or two after the big “no thanks.” Two weeks with family 1000 miles from my real life. Road trip indeed. Just what I needed.

Returning to work was difficult. Instead of handing in my badge, I was swiping it for another undetermined length of servitude. (Again, not ungrateful for the job I swear! Just hoping for a better one some day….) But a job’s a job, and I was lucky to have it.

Friends showed admirable amounts of concern and encouragement. It was heartening to know just how many people believe in my abilities to manage, organize, network and help others. It was important that I listened to them, not letting my disappointment drown out their encouragement. And of course, they wanted me to cheer up – because that is who I am: cheerful Jen.

So I put on my brave face. I noted the benefits of the whole thing: interview experience, new connections, the benefit of receiving that coveted interview rather than the cookie-cutter rejection letter. I pointed out the blessing in having a job to return to, a job I can do pretty well that also is flexible enough to let me be an artist (woohoo!). Health insurance, vacation time! Air conditioning! A decent pay that covers my day-to-day expenses (do I really ever need to pay off those student loans? Well, at this rate, it won’t happen before I’m seventy, but anyway…). A great apartment, a lovely landlord. An abundance of friends. My art work. My husband. My family (far away but loving!). My health. The lovely cool northeastern weather system. Proximity to NYC, Boston, the coast, Phili…. Yes, I have so much to be grateful for.

And I am.

But having the “right” attitude can be tiring when you feel disappointment. So how do you balance the conflicting emotions?

I’ll take a stab at it with my “Be Nice. solution at the end of the anecdote” moment. This is what I learned from the process.

When you get some unfortunate news (this could apply to other scenarios, not just mine):

Allow yourself to be bummed out. Cry, yell, journal angrily, play endless amounts of video games, live in your pj’s for days straight, become a vegan, dye your hair pink, develop a new interest in taxidermy, whatever. Do what you gotta do, but get the sad stuff OUT. Don’t bury it. Don’t burn bridges. Just feel your way through it.

Reserve the right to tell others you don’t want to talk about it. It’s your life and your bad mood is none of their business if you don’t want it to be (assuming you’re not being a jerk to them, in which case you’ll have more problems – so try not to be a meanie).

Give yourself a break from the job search for a few days, but then get back on it. People deserve the benefit of your contribution in the workplace, trust me.

Be receptive to others’ encouragement. Those words may not feel very great in the shadow of insecurity and disappointment, but they will be useful in the future. So tuck them in your memory bank for a better day, and whip them out when a pick-me-up is in order.

Once you get that crappy-sad feeling out of your system, find a goal to throw yourself into. Distraction is key. It will remind you of what makes you such a great “worker” in the first place. And eventually the distraction will become something else entirely, and you’ll find yourself once again tapped into your genuine energy.

I’ll leave you with something my mother said to me, which I think can apply to so many people who long for the day when their heartfelt vocation has become their work. She said, “That day is coming Jennifer. And when someone finally has the good sense to hire you, they’ll wonder how they ever got along without you!” I like that idea, don’t you?

You’re just too nice. Seriously.

Last month, in an interview with Liz Clancy Lerner of AllOverAlbany.com, I was asked a question I don’t very often consider:

Can someone be too nice?

Simple answer: Yes.

You know the type: people-pleasing tendencies, lacks self-confidence or an autonomous behavioral compass, and – the obvious one – a doormat. An “emotional tampon” (gross analogy – my apologies, but true don’t you think?).

I hear this one sometimes.... (Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/the-g-uk/4370496415/)

Last week a friend of mine described his frustration with his neighbor. “Tom” can’t really stand “Sheila.” Sheila is a daddy’s girl with all the entitlements that go along with it. Seriously spoiled, Sheila has no idea how lucky she is, or how nice she has it. Worst of all, she doesn’t make any effort to develop herself financially even with her dad’s support. And this rubs Tom the wrong way – he made his own way in life, and it irks him that someone can be so lucky and so completely ungrateful and complacent.

For some reason whenever Sheila needs something done around the house, she asks Tom for help. Now, I know what you’re thinking: this isn’t a “crush” thing. I think it is more of a “substitute daddy-figure when the real dad isn’t around” type of thing. It started innocently enough. When her car was having problems, Tom tinkered with it trying to figure what was wrong. When it had to go to the shop, he’d allow her to come on grocery trips with him instead of making her walk the few blocks to a nearby store.

Sheila doesn’t ask for help anymore. She tells Tom what to do. “Hey, you’re going to need to come over Saturday and fix my sink.” (Reminder: Tom is not a relative, boyfriend, or landlord. Just a neighbor. They don’t hang out as friends.) What did Tom do? Well, he was miffed for sure. And he had plans to hang with one of his buddies on Saturday. He canceled them. When he told Sheila that, she didn’t seem embarrassed or upset he had canceled his plans for her either, and she certainly didn’t make an apology for inconveniencing him or offer an alternative time/date.

What’s more, she doesn’t ever thank him. She complains about how tough her life is, how uncool her dad is (the dad that is her virtual lifestyle paycheck). When Tom’s buddies try to suggest maybe she should make it up to Tom (with baking, or money perhaps), she becomes indignant. At that point her gratitude is a fast retort to flatter her own bruised ego and to save face with Tom’s friends.

And this never ends. Even though it makes Tom angry, he feels trapped. After all, he is her neighbor, her dad is absent and can’t help all of the time, and he does know a lot of handyman skills.

In my estimation, Tom is too nice to Sheila. But perhaps not for the reason some might suspect. Doing nice things for neighbors is what being “neighborly” is all about. My neighbor is elderly, so we do the yard work, snow removal and occasionally grab things for her from the store in inclement weather. It is the “nice” thing to do. And doing nice things without expectation of repayment is a good habit to be in, assuming you are not doing it all the time to your own detriment.

The problem with Tom and Sheila is the lack of gratitude and appreciation on Sheila’s part, which is further complicated by Tom’s inability to meaningfully confront Sheila. Though he suggests a return on his time investment (perhaps bake him some cookies, or give him gas money when he drives her around), he does not cut off his assistance when she doesn’t follow through on reimbursement. Her promises are empty, and his confrontations are on an equally weak foundation.

Tom is becoming more and more irritated with Sheila. As his friend, I offer my sympathies but I also feel like Tom is making his own bed. I believe many of his frustrations lie with his inability to be assertive to Sheila, where before they were attributed solely to her actions.

The lesson here is not necessarily to keep tabs, but to be aware. If you find yourself giving (of your time, attention, funds, or efforts) over and over to the same person without any meaningful return to your investment, perhaps it is time to question your generosity. If the act of giving brings you joy (as doing things for my elderly neighbor does me — plus it’s good karma for when I’m older!), that could be enough. But if you feel your resentment growing, address the problem and be prepared to follow through on the removal of your generosity if the person continues to abuse it. Otherwise you may end up resenting yourself too.

“Foot in Mouth” syndrome and the “Curse of Considerate Clarification”

Aside

I’ve been told a few times that I make people think exactly what I didn’t want them to think. Let me explain. For some reason, in addition to putting my foot in my mouth by accident, I manage to make others suspicious of hidden agendas in my words because of the very things I say.

Here’s a stunning example of “Foot in Mouth” syndrome:

I was at the art opening of a gifted photographer last night. We had been students together in graduate school. During our visit, I recalled that he had recently been married. I was preparing to ask how things were going when I recalled a previous experience with the same artist. Not three years earlier I asked, “How’s Suzzy?” after having met his girlfriend weeks before. He awkwardly replied, “We’re not together any more.” UG! The artist–being a quiet man–had nothing left to say, and I–dumbfounded–had nothing to say either. The next three years were filled with many uncomfortable visits in which I could never establish a good speaking rapport with this nice man.

So, here I am preparing to ask after his new wife, thinking, Oh dear, what if they didn’t get married or they’re divorced or something? I didn’t want to have the awkward silence again. All these thoughts were spinning in my mind as I said, “So, are you still married?”  Still?!  STILL!!!!???? Not, “How’s your wife?” or “How is it being a newlywed?” or “I heard you got hitched. How’d it go?”  Nope. STILL. I can’t believe myself sometimes. Perhaps I should strike the word from my vocabulary. Luckily he chuckled and said they had been married just a few months, and I backed out of it by joking I had no faith in marriage apparently. My husband comforted me later by saying it was nothing, but there it was. My foot. My mouth. Not what I had hoped to eat that night. I only had room for cereal when I got home after that feast.

And then there is the “Curse of Considerate Clarification,” or the 3-C problem as I call it:

I think I learned from my mother to be very mindful of my words–how were they making others feel, how do they sound to others? I have become very sensitive to peoples’ expressions, responses and actions in reply to my words, which often sends me in a day-long analysis of where I went wrong or where they misunderstood. This is very exhausting.  Changing the way you think is hard, but I’m trying to change the habit. Especially since my consideration for others has back-fired in my face.

Like last night. It didn’t backfire, but nearly so. Jake and I went out to dinner at a great Mexican-Irish restaurant (yup–and it’s an awesome pairing). The five-year-old joint is just a half block down the street from the New York favorite Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which had just opened. Naturally the barbecue restaurant was packed every day. And we were benefiting, as here we were eating at this very popular place without waiting for a table. Surprised I asked the manager who seated us, “So, have you noticed your business dropping due to the new place down the street?” Immediately, as I glanced at the numerous empty tables I thought Oh crap, she might think that I think they are losing business, or that they are too slow for a Saturday! Quick! Tell her that’s not what you meant! So I said, “Oh! I hope you didn’t think I meant you guys would be losing business to them. I’m sure you won’t be affected–it being such a different market.” The manager smiled, agreed by citing how busy they had been thirty minutes before, and then went to seat another couple. I was relieved! It is this kind of situation that so many times has prompted the reply: “Well, I didn’t think you meant that originally, but now that you brought it up that’s exactly what I’m going to think.” Go figure!

What I’ve learned is that I need to trust that others will ask me to clarify what I meant if they took it negatively. I should hope they will consider my character and intent. I should also remember to pause before I speak to think of what I want to say.

But finally, if I feel like I need to clarify, I can avoid the 3-C problem by restating. Instead of: “I hope I didn’t make you think…” I can say: “Let me clarify. What I meant to say was…” or “That didn’t sound right, let me rephrase that.” By rephrasing what I say I remove the possibility that the listener will suspect me of ill-intent or veiled malice. I certainly won’t wind up prompting them to doubt my intentions! And perhaps with any luck I will spare myself a little exhaustive worry!

 

Here’s your Hypocrite Certificate

There is one thing I can’t stand: people who complain over and over about things and then do nothing about it!

I have this problem sometimes too, but I acknowledge my hypocrisy so I can feel somehow slightly forgiven because I at least know I do it. Not the best excuse–I’m a work in progress–but I am trying. And usually I try to DO things to alleviate my frustrations by altering my behavior.

But man! People at work today. I just couldn’t handle it. It was a weird day in general, but the obvious hypocrisy of two particular women today was so silly and ridiculous that I was left speechless (quite a task)!

This afternoon, my facilities manager Carmen (name changed) was discussing how every workplace seems to deal with the same problem: people are slobs. They leave dirty dishes in the sink for days; they are too lazy to pick up a paper towel they dropped on the floor, or wipe off their crumbs from the break room table. They make disgusting messes in the bathroom and refuse to clean it up. The list goes on.

So here I am talking about this with Carmen and these two other ladies are also very passionately protesting such behavior: “Slobs!” “How inconsiderate.” “Savages!” After a few minutes of their complains (with which I heartily participated), I tried to interject my positive solution: “Well, I guess at some point though we need to move past our frustration and decide to model the proper behavior so other people feel pressured to do the same….” Before I could finish my thought, the two ladies were forcefully shaking their heads. Nope. I don’t think so! their faces said. They wouldn’t do that. “If everyone else breaks the rules, so can we,” they countered.

And that, my friends, is why so many people never find actual solutions to their problems.

This would change your community. Seriously.

Hour Exchange Portland logo

Listening to PBS NewsHour today as my fingers drummed mindlessly away at my work keyboard, I came upon a most wonderful idea and I wanted to share it with you. This is the kind of thing that could work in any community, anywhere in the country. It would help people keep their professional skills honed while unemployed, and help individuals keep their homes and lifestyles maintained and enriched. The PBS feature “In Maine, service time swapped to help stretch dollars in recession” details a project called “Hour Exchange Portland,” founded by an actual Rockefeller–Richard Rockefeller. Here’s how this thing works: you first make a deposit in the form of your time — donating your skills to someone else. For each hour of your time you volunteer, you earn a “time dollar.” You can spend these dollars when you want by asking for services offered from other members of the program (there are around 600 currently in Portland). By doing this act of “generosity,” people get their leaky faucets fixed, their mufflers attached, their doctors visited. Pretty simple, definitely straightforward. And those are always the best ideas (look at the Post-It). Amazing, right?!  How much better off would we all be to have this in our communities?

I encourage you to check out the newscast video (just 7 minutes), and share this with your friends and relatives! (There are “share” functions at the bottom of the post.) Start one of these in your town! We could change the world, our society, and our economy and get back the same that we give and it could be SO easy! 

Click HERE to see the video.

Click here to visit the foundation’s website:Hour Exchange Portland

Farting and Pooping

Finally! I’m done! Five months of planning, sewing, photographing, and I am done! My newest completed Be Nice. project piece is ready to be reproduced into a brochure (8.5 x 14 inches, with four panels, double-sided. It will fold like an accordion.), and I am so excited!

The piece is about one of my favorite subjects: bathroom-related etiquette. It is a never-ending fascination to me how people behave in the public restrooms, and what they decide to leave behind (why, oh why do they leave anything behind?!). Even more surprising is what people do with their loved ones in private, and what some do in public! I am amazed how something everyone does on such a regular basis is so taboo (I daresay more so than sex), especially when one considers how poo can tell us the quality of our overall health. I just couldn’t resist–I had to make a piece on the subject! Talking about poo was one reason that contributed to my 65 pound weight loss in 2005, and it is even the reason I made one of my best friendships here in New York (yes, talking about poo gained me a friends)!

I present to you: the Be Nice. Guide to Farting and Pooping!

Be Nice. Guide to Farting and Pooping (outside panel; left section is the back cover; right section is the front cover)

Be Nice. Guide to Farting and Pooping (inside panel--this is the entire inside section)

The images are small, and may appear a bit fuzzy, but if you click them they will open slightly larger and more readable!

Once I print them, I am going to have distribution in the works. If you know a place that would be perfect for it, pass it along by emailing me! This project is completely self-funded so in the near future I am planning a Kickstarter campaign to aid the publication costs. If you have any ideas/suggestions, please pass them along!

I sincerely hope you get a chuckle out of this piece! Thanks as always for reading and supporting this project!

(And if you like this topic, you might enjoy the fabulously funny book What is your poo telling you? by Josh Richman and Anish Sheth, M.D. They have a website here.)