Wednesday, March 28, 2012
The other day a good friend and I mulled over a frustrating exchange she’s been having. As a favor, she had agreed to work with an organization by lending some expertise on a project, yet the contact person she’s been dealing with has acted as if this is all some kind of huge inconvenience. My friend has been the recipient of terse emails, misguided accusations, and, worst of all, egregious grammatical and spelling errors. Completely miffed, she debated putting in a call to this person’s supervisor or just putting up with the annoyance. In perfectly predictable reactions, she leaned towards a conflict-averse approach and I insisted that something Must Be Done.
Before demanding that she make the phone call right from my kitchen, I did something that is always easier when examining someone else’s problems - step back and examine the bigger picture. What was the desired outcome of this situation? Revenge is one, and arguably justifiable in the sense that this person had no right to treat my friend this way, and would probably deserve a conversation with the boss. Reputation is another, because this organization’s otherwise solid credit is being damaged by a clueless spokesperson. And then there’s education - what if this person is completely unaware of creating such a negative atmosphere and would be apologetic and amenable if given the chance?
I used to be a completely pro-revenge person. As a teacher in San Francisco’s public schools I consider it an occupational hazard to wish ill upon crazy helicopter parents, spineless administrators, and, yes, even small children (mostly just the chair-throwing, defiant ones). I fantasized about them getting what I thought they deserved (military conscription, fired, no recess EVER). But I was angry all the time. I knew that I was right about many of their offenses, but what good did it do me? On the rare occasion that I confronted someone I always ended up phrasing things in a far kinder way than I imagined, and on those occasions ended up with mostly positive results. Yet I was annoyed that I couldn’t act as confrontational as I dreamed, except that when I actually did a few times, it felt awful. I found myself pondering a stupid phrase that I learned from Dr. Phil during my daytime tv-filled afternoons as a second semester college senior: “How’s that working for you?” I hated that question because I knew it was true . . . no matter how “right” I was, it simply wasn’t doing me any good.
I argued to my friend that the best thing she could do was to call or email this person and frame the conversation as a “check-in,” expressing her feelings about being mistreated and asking if this favor she was doing was somehow unwelcome or inconvenient. The more I talked the more I realized that this is the right thing to do, the hard thing to do, and what more people should do - give others a chance to know what they’re putting out there. It’s so easy to go straight to a supervisor and trash someone, but how grateful do we feel when someone forgoes that option and speaks to us directly, usually helping us to realize a completely unknown error and resulting in a positive change. Condemning and punishing others is so easy, but what does it accomplish?
That same afternoon I found myself in a sudden and unexpected rage-filled haze. Sitting in an indoor rec center toddler playroom as rain poured outside, happy tiny people crawled and waddled over mats and pillows and plastic slides. Except for one tornado of a kid who, towering above the rest by staggering magnitude, ran like a hyena throughout the room, throwing toys, yelling, and disrupting the completely relaxed, positive vibe of the space. Encouraged by the equally concerned faces of other parents and caregivers, I began to approach the young nanny who was feebly attempting to chase him while unpredictably screaming “no!” at him. Ironically, his name did, in fact, turn out to be Chase.
I’m comfortable sharing Chase’s name because he was clearly a normal, cool kid, who was simply just way too old and big to be hanging out in the tot room. I told the bedraggled nanny that the room had an age limit and that her charge seemed a little out of place. She protested that he wasn’t too old, and sat back down, but, chastened, watched me with worry as I warily surveyed the mounting carnage. To her immense credit, she slowly shifted closer to me and groaned, “I don’t know what to do with him!” In a flash my rage evaporated and I regretted not having taken my own earlier advice - here was someone who simply needed feedback, moreover wanted it, while I had been dying to ambush her.
I called across the room to Chase, and, employing all of my best teacher skills, reached out a hand to introduce myself. I explained my concerns to him in a friendly, non-condescending way. The nanny’s look of desperation and gratitude urged me on as I came up with a quick plan that could work - Chase needed to choose one contained, calm activity like the younger kids were, and pay closer attention to his actions. His nanny, I told him, was going to help him find something he liked and remind him to chill out if necessary, and if after a few warnings he couldn’t calm down, he’d have to take a time out. All three of us clearly felt good about the conversation, at least until I became the next focus of parental judgment in the playroom when I realized I had been neglecting my crying toddler, who had just fallen off of the plastic swing. Classic.
On a side note, I will say that few things induce these moments of fury more than seeing good kids be shut down by adults who just don’t know better. It is so easy to pace kids (“we’re leaving the park in 5 minutes”), validate them (“wow, it’s really hard to share your favorite toy”) and redirect them (“this isn’t safe, so let’s go play over there”) rather than half-heartedly screaming “no!” at them in unpredictable variations or imposing a sudden, arbitrary punishment. Regardless, even in those few moments following the conversation with Chase, it was obvious that his nanny felt a little more empowered, Chase felt a little more reassured, and they both found a common ground to start with. I left shortly after, so I could only hope that things got better from there, but it was pleasant to find myself wishing her luck rather than wishing her the eternal contempt of the caregiving community (a fate worse than death among San Francisco moms).
For the record, there are websites where people can anonymously report such incidents to scores of moms who are checking nightly to see if their nanny was “the one in the blue shirt who didn’t step in when a child in green threw sand.” I had to cancel my subscription to a community forum that ended up mostly being a place where people could list their problems with their nannies and wait for others to assure them that firing them without explanation was the best option. Which others did, constantly. All I could think about were these disenfranchised women who had never been given the chance to defend themselves or change. How vehemently I condemned these mean moms was trumped only by my horror at realizing that on a rainy Tuesday in a playroom I could come so close to becoming one. I felt even better about my earlier advice to my friend, and deeply relieved that, even in a moment of rage, I still knew better than to post her description on some nutty website.
My final crisis of the day was the least expected of all, as it involved myself and an inanimate object. Though rude email correspondence and poor caregiving enrage me, nothing inspires in me such deep hatred and explosive anger as BART turnstiles. No one can attest to this further than my sister, who once witnessed the turnstile closing in on my pregnant belly. She won my eternal gratitude at that moment for holding me tight and telling me “just cry” as I broke down in tears in the middle of a crowded BART station while the rest of my family looked on, befuddled. Since then I have avoided BART at all costs and, when forced, I approach the fast-moving gates with growing anger and anxiety until I literally propel myself through it, amazed all the while at the weary commuters for whom this daily experience is not an upsetting or momentous event.
My approach this time was the same, but somehow the hard red plastic gates closed in on me nonetheless, catching my left hip and right thigh in its painful vise grip and causing me to scream out “fuck this!” in highly uncharacteristic loud, public fashion. Apparently screaming obscenities in a BART station is normal for the daily commuters, who barely glanced over, let alone offered a sympathetic look. I was infuriated. My pleasant baby-free evening at a glee club rehearsal (could I have been more happy?) was instantly ruined by this unprovoked attack. But somehow my how’s-that-working-for-you revenge-or-educate creed applied even to this dirty metallic machine, so, sighing in resignation, I approached the station agent and asked him to tell me what I was doing wrong. Educate me. With surprising friendliness and patience, he asked if I was often carrying a shoulder bag. “Yes, usually,” I replied, and he explained that when I carry it in front of me (as I had been in order to shield myself) the sensor triggers it to close. My rage gave way to a genuine smile as he watched me pass, unhurt, through the turnstile, waving me off.
It is so easy to blame others (or, apparently, machines) for things that seem so obviously cruel, unfair, or inconsiderate. It is easy to shed all blame and lump it squarely on the offender. We don’t see our role in it at all. The world genuinely does move so much faster now: we’re tripping over each other with our smart phones or swerving wildly on the roads (again, with our smartphones) and we commit offenses and move on before we’ve even noticed them. And no one takes the time to tell us, even though in all likelihood we’d probably apologize and learn. We’re quick to rebuke each other online but find it so difficult to say directly, “hey, it upset me when . . ” or “did you notice . . ?”
There’s that moment before rage builds to a crescendo when we should stop dwelling on how right we are (which we might be) and imagining ways to punish the offender (which they might deserve), and instead remember that this is a teachable moment, a chance to let someone know how their actions affect us. There simply aren’t enough self-proclaimed assholes in the world to justify all the complaining we do about these supposedly rampant callous jerks. If we step up and react to each other with good intent, we might be saving countless others from unintentionally rude emails or unruly kids, or even ourselves from embarrassing displays of public transportation-fueled emotional meltdowns.
Give others a momentary benefit of the doubt, and I’m sure that we can find more compassion for each other, recognize our own shortcomings, and diffuse future problems. Hey, if the BART turnstile and I can do it, anyone can.