Sunday, January 13, 2013

New Year's Resolutions for a more polite 2013

I like New Year's Resolutions.  My head knows they are doomed to fail but my heart wants to believe that this will be the year I finally see them through to December.  My resolutions usually involve the words "more" or "less" - more excercising, less cheese, more green tea, less coffee, more loving thoughts, less quick judgments.  

I never stick to these resolutions because even though I want the physical results of more exercise and less indulgence, I like the instant gratification of margaritas and Oreos more, plain and simple.  This year, I decided to liberate myself from resolutions I can't and won't keep and focus my goals on etiquette, something I care about and something I can always improve without any major sacrifices.

1. Don't judge people by their affiliations - I will refrain from categorizing people into groups - new age flake, union member, environmental quack, left-wing nutcase, right-wing nutcase, working parent, stay-at-home mom, etc. I will remember that everyone is an individual, no one is defined purely by their situation and everyone has something to offer.

2. Listen more than you talk - Hearing is not listening.  No matter how bored I am, I will resist the urge to interrupt someone just so I don't have to listen to them anymore. When people are talking, I will listen rather than spend my time formulating what I am going to say next. If I need to extricate myself from a conversation, I will let them finish and then politely excuse myself and run to the bar.

3. Learn to say no - When someone asks me to do something I definitely don't want to do and will only regret (and kvetch about) later (e.g. chair their fundraising committee, buy their raffle tickets, organize their bridal shower), I will firmly and politely decline immediately without guilt, ambiguity or remorse and I will try not to give it a second thought or wonder what they think of me.

4. Give people the benefit of the doubt - Have you ever decided someone was horrible the first time you met them?  What if that was the worst day of their whole life and they are actually awesome?  If everyone in my life had met me on the crappiest day of my life, I would have no friends. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but only once or twice :)

5. Don't put mean things in writing - As delicious as it is to gossip or complain about people via email, text or Blackberry messenger, I vow to keep my more salacious comments to an in-person discussion.  Before wielding my electronic sword, I will contemplate how I would feel if it ended up on the Internet.  I could just vow to never say anything unkind ever again but, as I said, I am no longer making resolutions I can't keep.

6. Doublecheck the recipient of every electronic communication before sending - see Resolution #5.

7. Don't ruin a polite gesture with indignation - The next time I hold the door for someone and they breeze right through without a word, I will not yell, "You're welcome!" in a loud, snarky voice.  After all, I held the door open to be kind, not to be rewarded.  But while we're on the topic, would it kill you to say thank you?

8. Keep the Sharpie sheathed - The next time I pass a sign with an egregious grammatical error, I will not pull out my Sharpie and correct it.  Even though I consider it a helpful public service, I have been told by others it is tantamount to vandalism.

9. Help the hapless - When people have loud cell phone conversations in places from which I cannot escape (elevators, buses, cashier lines), I will "help" them become better citizens by pointing out their rudeness in the hopes of saving someone else in the future. I will do this in a kind and educational way, even if they respond to me with profanity, as is so often the case.

And finally, all joking aside, and perhaps the only resolution that matters...

10. Never resist the opportunity to be kind - All day, I'm presented with opportunities to practice random acts of kindness and for some reason, I don't follow through on many of them. I don't move fast enough to hold the elevator door open.  I want to complement someone on their outfit but I am shy and not sure how they will take it.  The person behind me in the grocery store checkout only has one item yet I don't offer to let them go ahead because I don't feel like it.  In 2013, most of all, I want kindness, in all its forms, to be the driving force for all of my actions.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

R-E-S-P-E-C-T Find out what it means to me

I have a special place in my heart for outdoor ice rinks.   In the small Ontario town where I grew up, the local skating rink was a meeting place for tweens and teens from early November right through to March.  With no smartphones or computers, limited use of a landline and few channels on the TV, it just didn't make sense to stay inside when the thrill of outdoor fun was a short drive away.  We were dropped off by parents who knew we would be safe, with just enough money to buy a hot chocolate.  It was where we connected, hung out, gossiped, flirted and, although we didn't realize it, stayed fit and avoided obesity.

The rink of my youth is no longer there.  Warmer winters and fluctuating temperatures make it near impossible to keep a natural rink frozen these days. But an artificial rink has taken its place and with the same rural setting of birches and pines, it looks almost authentic. It's managed by the town and, to make it fair for everyone, hockey players alternate with family skaters every other day.  I took my kids skating there on Christmas Eve, which was designated as a family skating day.

We arrived at the rink to a hockey game in full swing.  Disgruntled parents told me that the hockey players - all teenage boys - had been asked to leave but had refused.  A few adults and older kids were braving it out on the small patch of the ice surface that wasn't absorbed by the hockey game but many families stood on the sidelines, unwilling to risk the wrath of flying pucks. 

After an enthusiastic goalie collided with a young girl, tensions came to a head and a profanity-laced shouting match ensued.  As a visitor from "the big city", I glided into the heart of the hockey game, reminded them that it wasn't a hockey day and asked them to leave.  The biggest of the players, a hulking boy of about 17, looked at me and said, "We just want a little respect". 

I was momentarily stunned as this response was the last thing I expected.  I calmly explained that they weren't respecting the rules of the rink.  He said that they knew this but they still expected to be treated with respect and didn't appreciate being yelled or sworn at and if the families had shown them respect they would have left earlier.  At this, a few of the other hockey players gathered around echoing their leader's sentiments that they are good kids who just wanted a little respect.

My inside voice said, "You don't deserve respect and you certainly haven't earned it," but, in the interest of the end goal and unwilling to appear like an old codger, I smiled sweetly and said, "Well I am asking you respectfully to leave now."  It worked. They packed up and went on their way.

Teenagers behaving badly is nothing new.  Pushing boundaries, breaking the rules, being self-absorbed is part of the teenage DNA and I was the same when I was that age.  The difference is, my friends and I never expected respect and we certainly didn't expect it when we were acting like jerks. We didn't get any respect but we really didn't care.  We had no notion that it was our entitlement and we seemed to get along just fine without it.  Then again, we weren't exposed to reality shows where spoiled, self-absorbed people are celebrated for embarrassing themselves.

30 years later, I still cling to an old-fashioned notion that respect must be earned but I think it dates me.  I asked a 20-something friend about this and he said respect doesn't need to be earned and everyone is worthy of respect until they demonstrate that they don't deserve it, a kind of 'innocent until proven guilty' approach.  This seemed very tolerant and inclusive and characteristic of the millennials but it was hazy to me.

What do you think?  Is it time to shelf the old 'respect should be earned' mantra?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

An etiquette guide to the virtual introduction

The virtual introduction - that is, the ability to introduce people to each other without everyone having to be in the same physical location - is a fairly recent phenomenon brought on by the invention of email and the growing demand for everyone to build their personal brand through networking.

In the olden days when I started my career, if I wanted to introduce two of my acquaintances, I would need to see them both at a conference or similar business event and the introduction would usually arise from the common courtesy in play when two people are chatting and another comes along who knows one of the people, but not the other.  Outside of this setting, if I felt compelled to put two people together, I would have had to call each of them on a land line and, once I received confirmation that they were both interested in an introduction, I would set up a mutually agreeable time for them to meet and then gently remove myself from the situation.

As you can imagine, this took time but the upshot was that I only ever did it if I really believed that both parties had something to gain from the meeting.  Today, when introducing one friend to another is as simple as typing a couple of sentences and hitting Send, there are a lot more of these kinds of transactions flying around but that's not necessarily a good thing.

I'm finding that I am frequently included in virtual introductions and requests for information interviews and meetings now, only the person I am being introduced to is also cc'd on the message, making it awkward for me to politely decline the opportunity to meet someone for any number of valid reasons. While the format for introducing people has changed, the need for etiquette has not.  Here is a five-step guide for managing the virtual introduction in a polite way:

Step 1 - Friend A would like to meet Friend B, an acquaintance of yours.   Friend A asks if you would be willing to introduce them via email, LinkedIn, etc.

Step 2 - You email Friend B (without cc-ing Friend A), let her know that Friend A has expressed a desire to meet her and provide some context on why that might be a good idea and a productive use of everyone's time.

Step 3 - If Friend B declines, for any reason, you respect that and politely inform Friend A that the introduction will not be taking place.  If Friend B accepts, you let her know that you will be sending an email to introduce both parties shortly.

Step 4 - Inform Friend A that Friend B has agreed to be introduced and that you will be sending an email to introduce them.

Step 5 - Send the email of introduction cc-ing both parties and explaining a little about each person and why you think an introduction would be mutually beneficial.  Close the email by extricating yourself from the equation and any future follow-up emails.

In today's rapid-fire world, this may seem antiquated and cumbersome but from an etiquette point of view, it is the only acceptable way to handle a virtual introduction, and also prevents you from making another etiquette faux pas covered in an earlier post - sharing someone's e-mail address without their permission.

In closing, I would like to suggest that if you have requested and been granted a virtual introduction, a follow-up thank you email is also in order.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Etiquette for parents, non-parents and would-be parents

I lucked out when I became a parent.  I had my kids at the same time many of my friends were having theirs and while this made those early years a lot more fun, it also spared me (and them) from the social minefield that sometimes occurs within a group of friends when one becomes a parent and "breaks up the band".

I always wanted to be a mother and knew that it would happen eventually so I enjoyed several years of career development, travel, sleep, dating and partying safe in the knowledge that one day I would be ready to put aside my dancing shoes for something different, something with staying power.

During these years, colleagues would have babies and bring them into the office for viewing and while I'd ooh and aah along with everyone else, I was in such a different head space that much of it seemed obligatory and after ten minutes or so, I'd wonder back to my office to think about the weekend's plans.

These days my weeknights and weekends tend to revolve around my kids - helping them with homework, going to the dollar store for project supplies, attending birthday parties and ferrying them to swimming, karate, soccer and other activities.  When I do go out with girlfriends, it's usually a quick lunch squeezed in between our respective appointments and we seem to talk mostly about parenting.  It's not that we're incapable of more sophisticated conversation; it's just that we're at a stage in life where parenting is important and all-encompassing and that's where the discussion usually gravitates.  There is an unspoken assumption that we will eventually move out of this stage and resume our life of partying, albeit aboard a seniors river cruise.

Not all my friends have children.  I have some friends who have chosen not to have children and others who would like to become parents but haven't been successful so far.  Finding conversation that works for everyone is a bit of a delicate balance.  For example, several years ago, I spent an afternoon with four old friends.  At the time, four of us had babies and one was happily child-free.  The parents were swapping war stories of sleepless nights and endless exhaustion and after a while our childless friend snapped, "If having children is so unpleasant, why did you even bother?" A chill set over the conversation before I gently explained that what may seem like complaining was really a way of bonding and coping with the challenges of new motherhood.  Her question was rude but she had a point and we hadn't realized we had been excluding her.

I can chat endlessly about my children with friends who have kids the same age and they are usually happy to indulge me because they are experiencing many of the same issues and have the same concerns and they're thankful to share ideas and solutions.  However, when I get together with friends whose kids are much older than mine, we don't spend much time on parenting.  They have already passed through the stages I am experiencing and they are dealing with other challenges like missing a child who has gone off to university. We politely ask after each other's offspring and either reminisce about past years or look forward to future years and then move on.

I'm sure my tales of getting an eight-year-old to do his homework are boring and tedious to my friends who have chosen to remain childless and likewise, I often can't relate to their stories and how they fill their time but that doesn't mean I don't ask.  When friends connect, I think it's prudent to at least ask for an update on the people and things that are precious to them, whether that's children, pets or their latest dance club exploits before moving on to mutually interesting topics.

It's also good to remember that prattling on about kids can be difficult for friends who want to be parents but for whom it hasn't happened yet. When I was expecting my second child, a friend who had been trying to have a baby for several years told me that she found it hard to spend time with me.  I wasn't offended.  I appreciated her honesty and felt sadness that something that came so easy to me was frustrating, even heartbreaking for her.  I respected her position and while I don't assume all women who are trying to conceive feel the same way, it has made me more cognizant of how I talk to people who are going through this.

Photos are another touchy subject.  Although we've never actually set official guidelines, my close circle of parent friends don't inundate each other with photos capturing our children's every stage.  We slip them in holiday cards and very occasionally email a proud moment but we don't pull out photo albums during dinner.  We love each other and, by extension, we love each others kids but the truth is most parents are just as bored as non-parents with oversharing.

I'll close this post with a plea for non-judgement.  We live in a culture that currently celebrates babies and motherhood, where celebrities grace magazine covers just for getting pregnant and the baby products industry is worth $30 billion.  With all this, it's easy to assume that parenthood is the only route to happiness for women and that's just ridiculous.  There are countless ways to have a rich, rewarding, full life and having children is just one of them.  If you have friends who have chosen not to reproduce, respect their choices and don't presume that your life is more meaningful than theirs. Likewise, I expect my childless friends to respect my choices and to accept that, while I love catching up with them, my schedule is not as flexible and I'm more inclined to go home after dinner than to continue the night elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Teaching your kids manners when the adults are behaving badly

As any parent can tell you, it's hard to teach manners to kids.  Getting your kids to say 'Please' and 'Thank you' and 'Nice to meet you' without constant prompting requires Herculean effort on a daily basis for years before it finally becomes second nature to them.  And it's near impossible to reinforce the need for manners when popular kids programs feature characters who talk down to the adults in their lives (if there are any around) and get lots of canned laughter for rude behaviour and impertinent remarks.

But what about when it's the adults that are behaving poorly?  How do you deal with an eight-year-old who asks, "Why do I have to take off my hat at the table when (insert loutish adult here) doesn't have to and he's an adult?"

At a recent Thanksgiving dinner with my spouse's large extended family, two of the adults brought their smartphones to the dinner table.  Both are parents.  One tapped quietly, checking emails and texts and ignoring the conversation around her.  The other played a loud video on her device and passed it around for everyone to enjoy.

The device made its way down the table, being passed from person to person along with the creamed corn and the gravy.  As it approached me, I wondered how I would deal with it.  We have a strict 'No smartphones at the dinner table' rule in my house.  My kids don't have their own phones yet so the rule is both a reminder for their father and me in the present and a preemptive strike for my kids in the future. So, face-to-face with something I had sworn to my kids was 'rude', I ran through my options:

  • Take the phone, glance at the screen, smile weakly to safe face, and pass it on? (safe but wimpy)
  • Get up from the table and pretend to go to the restroom just as it was about to be passed to me? (safe but cowardly)
  • Go on a rant about how nothing is sacred anymore and the ancient Mayans were right when they suggested the world should end in 2012 (confronting rudeness with more rudeness)
  • Get over myself, join the fun, laugh at the video and be a good sport (and lose this teaching moment?)

In the end, I mashed all the options together and said, "I'm going to pass because we don't allow phones at our dinner table and if the kids see me with this, they'll use it against me."

I got a few eye rolls from my dinner companions but that's to be expected.  They have already branded me as weird for my insistence that they don't post photos of my kids on Facebook.  But I was slightly concerned that I had hurt the feelings of the smartphone owner.  After all, while she has a different set of etiquette rules than me, she genuinely thought she was providing entertainment value with her Youtube offering.  I glanced  glance down the table to see her reaction but I need not have worried.  She was busy looking at photos on the other phone that was at the table and hadn't even noticed.  Such is the short attention span associated with anything electronic nowadays.

In case you're wondering, the video featured a dancing vegetable...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is karma real and should you be worried about it?

I detest loose ends.  I’m not talking about stray threads on hems or flyaway strands in my hairdo.  I refer to tasks that are not complete and have been languishing on my to-do list for days, weeks or even months.  I am tortured by un-purchased birthday presents, unpaid bills and unrealized dreams.

I walk around with an ever-present to-do list – in my notebook and in my head – constantly shedding and adding tasks but never decreasing in length.  Some items get carried over from month to month (stain threshold at back door) and others spend only hours on the list (find son’s hockey helmet).   Still others never seem to see the light of day (learn Mandarin) and exist only in my mind hoping to be transferred onto “the list” once some space frees up.

I can connect my general anxiety level to the amount of loose ends I have following me around and keeping me up at night.  When I strike my pen through a completed item, I experience a physical jolt of satisfaction.  The fewer things on my list, the happier I am and I hold to the belief that if I ever reach a zero balance on my to-do list I will experience a level of nirvana that I can only dream of.  When I explain this to people who do not worry about to-do lists, they think I'm crazy but the world needs all of us.

My obsession with loose ends makes it easy for me to believe in karma. Karma is one of those concepts that everyone kind of understands, like global warming or calculus, but can’t quite explain.  Spiritualists would say it’s an ancient universal balancing system while scientists claim it’s nothing more than basic cause and effect.  It is evident in many religious teachings, modern-day proverbs and motivational teachings: you reap what you sow, you get out of life what you put into it, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so on.

Cause and effect is easy to quantify – neglect your diet and you gain weight – but the more spiritual side is harder to pin down.  Can it really be true that if you go through the world spreading misery, a universal force will see to it that you get what’s coming to you?  And on the flip side, if you treat everyone with kindness and respect, are you guaranteed a life free of pain?  We know it’s not that simple.  We all know horrible people who seem to carry on, get promotions and accumulate riches while others who behave like angels get more than their fair share of bad luck.

When I have knowingly done something unkind to someone, I feel crappy almost immediately and look for ways to “balance my karma” by doing something good.  The bad karma I’ve created for myself gnaws at me until I even it out.  Sometimes, I don’t have to try very hard and the universe takes care of it for me in the form of a parking ticket, plant that dies or skirt that’s suddenly too tight.   

So, to bring this back to my loose end theory, unbalanced karmic experiences are loose ends, rights that need to be wronged and wrongs that need to be righted so that I’m back on an even keel, with a blank slate and a promise to “only do good from now on”.

I realize that I’m oversimplifying a complicated concept, or maybe overcomplicating a simple concept, but I think I’m a believer in karma. I realize that it’s impossible to go through life without suffering, but my day-to-day life seems to be better when my outlook is positive and empathetic.

What are your thoughts about karma?  Universal law or new age mumbo jumbo?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How about a complaints democracy for volunteer organizations?

I am involved in various ways with a few different organizations that are staffed almost exclusively by volunteers.  Most of these volunteers also have day jobs and family responsibilities.  They have taken on the extra, unpaid work because they are passionate about the organization's mission or mandate and because it has an impact on their professional or personal lives.

Not everyone is suited to chair a committee or mobilize a team.  As with paid work, some people are the organizers, some are the planners and others show up to collect the tickets, serve the food or knock on the doors.  Some people don't have the time or inclination to volunteer and that's fine as well.  It's all optional.

Common across all volunteer organizations, are the complainers, questioners and advice-givers.  These are the people who didn't like the hot dogs at the charity BBQ, ask why you send out weekly emails on Thursdays instead of Fridays and helpfully suggest that you use an inordinate amount of your budget to "go green".

Some of these people have voices that are so loud and mannerisms that are so intimidating that even if they're the only person in a group of 20 who holds a particular opinion, no one challenges them.

When you pay an individual or a corporation for a service and that service is not delivered according to your standards, feel free to complain to anyone who will listen and to escalate your complaint until you receive a satisfactory resolution.   When dealing with volunteers, however, I'd like to see people adopt a more democratic process where the squeaky wheel finds no purchase and good enough is actually considered good enough.

The next time you want to offer a suggestion about how a volunteer can "do things better", ask these questions:

Is the volunteer doing something illegal, unethical or otherwise jeopardizing the reputation of the organization? - If the answer is yes, then this is a legitimate complaint that needs to be dealt with at a high level.  If the answer is no, ponder the following questions:

Is my suggestion actually feasible and can it realistically be executed using the current resources and within the existing time frame and regulatory constraints of the organization?  If not, shelf it or suggest a brainstorming session where people can share out-of-the-box ideas for future consideration.

Will my suggestion benefit other members of the organization or am I just airing my personal grievances? Before lodging a complaint, chat with others to see if it's a common problem. If it is, the association will probably appreciate the feedback.  If it's more personal in nature, let it go.  It's not useful.

Is my suggestion an easy fix or am I just adding to the workload of a volunteer who is already stretched too thin?  Most volunteers are open to questions and even complaints but few appreciate suggestions that pile even more work onto their plates.

Am I willing to participate in the solution or do I simply want to complain and let others do the heavy lifting? If you feel really strongly that something needs to be changed, offer to do some of the legwork to make it happen.  It will go a long way.

What do you think?  Should people be allowed to complain about anything they want?  Am I being too harsh? Are there any other questions complainers should ask themselves?