As I have written about previously, when I was living in Mexico City, I frequently had a difficult time understanding their concepts of elastic time and what is considered polite. And just this weekend, I had another example of it from a friend of mine who is visiting New York this weekend. Last time he was in New York, I found out about it on facebook and told him I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see each other. Perhaps not wanting to get caught out again in the same way, this time he told me (one day in advance) he was coming to New York, and we made plans to have brunch today. He told me he would call me to setup the details (why calling instead of email I don’t know, but no big deal). And yesterday, I got a call from a florida number that was apparently his, but when I picked up the phone, I could not hear anything on the other end, so I hung up. They called back and I let it go to voicemail, but there was no message, so I assumed it was a wrong number. Many hours later I get an email from my friend telling me he tried to reach me but was unable to, and that he would call me again today so that he could “at least hear my voice on the phone”. I responded with details about the phone problems and asked if we were still on for brunch. Two hours after that, I got another message from him about his phone calling again, but ignoring my question about brunch, so I asked it again. I didn’t hear back from him, so I sent one more this morning when I woke up, and then received a message from him telling me he had made other plans, but would try to call me.
I have to admit, this whole scenario pushes my buttons about planning things while I lived in Mexico City. I feel like my friend never really intended to have brunch with me, but felt it was more “polite” to make fake plans and then pretend we couldn’t keep them, rather than just saying up front that yes, he was coming to New York (sure that I would see that on facebook) but no, didn’t really have the time to see me. I would have much preferred that version to making plans (to satisfy the Mexico City idea of being “polite”) and then being stood up. It is not “polite” in my book to waste other people’s time.
One of the things that I have noticed here (that I always notice when I come here) is how very particular Germans can be about everything. For them, there is always a right way (and even more so a wrong way) to do something, and I always feel a little bit awkward here in ways I don’t in other places. One of the things that is always great about staying with Olaf is how much of a family spirit pervades his house. Everyone always eats together, and everyone always busies themselves helping out with whatever there is to do. I try very hard to make myself useful in whatever way I can, as is only right when you are a guest in someone’s home. That said, when things aren’t done the “right” way, it is pretty obvious. It might be something as simple as the thickness of a vegetable slice, what kind of plate was chosen for the meal, or the placement of a glass. Easy-going is not a word one would ever apply to people here. And as I have noticed in cultures around the world including my own, people tend to think that the way they have learned to do things is obvious, and universal. People have a very hard time seeing how strong a role culture plays in the idea of the “right” way to do something. They think what is second nature to them after years of societal conditioning is clearly the “natural” order of things.
Recently a friend of a friend did a professional favor for me (hooking me up with the right person for an interview) and my friend suggested I send a thank you note. I was going to send a note along electronically when my friend suggested that an actual thank you card/note on paper with pen (handwritten no less) would be better. I have no actual thank you cards on hand and I am loathe to kill trees this way and most importantly, I detest my own handwriting. I haven’t handwritten anything other than very short notes in a very long time. Everything is tapped out on a keyboard and perfectly legible, except my signature, which is never meant to be legible. A signature is not about communication, it is artistic self-expression, and no matter how little it resembles your name, it is clearly your own.
I believe my aversion to handwriting first developed when I was living in France almost 20 years ago. There they practice (or at least practiced) the pseudo-science of Graphology (handwriting analysis), and believed they could glean all manner of things about the psychological profile of someone by whether or not they dotted their i’s or crossed their t’s and so forth. If someone was sloppy in handwriting, they were sloppy in life. I spent painful hours writing every cover letter over and over again until it looked almost perfect, oftentimes writing against the edge of a ruler. Better to be seen as too detail oriented and OCD than not enough, especially when applying for a job in an Architect’s office.
To this day, other than the occasional diary entry, I am loathe to write out long letters for other people’s consumption. And my handwriting has suffered I am sure from the years of non-use. These days I think my handwriting looks as if it were scratched out by a blind Tourette’s patient with a meth addiction. I have no intention of sending something of that sort to someone I actually want to thank. Far better to use my verbal/writing skills composing something that can actually be deciphered when viewed, and where the form will not get in the way of the content.
As a compromise, I told my friend that I would embed the whole thing in a lovely card-like pdf that he can print out or send along if he so desires, and I will even affix an electronic image of my signature to it, giving it that homey, creative, just slightly insane touch. Etiquette and propriety maintained, crisis averted.
Regular readers and friends of mine will know how I sometimes bemoan the fact that on average, New York and LA are US cities where people are perpetually late, almost always blaming the traffic or subway instead of the fact that they never give themselves enough time to begin with (ie, leaving at 8 for a rendezvous scheduled for 8). So imagine my shock when, beginning on Tuesday of this week, every single meeting with friends had me arriving (on time) to find them already there waiting for me! We are talking about FOUR separate occasions. I am tickled pink. There must be some spooky astrological alignment, or I have quantum shifted to some parallel universe. Whatever the case, it is nice being here, and I thank all of you.
I must go buy a lotto ticket while this magic is with me…
Recently my roommate said something to me that I found a little surprising. We were talking about being polite and respectful to people, and the golden rule (in both its positive and negative versions). My roommate then told me that he never holds the door for anyone anymore, even though he used to. When I asked why, he told me that people are rude, they never acknowledge or say thanks and so he doesn’t do it any more. This struck me as missing the point a bit. I don’t hold the door (or give my subway seat to a weary traveler, or do any other nice thing for people) because I am demanding something direct in return. Some people will appreciate it, some won’t or will be indifferent. The reason for holding the door is because it is a nice thing to do, and it helps other people. Maybe they will thank you, maybe by setting an example, you encourage others to do the same. But whether or not down the road people do nice things for me, it is still the kind of world I want to live in. That world is a world where people realize how interconnected we all are, and strive to help everyone around them, in small or large ways. And in so doing, realize that in being kind to others, we are being kind to ourselves. It certainly won’t be that kind of world if none of us participates in its formation.
Last night I came back to my apartment to find that one of my roommates, Shayna, had decided to move out at the drop of a hat. She spent all night moving her stuff out, and now everything is gone. She didn’t bother to notify our landlord until she was completely moved out, and yet had the chutzpah to ask for her deposit money back from him. I wish I could say that I was upset at her leaving, as she was (for the most part) a nice young woman. But she was also the messiest person I have ever lived with, and I am more than a little pleased at the prospect of getting someone cleaner in here, and someone who respects others. Marc, our landlord, came by today to change the locks, and asked why she had left without saying anything. And it made me remember being in my early twenties, and learning how to negotiate as an adult in the world. A lot of it comes in fits and starts, and it can take many years for people to get over their fear of conflict and to develop a respect for one’s neighbors. There is no perfect guidebook, we all learn these things by trial and error. Lord knows I have made many mistakes with regard to interpersonal relationships, especially at that age. Hopefully over time, through trial and error, we learn how to cope with ourselves and others in an honest way that respects both. Obviously there are some people that never learn how to deal with conflict or how to be aware of other people. And the vast differences in cultures and the ways that people are raised result in many misunderstandings. But a little good will and Golden Rule goes a long way.
Well, I was supposed to be at a meeting right now and working on a website spec for a local magazine. We had a meeting last Thursday that seemed to go quite well. They then asked me to send along some further questions for their tech guy, which I did on Friday. Not wanting to work without some form of contract (however informal) I also sent along an email to the publisher outlining my understanding of the work to be done, asking her to respond with any changes if necessary, and to return the email to me to signal her agreement.
Four days, two follow up emails and one voicemail later, I still have no response. I find this pretty unprofessional and just plain rude. You don’t keep people hanging on the line with no response. If you don’t know or need more time, you tell them just that. If you have changed your mind, you tell them that. The only legitimate excuses I can think of for this kind of behavior involve dead relatives, a serious car crash, or a fired coworker with a machine gun roaming the halls.
UPDATE: When I got home late last night, there was a slew of emails telling me that they had been expecting me in the meeting, asking me how we would meet, and finally approving the contract letter. All of the hand waving could have been avoided by simple communication.