Out damned spot


I was doing my laundry this morning when I noticed that one of my t-shirts came out with a spot on it, right in the middle of the chest area. So, evaluating my choices:

1. I can try to remove the stain
2. I can throw/give the shirt away
3. I can keep it and wear it to clean the house, paint, anywhere people won’t see me in it.
4. I can wear it out in public and act like the stain isn’t there or that it doesn’t matter.

The more I started thinking about this, the more I wondered: Why is number 4 so bad? Why do we care so much that a t-shirt has a stain on it? If this were a dress shirt or a nice suit, ok. The whole point of dressing up is to rise to whatever occasion one needs to. But in everyday life, a trip to the store or a casual restaurant? Why do we care so much? Does it say something about our personal hygiene if we wear a clean shirt that happens to have a stain on it? Is it our obsession with the new and fear of decay that makes us turn away from a stained garment? And do the massive changes in our culture, moving as it has from the formal to the mostly casual not changed our appreciation of such things? If a shirt is in perfectly good condition, has not lost its shape, has no rips or tears why will we not wear it? I suspect that it reminds us of imperfection and the messiness of life, things we strive to avoid confronting. Or at least to avoid showing.

Unpacking a favor


Last night I was chatting with a friend (who shall remain nameless) over IM. He told me a small group was going to meet for dinner and invited me to come meet them there at 8:30 pm. I asked him what time he would be showing up, and he said 8:30. “Really?” I asked. Because as much as I like this friend (and it is a lot), in the entire 5 months I have been in New York and through the many times we have met up, he is never on time unless I am meeting him at his house. He told me that yes he would be there at 8:30 and balked a bit when I suggested that he was never on time. He assured me that he had never missed a flight. “Great,”, I said, “so what you are telling me is that airlines are more important to you than friends.” I explained to him that I didn’t care one bit what time we agreed to meet. I only cared that whatever that time was, we would be there per our commitment. Why was it ok to always make people wait an average of 15 minutes extra for you? I explained that to me it was quite rude, a way of saying to the other person that their time wasn’t as valuable as yours.

This apparently touched a nerve in him, causing him to search his memory for any “rude” thing I may have done to him in the past. What he hit upon was quite a surprise to me.

About 4 months ago, in an email, he asked if I could do his company a “favor” and translate a brochure into French. He asked me to estimate how long it would take and if I had the time to do it. Being that I had just arrived in New York and was quite broke, I assumed it was a potential contract for work, so I calculated the number of hours it would take me to do it (about 3) and sent him an estimate for the work, thanking him for thinking of me. I never heard back from him and had forgotten about the entire thing.

That is, until he brought it up last night. Apparently, I was being “rude” for not doing this work for his business for free. And then he told me it really didn’t matter at all, he had completely “let it drop”.

“Oh really, then why bring it up now?” I asked. “Clearly this is something that has been bothering you.” And being irked I suppose at being called on being late had jogged his memory of a perceived slight. I was fascinated.

“What else should I be doing as a favor for your business?” I asked. “Free web site design?”  He said he would never ask me to do free web design. So why was the translation work different? Perhaps he thought it was a 5 minute job or something (which if it was, I probably would have done it for free), but I clearly wrote in the email that I thought it would take me 3 hours. Perhaps, knowing how I love the French language, he just thought it would be “fun” for me? I asked under what circumstances I should rely on his professional services for free? No information of that type was forthcoming. The best I got from him was “Anything within reason.” Which is funny, since that is a completely subjective measure.

I told him there were any number of personal things I would do for him, such as watching his apt, bringing in mail, walking his dog if necessary, talking him up to friends, bringing him chicken soup when sick, etc. Ultimately, I suppose it (very roughly) comes down to the following: If it is personal, I am willing to do a lot. If it is something for your business (ie something you will make money on) you should probably be willing to pay for it in some fashion. If for example, he had needed help with understanding a french tourist brochure or visa application for a trip I would have been more than happy to spend a few minutes explaining it to him. But to translate a brochure for selling his product? It never occurred to me that this would be the kind of thing someone would ask a friend to do for free, without so much as a “I’ll buy you dinner” offer. And if somehow the fee I asked for this contract was too much, I certainly never got a counter of any sort. So it was quite surprising that this friend had waited 4 months to bring this up, and only in the context of being called on being late all the time.

Of course there are exceptions to the personal/business split above, and they happen all the time. There are all kinds of things we do which help each other in business that are quite easy, such as talking up a product, introducing people, giving advice and feedback, etc. All of these things I have done for this friend and others, and I am happy to do them.  There are even cases where I have solved computer problems for people in a work context without getting paid, just chalking it up to good karma.  And I am paid back for these things (by this friend and others) in the same sorts of intangibles.

I am not sure (being that we are all individuals) what goes through the minds of people and how they decide what is “work” and what is not. It is clearly a subjective process. This friend is still my friend, and will be, as I am very fond of him. This event is over in my head and heart, as of this blog post. But I was surprised by his reasoning, and it still escapes me.

Tell it like it is


With all the places I have been in the past two years, I can’t help but compare and contrast things about the cultures in which I find myself. Each has their own pluses and minuses, and each has an amazing way of revealing something about the human condition and its many adaptations. And I often find a small mystery in one culture that can only be answered by beginning to understand another. Case in point: Mexicans vs. Argentines.

I noted with some frequency when I was living in Mexico the distaste Mexicans have for the Argentines. They would use many words to describe them, but it boiled down to the fact that in Mexico, Argentines are seen to be rather snobbish and arrogant, and it was quite often I would hear Mexicans complaining about how demanding and rude the Argentines were in their eyes. I never really knew exactly what they were going on about, but my Argentine friends in Mexico seemed every bit as down on Mexicans as Mexicans were on them. There was clearly a clash of cultures going on here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Now that I have been in Buenos Aires for a month, I think I am beginning to see where the clash is. And it is interesting to note that here in Buenos Aires, I have yet to hear a single negative word spoken about Mexicans or Mexican culture for that matter. In fact, the few Argentines who have spoken of Mexico speak in often glowing terms. This is most likely due to the very small (non-existant?) number of Mexicans that are living here compared with the much larger number of Argentines living in Mexico. (Then again, there does seem to be some real cultural animus towards Peruvians and Bolivians here, but that is a separate matter. Every culture has their own xenophobia.)

One of the things that I have noticed here without a doubt is how direct the people are when speaking. It is not uncommon to hear a grandmother swear like a drunken sailor, have people tell you directly that they are or are not interested in seeing you today, hear strong opinions of all types on delicate matters, etc. In short and in general, they don’t pussyfoot around. Your feelings might be hurt, but you know where you stand with the Argentines.

Things could not be more different in Mexican culture. In Mexico, one almost never says directly what one thinks, it is considered to be rude. I remember many times pulling my hair out trying to understand what Mexicans were really thinking. I actually moved out of my first apartment there because my roommate was so non communicative and afraid of conflict. My friend George, who lived several years in Mexico gave me the following advice that sort of sums it up. He told me that when leaving a party early, for whatever reason, you just have to lie and say “I’ll be right back”, even if you have no intention of coming back. It would be rude to just say “goodbye” or “I have another party to get to” or “I am tired”. George told me that Mexicans much prefer a nice lie to the harsh truth. And I have to admit to experiencing many frustrating planning misadventures just because people thought it rude to say “I can’t make it next Wednesday”. They would much rather agree to something and then just let it drop. Argentines, on the other hand are precisely the opposite. And I have to admit to preferring it that way. My feelings don’t get hurt very easily, and I like to know where I stand with people.

They really remind me a lot of my own family. Maybe because there are so many Germans and East European Jews here, and they have had a rather large impact on the culture, or maybe it is because of something else. In my family, we just say what we are thinking to each other, and nothing is very hidden. I like the fact that we can say what is on our minds and at the end of the day still know that we love each other. This isn’t the same thing as being rude. It is obviously important to take care with people’s feelings. But I can totally see now why there is such friction in Mexico between these two cultures. At the heart of it is a very different sense of propriety and expression.

In sum, and to put it in a kind way for each, one culture places a much higher value on directness, the other a much higher value on politeness.

Everyone’s a deviant


Fascinating article by Stanley Fish in this morning’s NY Times.

All we can be sure of is that the struggle between the impulse to normalize — to specify a center and then police deviations from it — and the impulse to repel the normalizing gaze and live securely in a community of one’s own will never be resolved.

I agree with his central theme, but I suppose I also agree that (in law at least) there must be some way to protect each other from (real, as opposed to imagined) harm. Although these definitions can be slippery, I feel comfortable (for the most part) arguing that consent is the key. As long as individuals are capable of consent, they should pretty much have free reign to live their lives as they see fit. Of course defining consent is where we have a bit of a problem. There are always exceptions in individual cases (for example, at what age is a child capabale of consent? Some 16 year olds will be more mature than some 30 year olds), but as a society we need to imperfectly set a boundary (say 18).