Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tools of Miscommunication

Twice in the last week I have experienced pure rage after participating in Facebook exchanges with strangers. The problem begins when I feel misunderstood. One of my comments will lead to a responding comment that seems to address an opinion or thought very different from the one I actually expressed, and that feels like pin pricks in my ego. So, instead of doing the smart and self-preserving thing (letting it go), I try to clarify my previous comment. But then it only gets worse, and the ensuing discussion becomes more annoying, or even hurtful. I could get into the details, but the details are long, involved, sort of boring and ultimately don't matter. The result is that after the second of these interactions, I felt a heart-pounding, sobbing, sleep-depriving anger that was completely out of proportion to the situation. Jesus Christ, it all came from a discussion about "Sex and the City 2".

Fortunately, I had a therapy appointment at the end of my miserable yesterday, so I got to chat with my shrink about it. I know that it's easy for people who don't know each other to fight online, because there's no need for courage or physical strength to back up one's words. But why do we do want to fight online? And why are strong negative feelings so easily triggered?

My therapist brought up the idea of transference, which is defined on Wikipedia as "a phenomenon in psychoanalysis characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another". I think that some of the most common instances of transference occur at work. Have you ever had that coworker that you can't stand, and you wonder why other people don't dislike them as much as you do? Well, I've had that experience and usually I figure out that person reminds me of some jerk from my past. I may even look for commonalities between jerk-coworker and jerk-from-my-past (my therapist would call this "filling in the blanks"). It isn't rational, but I do it. Of course, if I get to know my coworker better, those comparisons break down and maybe I even get to a point where that person doesn't bug me so much. After all, I am dealing with a completely different person.

Ah, but we almost never meet that friend-of-a-friend online. It's a "filling in the blanks" bonanza! You can make any stranger the duplicate of some person you already despise. Especially on Facebook, where most people choose to limit access to their personal information so that only their friends can see their profiles, all we know of our friends' friends are their names and one photo. How funny. These privacy settings are supposed to protect us by keeping us well disguised, but our disguises make us vulnerable to so much easy judgment.

And of course, quickly written electronic communications don't allow enough time for reflection nor do they come with the subtle vocal tones and facial expressions that help us convey meaning in face-to-face conversation. In the midst of the "Sex and the City 2" discussion, some dude directed a comment toward me that I found creepy and sexist (though I guess others found it humorous). This triggered an awful reaction on my end, which I tried to communicate in yet another ill-advised response (that only made me feel worse). I have no idea what the dude thought of my last comment, as he has been silent since. But at the end of it all, our connecting friend - who presumably knows both of us - thought we were hilarious. I find this all very confusing, especially because I can't see or hear the participants. I don't know what to think. I feel like Charlie Brown with the little squiggle over his head in lieu of a caption. Well, as long as it keeps me from further commenting, I guess that being flummoxed isn't the worst thing...

The truth is, I've been feeling pretty sad these last few days, and it just didn't make sense that these Facebook exchanges could really be at the heart of my distress. So I did a little mental backtracking and the best I can figure is this - it happens I've been writing a story based on events that happened in my youth and in my struggle to keep it honest, I've unearthed a lot of weird feelings about some of those jerks from my past. Writing can be a crazy-ass experiment. Anyway, I guess the strongly worded run-ins with practically faceless strangers have heightened those yucky feelings (hence the out-of-proportion emotional responses). I wonder how many internet-related emotional outbursts are as disconnected from the matter at hand as mine was? In any case, being as sensitive as I am, I need to tread carefully with this tricky technology. Words on a screen are not really conversation, but they do have the power to ruin my day.

Speaking of unnecessarily ruined days, I'd like to close this post with a funny anecdote - I was riding the bus ride home from work on Thursday and had the chance to eavesdrop on a very dramatic cell phone conversation. A young woman kept pleading, "Mom! I don't know. I don't know if he lost his job. All I know is that he sent me a text that said, 'I'm on the bus' and I don't know if his car broke down or why he was on the bus or if he missed work or what." All the way from Mott Children's Hospital to Arborland Mall, this young woman insisted that she could not decipher her wayward brother's mysterious text message, and tried to make her mother understand that, despite repeated attempts, she had not been able to reach him by phone. Moments after she hung up with mom (which was followed by an enormous sigh), her brother called. I couldn't gather exactly what he told her, except that it must have been somewhat positive news, because she kept saying, "Oh my god! I was freaking out," as if it was all okay in the end. As soon as she hung up with him, she called mom back. "No, Mom, he didn't lose his job. His car's fine. He was never on the bus. I had sent him a text that said 'I'm on the bus' and he accidentally replied by sending me my message."

Isn't technology great? And to think that most of us didn't have these sources of stress and drama fifteen years ago. How in the world did we amuse ourselves then?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Auntie Tara Goes to Brooklyn

On Wednesday evening, I flew to NYC to visit my friends S and H and meet their newborn baby twins M and N. Okay, I guess these one-letter abbreviations are getting out of hand. Here's a bit of background to keep it all straight -

S is my best friend. He is a writer and teacher. We grew up together.

H is S's hilarious and brilliant wife. She's a medical researcher and songwriter. She has excellent musical taste and is the only person I know who can master the Michael McDonald voice ("Takin' It to the Streets" is her karaoke jam).

M is their son and N is their daughter.

As M and N were just shy of eight weeks old, I expected that this would be more of a working trip than a vacation. That was wise. Twins are no joke! Honestly, my job was pretty simple. I mainly washed dishes, sanitized bottles, and occasionally held a baby while one of the parents was busy doing something else. But I was glad that I didn't make many plans for my visit because I quickly discovered that babies have a way of rearranging your life. My mere attempt to make myself available for little chores put me on the baby schedule, which sort of felt like changing time zones five or six times daily.

Consider this - the twins get fed 8-10 times a day. In between feedings they sleep. And of course they also have awake time when they play or stare at the grown-ups while they bounce on someone's knee. But they're not always on the same schedule and one of them may wake up crying just as the other one is going to sleep. S and H have re-calibrated their lives to meet the needs of these unpredictable creatures and for a few days I did, too.

I had no idea what I was doing so I was immediately impressed by the communication skills my friends have developed in their desire to understand their kids. The first time I held M (a puffy-cheeked cherub with a perennially mean mug that may intimidate me someday, but it's so damn cute right now), he farted. H assured me that he had indeed farted and not pooped; she could tell by the smell. S and H could also discern N's "I'm hungry" cry from her "my belly hurts" cry. I wasn't there long enough to tell the difference between poop and fart odors or one cry versus another and I'm just really grateful that I wasn't in a position to try to figure it out.

Speaking of bodily functions, I have a new found appreciation for my grown body's ability to process them without my noticing. These poor infants use up so much energy just in yawning, expelling gas and excrement, eating, and even moving their arms. They really put their whole bodies into these activities and you can tell from their troubled little faces that it's exhausting. It's a blessing that we don't remember that part of our lives.

I treasured the peaceful moments when the twins were awake and at ease, and I got to watch them watch the world. M seemed mostly disdainful (a premature judgment perhaps, but based on my experience I can't say that I blame him) while N had this hypnotizing, unblinking stare, like she didn't want to miss a thing. There were a couple times I zoned out just staring into her eyes and it felt like I'd been holding her for an hour, but it was really only a few minutes. Baby time can be drug-like.

As all-consuming and stressful as the twin experience was (and when I say "stressful", I speak more for my friends than myself; although I'm very sensitive to other people's emotions, I was definitely in the more comfortable position of an observer), there were unforeseen moments of fun. We three grown-ups would be in the midst of our chores, and then we would all catch a glimpse of M's furrowed brow face and just crack up laughing. Or during one of those magic naps when both kids were asleep, we shared our favorite corny Youtube videos. Those flashes of humor were extra refreshing, like the way water tastes sweeter when you've been sweating.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all drudgery. Each of the three full days I was there, we set out on an afternoon adventure and enjoyed some food-related activity. Going out on the street with twins made us instant celebrities, and that's fun when you're in the big city. As we were sitting at a sidewalk cafe, so many passers-by would point and coo, "Twins!" Strangers inquired about them and delighted to see that there was a boy and a girl. You could tell the ones who had their own children because they said things like, "God bless you," and "Hang in there." We ran into another mother of twins whose first words were, "It gets a lot better." But those who didn't know better may have been completely fooled as M and N were perfectly tranquil (and generally asleep) on all three occasions. Those were definitely fun times.

I felt a little bad leaving H and S yesterday morning, only because I could tell that my extra hands made a difference in keeping abreast of the twins' needs. I'm in awe of their ability to make this work, but I can tell they'll succeed because they take the team approach. Until I got married, I associated the term "teamwork" with sports and dysfunctional workplaces. I've never played sports and though I'm a big fan of "getting along with each other", I prefer to work alone as much as I can. But marriage, and apparently raising a family, is all about forming and executing a plan with your partner. I suppose this seems obvious, but how many families and couples do you know who don't operate that way?

Anyway, I'm excited to see their family evolve and I'm even more excited to see what happens when Dan and I move south and begin trying in earnest to build our own. Yeah, I admit that I'm now hoping for one at a time. I trust that whatever happens won't be easy but will be okay. We'll be okay.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Glad to Be Grad-Free

Jack Donaghy: We might not be the best people...

Liz Lemon: But we're not the worst...

Jack and Liz: Graduate students are the worst.

- 30 Rock Episode 3.01 "Do-Over"

One of the most exciting things about moving away from the Ypsi/Ann Arbor area is that I will again be free of grad student culture. I have many wonderful friends who are in grad school, but grad students en masse are just plain awful. Here's why -

They Throw the Lamest Parties Combining social awkwardness, alcohol snobbery and incessant shop talk, grad student parties are super boring. And what's with the themes? I've encountered every theme from "Lloyd and Ally celebrate the fact that they will never get married" to "Jackie's Birthday/ T-shirt Decorating Party!" (isn't Jackie's birthday enough?). I once asked my grad friend L why they feel compelled to attach a theme. She supposed that most of them don't really know how to "party" so they need to couch it in a unique occasion. I trust L's perspective because she has actually lived and worked outside of academia as an adult, which reminds me of my next gripe...

They Whine About Their Paid Labor Resembling Other People's Jobs
To be fair, I firmly believe that grad student instructors/TAs/ whatever-you-want-to-call-them are some of the most exploited workers around. At schools like Michigan, they tend to do the real teaching while the profs get the propers and the great pay. That's why I'm glad that the UM GSIs have a kick-ass union with awesome health care bennies (which I enjoy as the spouse of a union guy). I appreciate the complaints at the heart of collective bargaining. I don't appreciate the following complaints (all true stories)

Having to work a full week before getting paid.

Having to work in the summer.

Having to go to work at 9am. When I recently heard this one, I got a big kick out of the facial expression on my young coworker, who has two jobs, regularly gets to work at 6am and had just finished a thirteen hour shift

They're Self Important Of all the self important grad student debates I've ever witnessed, my favorite was, "Is it morally superior to avoid Wikipedia or to improve it?" I think this example speaks to the average grad student's sense of their impact on the world. All of us humans affect our world in our own little ways, perhaps some more so than others, but I assume that few of us make an enormous difference. Similarly, I find Wikipedia somewhat useful and informative (usually as a starting point for a subject I want to explore further), but I assume that much of it is inaccurate and I don't put a lot of stock in it. Wikipedia is not that important to my life. A grad student is the only sort of person I know who would think that their choices about Wikipedia are actually important. This line of thinking signifies delusions of grandeur, and it's creepy.

They're Passive Aggressive Corrective In my line of work (catering at a pricey deli), I often encounter customers who mispronounce food words. The most common example is when someone pronounces the word crudite "crew-dyte". I never correct them. Even when I repeat the order to make sure I got it right, I say "veggie tray" because no one likes to be made to feel like a bumpkin. Grad students always correct me when I misuse a word, and they do it in the most obnoxious, semi-subtle way. For instance, I once wrote an email to a grad friend in which I said something like, "I'm weary about where this job is going." He simply couldn't help replying, "I can see why you are wary about where your job is going" Oh, brother.

Truly, I think that grad school must be a torturous, humbling, soul-shredding experience and the only way to get through it is to hope and pray that someday all that work will pay off in the form of a fancy, tenured position. But I also see how the pursuit of that goal has a way of pushing students further away from reality, to the point where these seemingly reasonable people can't pick up on the absurdity of their own words and actions.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The loudest mouth will hail the new found way"

About a year ago, I was talking to my (now former) manager about a frustrating situation at work. I was disappointed in some of the other managers for not responding to my requests for help in completing a project. He said something that stuck in my brain. "Well, they probably feel confident in your ability to take care of it on your own. Also, this place is a lot like school. The bad kids get more attention." The latter observation implied that, as a "good" kid, I would either need to throw a tantrum to get the consideration I wanted or I'd just have to suck it up and accept the fact that my superiors were too busy with their own work and tending to the bad kids to help me out.

I've tried tantrums, but those aren't really my style, so I've just accepted that jobs really are like school or screwed-up families. At the same time, I've also learned that customer service is a similar game.

I work for a company that takes pride in providing excellent customer service. This is the main reason I wanted to work for them and it is the company tenet (of which there are many - do other for-profit businesses have mission statements?) that I find most compelling. I'm a polite person by nature, so I tend to be good at customer service. I also believe that any line of work is more dignified when you try to do it well. I've worked with plenty of rude customer service people (usually of the sullen student variety) who seemed to think that being polite to everyone, even dumb and inconsiderate people, is a sign of weakness. I disagree. Politeness shouldn't be confused with generosity or even kindness. It can be a guise, and an especially handy one in the act of commerce. I don't care if the customer is actually right or wrong. I only care that they walk away from our interaction wanting to come back. I think I tend to be good at fostering that "want to come back" feeling.

My company helps its employees provide great service by letting us do whatever it takes to make the customer happy (okay, maybe not whatever in the way you're thinking, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's happened; I work with some pretty dedicated nerds). This is a highly valuable tool. Nothing sucks more than having to tell an angry customer, "My manager says I can't give you your money back". I love that I have the latitude to fix a problem, even if it costs the company a little bit of money in the short run.

However, recent incidents have shown me that I tend to give more to the dumb and inconsiderate jerks instead of the friendly, appreciative customers who make my job easy. And that's bothering me.

Without getting into all of the details, I ran into a situation at the end of my Friday when a customer made an inconvenient request to change her order. Meeting this request stressed out several people and extended the workday for a couple of exhausted employees (myself included). The experience left a very bad taste in my mouth and could have been avoided if I had simply said, "No." It was also a situation in which "no" would have been reasonable (we had already begun preparing the order to her previous specifications and she was giving us less than 24 hours notice). But I think I was more inclined to say "yes" because I was dealing with this person face to face and I found her to be very silly and spoiled. I think that sometimes I overdo the excellent service to cover up my true feelings. The more angry I am toward the bad kids, the more I try to be nice to them.

Then there are the occasional customers who browbeat us, or say horrible, day-ruining things. I can usually take silly-and-spoiled in stride, but bullies are a whole different issue. And yes, there is a company policy that encourages us to hand those people over to a manager. But even in the worst of those situations, I've never heard of a manager telling a mean customer to take a hike. Instead, the customer gets what they want plus more. It bugs me that we're giving these people the wrong idea that their actions are justified, all for the sake of giving them that "want to come back" feeling. I don't want them to come back.

In my experience, most customers are better than that. Their requests are reasonable and when they complain, they have a good reason. But the aforementioned instances demonstrate where the great service model begins to fail and the willingness to appease the bad kids becomes an ethical issue. I understand why we try so hard to make our unhappiest customers like us, because if we don't, they will tell every person they know that we suck. But assuming we succeed in making the worst of the bad kids happy, what's the value in accolades from assholes?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Battle of the Gateway Cities Smackdown

The answer to "Where will I be living next year?" has been narrowed to two possibilities, neither of which are in Michigan. Dan has an offer in Chattanooga and is waiting to hear about last week's St. Louis job interview; he should know about that by the end of the week. I have to say, this state of suspense is much better than the "I have no idea" state, which was really stressing me out. Between waiting to hear from Chattanooga and the days leading up to the UM Commencement (an incredibly busy and emotionally charged time at work), there were a few nights in the last couple weeks when I couldn't get myself to sleep.

I've lived in Michigan for almost my whole life and I'm hungry for more adventure, so I feel relieved to know we're leaving. But until I know my next destination, I don't think that reality is really going to sink in. I'm quite crabby in the meantime. It's tinting my perspective. Every customer who calls me at work seems like the stupidest person in the world. I can't think of anything I want to eat for dinner. I got mad at Dan when he asked if he should bring me my tennis shoes before we took a walk in the park (why would anyone get mad about that question?). When I was at the Food Co-op buying cheese just now, I looked at a baby and thought, "Wow. She's ugly." I keep trying to cheer myself up, but it isn't working. Okay, the cheese is helping a little bit.

It isn't just the Chattanooga/St. Louis toss-up that's getting to me. I need a little more time away from work before I'll feel totally right, because one day off after a long week just wasn't enough. The end of the week holds so much for me - respite and an answer. For now, it's all I can do to not lose my cool.