Archive for February 2012

A stroke of genius

February 17, 2012

This crap acronym (parodying this one) made me laugh. Then feel guilty. Then laugh again.

The original FAST acronym has a problem shared with a lot of crap acronyms: it’s so close to spelling something naturally that the acronym-creator can’t resist a bit of forcing to get it the rest of the way. FAS is perfect: Face, Arms, Speech. And FAST is good because you have to act, well, FAST. So it’s a very human temptation to just shove a T on the end and say “Time to call 999!”

It’s not the not arriving, it’s the coming back

February 16, 2012

If you’ve ever been a tenant, you’ll probably know that landlords in this country are obliged by law to give 24 hours’ notice of a visit. But you’ll also know that this doesn’t eliminate the stress-inducing uncertainty around visits to the property. Why? Because they’re not obliged by law to actually turn up for the arranged visit. Or to tell you that they’re not turning up. Which means they can and often will fail to turn up, leaving you waiting in your unnaturally tidy flat, unable to make other plans or relax in your own home.

It’s a similar thing with repair and maintenance work. The landlord or letting agency says “We’ll send someone round as soon as possible” and then you often have a whole week of knowing that a stranger will be given keys to your home and could turn up and let themselves in at any time, with no further warning. You can’t complain, because they’re turning up at your request to fix something that needs fixing, but the “24 hours’ notice” thing doesn’t stop you feeling jumpy for a week or more.

The problem with someone not turning up is not that they haven’t turned up; it’s that they will now turn up at a different time. This applies whether they were supposed to come to your house or meet you elsewhere. If a no-show meant a cut-and-dried cancellation, it would be fine and dandy. But most of the time, a no-show means that you have to go through the whole thing again. Unless you’re in a position of power over the person who hasn’t turned up, they get to take double the time and mental energy from you. Quadruple or more if they keep things uncertain.

And, of course, if that person is in a position of power over you, the no-show matters. It means Hoovering and plumping the cushions twice, or maybe getting dressed up and travelling somewhere twice. It means worry and uncertainty and not knowing how much anger to show.

You see, almost every “yes” is conditional, but the conditions often go unsaid. “Yes, you can borrow my camera” doesn’t mean “Yes, you can come round at any time, day or night, to borrow my camera.” “Want to meet up for lunch on Thursday?” doesn’t mean “Feel free to ignore my calls until noon on Thursday; I’ll keep lunch free and travel to your end of town just in case.”

So when your no-show pulls the classic trick of reappearing after you’d forgotten about them, demanding the thing you originally offered but with different conditions attached, it’s hard to say no because you’ve already said yes. Your “yes” was conditional, but you didn’t make that explicit. “We agreed I could pop round with that stuff from work, so why are you suddenly being weird about it? I know I was supposed to be there yesterday – sorry about that – but I’m in the area now, so why can’t I just come round?”

It’s the same reason why you can’t yell at the letting agency for sending round a plumber. “You rang us yesterday asking when we were going to send a plumber round! OK, so we didn’t ring you back, but we did something better – we actually sorted out a plumber! I’m sorry you felt awkward having a stranger let themselves into your house while you were in the shower, but you’re the one who keeps nagging us for a plumber.” The accepted view appears to be that if you’ve let someone down on one occasion, you get a free pass to turn up unannounced or at short notice on any subsequent occasion of your choice. Needless to say, I don’t see it that way. But I try to understand the people who do, because understanding is key to dealing with them.

My guess is that usually, a person who fails to turn up doesn’t understand how much stress they’re causing. In situations where the power balance is on their side, they often genuinely don’t recognise that. It’s easy to let friendly relations mask a power differential. “Yeah, I know I’m his landlord/boss, but we have a really good relationship.”

But there is, no doubt about it, a lot of unexamined privilege underlying no-show behaviour. It’s time-stealing, but it’s based on entitlement rather than insecurity. People who don’t turn up are using other people’s willingness to commit in order to keep their own options open, without ever dreaming that failing to turn up could jeopardise what’s planned.

And, of course, it’s a long-winded way of refusing to give you a no. If someone keeps saying “yes” but keeps failing to deliver on it, it’s another way of refusing to give you the closure that a “no” would bring.

So what can you do? Just recognising the behaviour is a good start. Realising that they’re likely to suddenly reappear, probably without apology, is helpful too. (The reappearance is more annoying if you thought you were off the hook.) But recognising it doesn’t mean putting up with it silently. Get in touch, ask where they were, explain they haven’t met your expectations and push them to make proper arrangements for the highly likely reappearance.

If you didn’t want to see them in the first place, it’s tricky because you’re tempted to let it slide and hope they forget completely. But if you have something they want, they probably won’t. And “something they want” could well include your time and energy. So I would still suggest chasing, continuing to try to pin them down. And if the power differential allows it, you’re well within your rights to be openly angry and cancel the whole thing. That way you get out of it but keep the moral high ground.

A word of warning: don’t try to enforce time limits with a lie, e.g. “We’re going out at 7pm, so you’ll have to come round before then.” It is entirely possible that they’ll ignore your lie, like they ignored your previous arrangement(s), like they ignored basic etiquette, and come round anyway when you’re supposed to be out. Then you have to tell another lie to explain why you’re in. Yes. Lying to explain why you’re in your own home, to someone who doesn’t respect you enough to stick to a simple arrangement. What was that about a power differential?

Also: try to avoid basing initial arrangements on self-stories. By that I mean the stories people tell themselves about themselves. Sometimes they’re so invested in those stories that they’ll make arrangements with other people based on them.  “I’m always in the office by 8am. Talk then?” “I’m stuck at home with the baby, so come round literally any time.” “I practically live in the Starbucks on the High Street. Come and grab me there.”

Basing an arrangement on a self-story sets up a bad power differential: you are trying to fit in with something they claim to be doing anyway. That means they don’t have to plan anything different in order to meet you, which means that they won’t have to make an effort to remember to meet you, which means that if their self-story isn’t completely true, they’ll let you down.

So how do you deal with that? For a start, don’t challenge the self-story, because they’ll get defensive. My personal technique is to take the self-story at face value but then charmingly contrive to arrange something else. “Must be a nightmare being stuck at home all day! How about we meet in the park round the corner, just to get you out of the house?” “I bet they’ve put up a plaque to you in that Starbucks! But you’ve got to try the coffee at this new place…”

None of this works all the time. But just being aware of the dynamics of the situation can really help with how you feel about no-shows.

Toddlers, technology and my inner Puritan

February 8, 2012

One of my friends mentioned recently that her 3-year-old son recognises the Twitter icons of some of her friends. She mentioned it in a “isn’t he clever?” spirit of mild mum-boasting, but the news freaked me out. Then another friend, whose baby is less than a year old, commented that her kid has “seen loads of Twitter already!” and I was weirded out anew. They both asked me why I had a problem with this.

So I’ve been trying to work out: what exactly is my problem here? Why does it feel so wrong and unnatural?

I wouldn’t in any way freak out if somebody told me their 3-year-old can name all the animals in their favourite book. That would seem completely normal to me. And recognising recurring icons on Mummy’s Twitter feed is very similar: it’s just a question of recognising a picture you see regularly. But perhaps some of the weirdness here is because the Twitter feed is for the adult and not meant for the child.

Two things about parents and children that aren’t exactly secrets but nobody tells you:

  1. Little kids are usually more interested in things adults, especially their parents, are using than in the things that are specifically created for the child’s own use.
  2. Parents are frequently bored by their own children, but it’s apparently unacceptable to admit it.

The first “secret” is obvious within five minutes of encountering a toddler in the company of its parents: children will ignore the colourful, interestingly textured toys specifically designed to stimulate their growing brains and instead make a beeline for Daddy’s keys, Mummy’s handbag or, if possible, the most dangerous and unsuitable item in the room.

When a toddler visited us a few days ago, I wasn’t the tiniest bit surprised that she ignored the big fluffy toy rabbit we gave her and went straight for a shelf full of books she can’t read. When her mum pulled her away from the books, I did the usual routine of pretending the rabbit was talking, but the toddler didn’t give a flying fuck. She ignored me and ran into a different room, where she immediately found a box full of batteries to play with. The only time I’ve ever managed to interest a toddler in a cuddly toy is when I genuinely forgot the kid was in the room and started playing with the toy myself. Then, all of a sudden, it was interesting enough. (I’ve noticed that the relationship to toys is very different in older children, especially when they’re socialising in groups, but that’s a different story.)

To move on to the second “secret”: parents have tools for getting themselves through the boredom that dare not speak its name: friends, television, books, mind-games, an obsession with getting kids to sleep and yes, the internet. Combine this with the child’s interest in anything the parent is doing without them and it’s logical that kids will latch on to whatever the parent is using to handle the boredom. So of course it makes sense for a kid to spend a lot of time looking at Mummy’s Twitter feed, even leaving aside my feeling that there’s something innately attention-attracting about anything that glows. (My guess is also that furtive Twitter-checkers get more attention from their kids than those who actively try to interest the child in what they’re doing.) So saying “My kid recognises lots of Twitter icons!” is effectively admitting two parenting “secrets” in one go.

But that doesn’t really explain why it seems so wrong to me. OK, so it’s partly because I grew up in the early Eighties when hardly anybody had a computer at home and I learned to use a computer many years after I’d learned to read and write. So I expect a logical progression that goes: learning to read books, learning to write, getting reasonably good at both reading and writing and then learning to use a computer. The idea that you’d be exposed to computers or smartphones before you could read or write “properly”, using paper, is odd to me because it feels like doing things the wrong way round. (Also, my parents had the vague idea that it would stunt my development to play too many computer games or watch too much telly, so my childhood exposure to glowing screens was limited.)

I was a Brownie leader in the early/mid-90s, a nursery assistant in the late 90s to early Noughties and a school librarian around the same time. So my first experiences of child-related responsibility date from a time before smartphones or tablet computers. More to the point, most of my experience of dealing with kids has involved a specific, time-limited job. It would be inappropriate to check Twitter in the middle of nursery sing-song time, just as it would be inappropriate to get out a book and start reading. But I’ll admit I did enjoy it when the nursery watched a video, or when the Brownies were absorbed in some activity, because I could relax my attention, drink tea and chat quietly to other adults. These days maybe I’d skip the tea and chatting to refresh my Twitter feed on my smartphone. It’s the same kind of light, semi-distracted entertainment.

What I’ve never experienced is the job of actually being a parent, getting past the platitudes of “it’s a full-time job, you know!” to the reality of inescapable 24-hour responsibility. I’ve never done the work of being just around, putting in the tedious hours of quantity time that are actually more important than scheduled quality time. My experience has either been about work (including voluntary work) or it’s been a time-limited social interaction with someone else’s kids. So the idea of long-term, open-ended responsibility for a child is foreign to me, even though that’s the reality of actual parenting. The closest I’ve come to that mix of responsibility and boredom is various jobs where I absolutely had to “man the phones” and “hold the fort” and couldn’t leave the room even though nothing was happening. And in a situation where I had responsibility but little to actually do, you bet your sweet bippy I surfed the web. (And felt a bit guilty despite the knowledge that I was doing precisely what was required of me.)

So that’s part of the answer. The idea of a parent repeatedly checking Twitter in front of their kid weirds me out because it doesn’t match the way I interact with kids myself. And that’s because I’m not a parent.

But there’s more to it than that. My reaction also involved feeling that on some vague moral level, a child being familiar with Twitter is just Wrong. I think it’s partly because boasting about your kid recognising Twitter icons is breaking the social expectation that you shouldn’t admit trying to do other things while “spending time with” your child. Of course there are many other ways of breaking that expectation: talking about your kid getting in the way when you’re cleaning the house, or copying you shaving, or whatever. And, as I said earlier, a parent who is focused on something else is in fact a subject of intense interest to a toddler. If you tie yourself in knots waving colourful toys at them, they’ll probably lose interest and look for something dangerous to play with instead.

But the Twitter thing still shocked me, more than seeing my niece pretending to swipe a credit card or mimicking adult conversations on her toy phone. And it’s taken me days to work out why: it’s because I have an expectation that mothers should emphasise the work they do but play down the fun and relaxation they have. My own mother tells and re-tells the story of how I once tipped her bucket of water over when she was working as a cleaner. That’s an OK story for her to tell because she features in the story as someone who’s working. But she was embarrassed when my sister was asked in primary school to draw a picture of her mum and drew a picture of her sitting down. “All the things I do… and you draw me sitting down?”

Even now she’s a ridiculously hard worker, working at least 20 hours a week even though she’s supposed to be retired, going to the gym several times a week and keeping her house show-home spotless. She hated board games and jigsaws when I was a kid for being “pointless” and “a waste of time” and now things have moved on, she dislikes blogging and Twitter for the same reasons. She’s now, like me, actively trying to have more fun, but I think for a long time she had the idea that fun was what happened when you should be doing something else. And I never realised, until my tech-savvy friend called me on my ick-reaction, how much of that attitude I’ve internalised.

The funny thing about unquestioned assumptions is: when you actually look straight at them, they mostly change or dissolve completely. I’ve had a few days to think about why a tiny child seeing Twitter seems so wrong to me, and now I’ve worked out why, hey presto: it doesn’t actually seem so wrong at all.

Silence is censure, except when it isn’t

February 4, 2012

I’ve written before about how withholding a “no” can be an expression of power, a refusal to hand someone a gift that you have the power to give.

But there are broader issues here, power issues surrounding the withholding of any speech. I don’t mean the failure of speech; I mean the deliberate withholding of speech. Sometimes, to be silent is to push the other person into a submissive role. (The acceptance of that role is usually signalled by nervous, approval-seeking blabbering.) Sometimes silence is censure, a message that you are not even worthy of a negative response.

It’s easy to think that others are ignoring us because we’re doing something they disapprove of. And then it’s tempting to amend our behaviour so that we’ll pass the test and get attention again. Because we’re humans, we’re social beings, and we want attention and approval. But sometimes… sometimes silence is just silence.

I recently forgot myself at a meeting. The topic was flyaway plastics and the best way of dealing with them through the waste management process. I started singing a song, made up on the spot, where “Flyaway plastics” went to the tune of “Waterloo Sunset”. I thought perhaps people would smile or join in. (This was a stupid assumption; the world of sustainable waste management doesn’t select people for their sense of humour or love of a sing-song.) But they all ignored me completely – frostily and disapprovingly, as I imagined, suddenly burning with shame.

Then I realised: they’re not ignoring me because they disapprove of my singing, or because the made-up lyrics aren’t funny, or because this is an inappropriate thing to do. They are probably ignoring me because they’re just not interested. I can read the lack of interest as disapproval and moderate my behaviour so it’s even less interesting, and be ignored further, and get into a loop which ends in me not wanting to leave the house… or I could not.

I choose not. My choice is that people who disapprove of what I do will at least have to make the effort to tell me so before they get to change my behaviour. I get enough actively-voiced daily disapproval without doing the work of second-guessing the people who say nothing. I am simply not going to hand any silent person that much power. Because, in case you hadn’t guessed already, I’m all about the speech.

tl;dr: person sings, is not sorry.

19th-century flame war

February 2, 2012

For some time past Mr Arabin had been engaged in a tremendous controversy with no less a person than Mr Slope, regarding the apostolic succession. These two gentlemen had never seen each other, but they hads been extremely bitter in print. Mr Slope had endeavoured to strengthen his cause by calling Mr Arabin an owl, and Mr Arabin had retaliated by hinting that Mr Slope was an infidel. This battle had been commenced in the columns of the daily Jupiter, a powerful newspaper […]

Each had repeatedly hung the other on the horns of a dilemma; but neither seemed to be a whit the worse for the hanging; and so the war went on merrily.

Another extract from Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, first published 1857.

World’s smallest cello

February 1, 2012

He was, however, very unhappy when his daughter left the room, and he had recourse to an old trick of his that was customary to him in his times of sadness. He began playing some slow tune upon an imaginary violoncello, drawing one hand slowly backwards and forwards as though he held a bow in it, and modulating the unreal cords with the other.

From Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, first published 1857.