Archive for April 2013

Pretending to hear

April 30, 2013

We’ve all done it. Someone says something to you and for whatever reason – it’s noisy, you’re not listening, you’re not wearing the hearing aid you need – you don’t hear them. And for whatever reason –  you’re tired, you’re bored, you’ve already asked them to repeat themselves once – you can’t face asking them to repeat themselves. So you just pretend to hear. You adopt what you hope is a suitable facial expression and nod and hope.

My conversational tactic isn’t for that part of the conversation. I assume you’ve already got that covered. You use the other person’s facial expression and gestures and whatever words you can catch to mould your response to something appropriate. Advanced but more high-risk techniques include verbal responses like “I really feel for the team” or “Wow, I didn’t know that.”

My tactic is for just after the pretending-to-hear moment. And it’s more of an anti-tactic, because it’s about what you mustn’t do.

Within five minutes of a nod ‘n’ smile fake response, try to avoid broaching new topics of conversation. Be especially careful about drawing the other person’s attention to interesting nearby objects or landmarks. Also be careful about very obvious remarks.

Why? Because those topics may well not be new. If you nod and smile at a comment, then minutes later make an identical comment yourself, your cover is blown.

This didn’t properly dawn on me until I’d been on the other end of a few cover-blown nods ‘n’ smiles myself. Most recently this happened at the supermarket when I pointed out an item near the conveyor belt to a fellow shopper and explained why it was there. She half-laughed as if my comment had been a joke, which aroused my suspicions that she hadn’t really heard me, but I couldn’t be sure until three or four minutes later when she finally spotted the item herself, pointed it out to me and asked if I knew why it was there.

When a surefire conversational winner is met by an expression of surprise and slight hurt, rather than the interest or amusement you were expecting, that’s when you know you’ve just blown your pretending-to-hear cover.

So the key thing after a nod ‘n’ smile is: think before you speak. Think about what you’re going to say. Unusual or curveball topics are probably safe. But always, before you start, ask yourself: “Could the thing I’m about to say possibly be the thing I just pretended to hear?” Suddenly launching into a tale of your travels in China might make you appear boring and self-obsessed. But it’s way safer than pointing out the funny thing happening on the next table at the restaurant, especially when the thing-you-didn’t-hear was, now you come to think about it, accompanied by subtle pointing in that very direction.

Initiative is real work

April 29, 2013

I’ve blogged a lot lately about decision-making, why it’s hard and necessary and scary and valuable. Just a few more thoughts before I give the topic a rest for a while.

I used to think that “real work” or “hard work” meant putting your back into something, ploughing on with something and getting a lot done. And that is true of one type of work. But I’m starting to realise that there’s a type of hard work that gives you a different feeling. Decision-making, emotional labour, taking initiative: here, hard work is often signified by an uncomfortable feeling.

I’m not talking about the difference between blue-collar and white-collar work. I’m talking about a more radical difference. Some of my voluntary work involves doing a defined, measurable task, often in the fresh air: gardening, painting, leafleting. Mostly, it feels really enjoyable. I feel satisfied afterwards, as if I’ve achieved something. Other voluntary work involves engaging with people, talking to them, persuading them, coming up with ideas, making decisions. That tends to make me feel drained and unhappy if I do too much of it. I thought that was a sign it wasn’t “real” work. Now I think it’s a sign that it is real work.

Decision-making is uncomfortable. It’s work. It’s work that not everybody wants to do. That’s partly why most really high-paid jobs have decision-making at their core.

And what’s harder work than making a decision? Creating a decision. Rather than deciding between option A and option B, you define what the options are. You invent plans, come up with ideas, get an open-ended situation into a place where choices can be made. It’s work. And it’s exhausting. That’s why most people like to avoid it.

When I realised that, I felt as if I’d been given a clue that not everybody has. (It’s a clue I really want to share, hence this post.) The clue is: when you feel uncomfortable or despairing or awkward or prematurely worn out by what you’re facing, it’s OK. It’s OK to feel scared or tired at the sight of a blank page or an empty calendar. That’s how you’re supposed to feel, because it’s a sign you’re doing the right work.

My instinct when dealing with blankness or open-endedness is often to run away, to seek out a comforting stream of “incoming”: check my email, check Twitter, check the post, whatever. It’s easier to play a game where the moves are obvious and it’s usually somebody else’s turn. But if you can stay with the uncomfortableness for a while and just make your peace with it, then do something with it… that’s how you level up.

Two poor decision-makers: a study

April 22, 2013

Part of my recent fascination with decision-making has come from becoming friends with someone who has quite exceptional problems with it. Let’s call her A. It’s clear that she suffers from various problems, but the nature of all these problems isn’t completely clear. I honestly don’t know if her inability to make decisions is related to her mental health issues or to her chronic fatigue illness or to something else entirely, but I just know it breaks my heart.

Arranging a date to meet up, even for something simple like a cup of coffee, is a huge challenge to her. We’ll get our diaries out and she will dither for perhaps twenty minutes about which date is best, making the case for different choices, choosing one, then second-guessing herself and re-making the choice. She will give valid reasons for choosing date X over date Y, then suddenly swerve back and decide date X isn’t suitable at all. If she’s reminded of her original reasons for an earlier choice – e.g. “But I thought you were getting your car MOTed on Wednesday?” – it unnerves her and she begins the whole process again.

I’ve read about very similar behaviour in an Oliver Sacks book, when he was describing a brain-damaged patient. But I’d never seen it in real life until I met this person. Incidentally, she’s highly intelligent and has held down at least one high-powered job in the past.

My instinctive tendency with social plans – because I hate making decisions too – is to say “I don’t mind” or “I’ll fit in with you” or “Pick a date”. But with my new friend, I’ve tried behaving much more decisively. I’ll say: “How’s this for a plan? Let’s meet on Tuesday at 11am, do [whatever] and then go for an early lunch at [wherever].” And I can hear the relief in her voice as she agrees to my plan. But then she’ll get in touch nearer the time and want to change the plan again. We’ve done various bits of voluntary work together and the endless changing of plans about this, the reopening of decisions, is much more draining and time-consuming than the work itself.

I’ve only ever known one other person to be so poor at committing to plans and so likely to change them at the last minute. Let’s call her B. She has a completely different personality from A. For a start, she’s probably the most selfish person I’ve ever met and she’s obsessed with control. She won’t dither, she’ll just avoid committing to any plan because she wants to keep her options open. She wants to keep power relations one-sided by getting the other person (or people) to commit. Then she can use them as her back-up while she searches for something better.

In a restaurant or a cafe she will always change tables at least once. Sometimes up to five times. She can’t stand the idea that she might not be at the best table. It’s a bit of a joke among her friends. (I could give lots of other examples of her refusal to commit, to decide, but it would make this blog post way too long.)

The two women I’ve described have wildly different personalities: one is kind, unsure of herself, eager to do right by people, concerned with fairness, tending to underestimate her own abilities but overestimate her energies. The other is selfish, manipulative, obsessed with status, obsessed with control, a liar. (She does have good qualities too, but those are her bad qualities.) The only thing they really have in common is that their inability or unwillingness to commit is demonstrably a source of unhappiness for both of them. One is unhappy because she doesn’t trust herself to make the right decision; the other is unhappy because she’s haunted by the idea that there might be a better option out there, that she might be missing out, that somebody else might be having a better time than her.

Being around really poor decision-makers is a lesson to me: avoiding decisions (or making them and then repeatedly re-making them, which is just another form of avoiding them) drains your own emotional energy. And it drains the people who are forced to do the tiresome work of waiting and nagging and rearranging as a result of your behaviour. That energy doesn’t go anywhere. Nobody benefits from it. It just drains away. Making decisions might have a cost, but refusing to make a decision incurs costs too, with no corresponding benefit.

When you’re dealing with someone who can’t decide on a joint matter, you realise that any decision that lets you move forwards is a gift. That’s what I meant when I wrote that “no” can be a gift.

And when there’s nobody else involved? Making a decision and choosing to be happy with that decision is a gift you can give yourself.

Spending time

April 19, 2013

My latest conversational trick: the phrase “spending time” can make a lot of activities look more impressive. For example:

“Tonight? I’m spending some time with my mum.”


“Tonight? I’m watching X-Factor with my mum and we’ll probably get blitzed on white wine as well.”


“I’m leaving work on the dot because it’s important to spend time with my kids.”


“I’m leaving work on the dot because I’m going to run around the garden with my kids, pretending to be a dragon.”


“I need to spend some time with the team in Bristol.”


“I need to go to Bristol, wander around the office asking everybody in turn about their work, get on their nerves a bit, surf the internet on my phone for half an hour, then suggest a pub lunch.”

Whatever you’re actually doing, technically you’re spending time doing it. But using the phrase “spending time” implies intentionality. It implies responsibility. It implies making a decision. That’s the key, I think. As a culture, even if we don’t explicitly acknowledge it, we respect the ability to make a decision.

The Eighties concept of “quality time” has fallen out of fashion. We now acknowledge, I think, that quantity time is important. Showing up, being there. But we don’t really have a catchy phrase to acknowledge that actually, the pub lunch with the team in Bristol could matter just as much as the awkward one-to-one questioning. Contact doesn’t have to be serious or important or intense to matter. But to matter, it has to happen.

So use the “spending time” trick. Add a martyr face and use words like “should”, “need” and “serious” to strengthen the effect. Then go and enjoy yourself!

The Ministry of Decision-Making

April 18, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about decisions; the cost of making decisions and the flipside of that cost, which is the value of making decisions. That’s why a “no” is worth something: because it means a decision has been made.

I’ve been reading about how decision-making depletes willpower. I’ve been thinking about my own tendency, probably a general human tendency, to question a chosen course of action as soon as obstacles appear. I’ve been thinking about how our more sociopathic leaders show pride in taking “tough decisions” rather than expressing anguish at the consequences. About the emotional labour of decision-making in high-status jobs. About the emotional labour of decision-making in low-status social positions.

So yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. And my most recent conclusion, expressed haltingly to my partner, was that it’s really good to put emotional labour into making a decision. It’s good to dither, to examine the options, to look before you leap. But when you’ve made that decision, reopening the decision-making process is toxic. It’s exhausting. It takes energy that should be spent on carrying out that decision. And if you’re questioning your path because of obstacles, you’re sapped of strength, less confident, less able to overcome those obstacles.

The same day I shared these thoughts, my partner found (completely by chance) that John Cleese has already said what I said, but probably more clearly than I did.

“We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.”

Wear black at my funeral

April 17, 2013

A few weeks ago I went to a colleague’s funeral and noted, not for the first time, a trend for funeral-goers to wear colours other than black. I was brought up to believe that the “correct” colours for funerals are black, more black and perhaps grey if that’s the colour of your only suit. Maybe my upbringing wasn’t typical, but I do think the tendency to wear other colours is a relatively new thing.

The justification is usually the same: “It’s a celebration of [the person’s] life.” But it just doesn’t work. For a start, most of us are cursed with crappy communicators as our next-of-kin, so it’s rare for all the funeral attendees to get the “no black” memo. Secondly, funeral-goers almost never actually wear celebratory clothes. If black is banned, you tend to get a wintry mix of browns, blues and greys. Maybe that’s because people feel that party wear is disrespectful, or maybe they just feel too sad to wear anything fun. Either way, that should be a massive clue as to why avoiding black is bad: because funerals are not a celebration of the person’s life. They’re a time for saying goodbye, for sharing the grief with others who will understand. You’re remembering the person and their achievements on a sad occasion, and that’s OK. True celebration happens in other ways.

The colleague whose funeral I attended was definitely a man who deserved celebrating. And he was a man who loved fun, who loved partying. A real celebration of his life would have involved men in dresses (and I’m definitely not counting priests here), Cuban rum, Irish whisky, beautiful women, bright colours, music, dancing. We had a little post-funeral party where the drinks flowed, the music played and beautiful women were in attendance, and that’s great. But the actual funeral was a depressing affair – of course – and the people who turned up in beige fleeces instead of black clothes didn’t change that.

I write as someone who avoids wearing black in the normal course of things. Right now, I have perhaps six items of black clothing in my bulging, colourful wardrobe, including three pairs of jogging bottoms and a brewery T-shirt.  I used to wear a lot of black in my gothier days, but now it seems a waste when there are so many nice colours to wear. I also think that wearing non-black to work is a way of “levelling up” in your wardrobe choices. Choosing a different base colour –  even if it’s a safe option like navy, beige, brown or grey – somehow makes you look more sophisticated.

But I want people to wear black at my funeral. Maybe you admired alive-me for wearing nice colours, for being unconventional, for having an upbeat attitude (unlikely, I know). But my funeral won’t be a celebration of my life. Celebrate my life by drinking my favourite wine, chatting about me to others, doing things I would have approved of. Don’t do it at my funeral, because funerals are sad, and that’s OK. There’s no need to think outside the box once I’m inside the box.

Before smartphones

April 12, 2013

I’m one of those people who moans about overuse of smartphones in social settings. It’s a kind of tragedy of the commons: if you’re the one guy who’s got his smartphone out in a social situation, it’s great for you. Dip in and out of conversation with the people who are present, dip in and out of conversation with people who aren’t present. Lovely. But for every smartphone that gets pulled out, the social situation gets that bit less social. And if you’re the one person without a smartphone, it’s downright miserable.

There’s nothing new I have to say about this today. Certainly nothing that Sherry Turkle hasn’t already said better. I just wanted to share a memory. Today someone mentioned smartphones as a tool for amusing yourself when people are late for meetings, and that triggered a memory from the days before smartphones.

I used to work for a small non-profit organisation. Once we had an off-site meeting. Someone was coming to the meeting, a new potential volunteer. She texted me to say she was early. I was delayed, dealing with an urgent issue that had just blown up. So I sent an employee along ahead of me, saying something like:

“I’ve just got to deal with this. But listen, remember me telling you about Lucy? She’s got there early and I don’t want her to think we’re a bunch of flakes. You head over to the community centre ahead of me and I’ll be about ten minutes.”

Ten minutes later, I arrived at the community centre. Lucy (not her real name) and the employee were sitting in awkward silence. Turns out the employee had not even attempted to introduce himself or explain he was part of the organisation she was coming to meet. He had not apologised for my absence, explained my lateness or indeed mentioned me at all.

Lucy hadn’t tried to introduce herself either. She was slightly worried she was in the wrong building, but it hadn’t occurred to her to ask and it hadn’t occurred to my colleague to reassure her.

To sum up: neither had exchanged a word. Neither of them had even put the kettle on. Both of them just sat in silence next to each other for about ten minutes until I arrived, full of explanations and introductions, arms full of crisps and paperwork. My colleague had understood my instruction – “You head over to the community centre” – but he genuinely hadn’t grasped the implied instruction to greet Lucy and make her welcome. He was hurt when I asked him afterwards why the hell he hadn’t talked to her.

Now we have smartphones, maybe both of them would have been playing with Facebook or something. But the smartphones wouldn’t be the reason why they weren’t talking.

It’s unusual to find adults with so little social initiative, but there are more of them than you’d think. The younger ones hide behind smartphones, sure. But the older ones are perfectly capable of sitting in blank silence without any kind of electronic prop. I’m interested in the question of whether smartphones are training more people to avoid social initiative, but I wanted to share a story to prove they’re not the only problem.