Archive for the ‘time-stealer tricks’ category

Help with my thing

May 24, 2012

I know a guy who’s continually starting new things. I say “things” because I don’t think there’s a better word. They’re mostly political-ish campaigns but it might be a charity fundraiser one week, a new blog the next, and so on. Mostly they’re things that sound vaguely like a good idea, so it’s been hard for me to work out quite why he irritates me so much.

Then I got it. Firstly, he doesn’t finish much. He’ll start a petition, hassle everybody he knows to sign it… then walk away. Or he’ll start a “community website”, hassle everybody he knows to contribute blog posts and pictures… then walk away. He’s not even a friend of mine, but he’s still asked me to support three different campaigns in the past couple of months. A friend who follows his progress closely tells me that he’s started and abandoned five websites in the past year.

But I realised today: that’s not the main reason why he annoys me. He annoys me because in addition to not being a finisher, he is not a joiner. I’ve never known him help out with an existing campaign or somebody else’s event. He always starts his own things, because he is desperate to be a leader, desperate to be the guy who starts things.

Why does that annoy me? Because it’s not fucking fair, that’s why. Because in a fair world, people who do voluntary stuff in their spare time would all get a fairly equal share of helping out with existing stuff and starting their own stuff. And I believe that (again, in a fair world) if you start something you take responsibility for it, and you push it through the dip of other people’s apathy and hostility, and you get it going and you nurture it and you damn well keep it going until you’ve either achieved what you needed to achieve or found someone else to take over. You don’t walk away without a damn good reason, and you’re supposed to feel bad if you do.

You might say “Hey, Gryphon, take a chill-pill. You’re talking about voluntary work here, done in his own time. You don’t get to dictate how other people’s voluntary work is done. Isn’t it better he does things a bit badly rather than, like so many people, doing nothing at all?”

Well, actually… no. Starting a new campaign or event of your own is rewarding because by its very nature it tends to be something you’re deeply interested in. You have ownership and you get to take most of the credit. Whereas helping out with other people’s events is less rewarding, because you’re fitting in with other people’s ideas and schedules, you don’t get to control what’s going on and, y’know, it’s not your thing. But if everybody decided just to do the fun, rewarding bits, there would be nobody left to help with anything, stuff often wouldn’t get completed and we would have some serious tragedy-of-the-commons shit going on.

And while we’re talking about the commons, I also believe there’s a finite store of general goodwill to be had. There is a limit to people’s willingness to sponsor your sponsored events, sign your petitions, man your stall, give out your leaflets and, well, generally help with your thing. That store gets depleted every time someone starts something new and requests support for it. And if you deplete that store without actually doing any good as a result (because you abandon every project before it achieves anything) you are actively doing harm. That’s why doing voluntary work in this way is not a mildly benign or even neutral activity.

I don’t start my own things much, partly because of my belief that people will be more sympathetic to your latest request for help/attendance/support if you’re not continually demanding this. I guess my (until now, unexamined) assumption was that you could earn that support by helping with other people’s things.

Apparently not. The most recent thing I started and ran myself was a public event in November 2010. I didn’t ask for help organising it; I just asked my circle of friends and acquaintances to attend. I took on the responsibility of organising it myself, with the help of one other person. 300 people were invited to the event by post. Another 600 or so I invited more casually, through Twitter. My co-organiser took care of the local press, Upcoming, etc. I singled out a few friends that I guessed were certain to support me, and contacted them individually to check they were coming. This was my thing. This was the basket I’d put all my eggs into.

And I thought that because I’ve never asked my friends to sponsor my trek in the Himalayas or bake a cake for my jumble sale, that would count in my favour. I thought that because of all the times I’ve gone to their art exhibition and baked cakes for their fundraiser and sponsored their 5k run, it would count in my favour. I thought about all the petitions I’ve signed, all the stalls I’ve manned, all the marches I’ve gone on, all the times I’ve dragged myself out on a wet evening to “be there for” various people, and I thought “yes, this will definitely count in my favour.”

It fucking well didn’t. Guess how many people turned up on that rainy and windy night? One. One complete stranger. My closest friends and loved ones had excuses for not being there; nobody else even thought they needed to explain. They saw no reason to offer their apologies, because, hey, you can’t support everybody’s stuff, right?

And that just made me boil with fury, because I felt as if I had damn well earned support for my event by putting my time and energy into organising something good and making sure it happened. I felt as if I’d doubly earned it by “doing my time” helping out with other people’s events and campaigns, and triply earned it because I hadn’t abused people’s goodwill with an endless stream of bullshit. But this guy gets more support for each fresh piece of poorly-thought-out, quickly-abandoned rubbish than I got for my one event.

I’ve heard that in the crazy world of business, you’re more likely to get venture capital if you have a string of failed businesses behind you. You’d assume the venture capital would go to people who are starting their first business, who’ve never fucked up, but actually it goes to people who’ve jumped into carrying out a series of poorly-thought-out ideas and failed at all of them. And I wonder if that’s how it works in the world of voluntary things. Perhaps the guy who’s started and abandoned twenty things in the past year is somehow seen as a better bet than the guy who only does one thing every eighteen months or so and tries to do it really well. If so, I have no idea why.

Anyway. It’s clear that there is not an infinite supply of goodwill and support. In a perfect world it would be divided equally so we all got the same amount each. (The guy I’m talking about would have used up his year’s supply by mid-January.) But clearly we don’t. It’s a common store and if other people have been pulling a lot of bullshit lately, there will be no goodwill left for your thing. And it doesn’t matter how hard you’ve personally worked on it or how infrequently you personally make demands on the goodwill store.

We don’t live in a perfect world. And I can only control my own behaviour.

So I won’t keep sponsoring you. I might sponsor you if you’re doing something challenging and you haven’t asked me for sponsorship for at least a year and I don’t suspect your sponsored event is a thinly-disguised holiday. But the ex-colleague who does three half-marathons a year and asks me to sponsor him for all of them? Nu-uh. Maybe if you do a full marathon, mate.

Ditto events. Yes, it’s important to you and you’ve put a lot of work into organising it. Well, that’s how I felt about my November 2010 event, and if you’re reading this you almost certainly didn’t bother turning up to that. (Unless you’re the one person who did. Cheers, Dave, I still appreciate it even now.)

Ditto your fucking petition. I know it only takes a minute to sign. But it’s longer if I’m responsible enough to actually read what I’m supposed to be signing.  And I get asked to sign perhaps ten a week. And it’s not as if by signing your petition I’m building up some kind of credit which will make you more likely to sign mine. It’s no more reciprocal or fair than any other thing. I think in my entire life I have created two petitions. Both were really important to me, both were ignored by most of my acquaintances. So fuck any person or organisation who thinks I somehow owe them because it’s “just a minute” to sign.

Ditto how you really want me to write to my MP. That can take a good fifteen minutes. You’d better not have asked me to do the same thing in the past year, or I’ll say no with a glad heart.

In other words: I cannot create a world in which goodwill and support is distributed fairly. But I can ration my own goodwill and support in a way that I believe is fair. Because I have reached the conclusion that trying to support everything is not actually the right thing to do. Not only is it impossible and a one-way road to burnout: it’s actually unfair to treat each thing equally when equal resources and commitment are not being put into them.

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.

I know how she does it

January 12, 2012

I have an acquaintance who seems to be a powerhouse of activism. She’s always sending me emails about local events, petitions to be signed, protests, worthy documentaries to watch and so on. To be honest, sometimes she just makes me feel tired. How does she do it all?

Today she forwarded me something about a consultation that needed an urgent response. The email said  that I should click on a link, “download the document” and “fill it in, which won’t take long”.

I clicked on the link. There was no document. I sent the webmaster some feedback asking where on earth the document was. I followed some other links on the webpage I’d arrived at. I still couldn’t find anything to fill in, but I did manage to find contact details for the people managing the consultation. I sent them an email as my response to the consultation.

Then, after about half an hour of this rather irritating effort, I got back to my acquaintance, ccing in the original writer of the email, and told them about the problems. I suggested they either supply the correct link for this difficult-to-find document or reword the email to explain that people will have to write a response in email or letter form.

My acquaintance rather guiltily responded that she hadn’t actually checked the link before forwarding it. Bingo! Now I think I know how she does it. She doesn’t do it. She just forwards messages about it and expects other people to do it. Yet again I am reminded: don’t mistake email activity for actual activity, and please don’t assume that people who demand your time are willing to give theirs. Sometimes they’re demanding yours as a substitute for giving theirs.

Time-stealing tricks: using the landline

October 29, 2008

Most time-stealers learn this one fairly early on: always ring the victim’s landline, never their mobile. Mobile phones have caller ID; if they can see it’s you, they’re much less likely to answer.

Some of them try to get round this by withholding their number and then ringing the victim’s mobile, but this technique has limited success. Most victims have some experience of time-stealing tactics already, so they’ve already learnt not to answer calls from withheld numbers.

Of course, people who are very used to time-stealers often end up getting caller ID on their landlines too.

Another kind of redial trick

October 13, 2008

This is a variation on the instant redial trick mentioned in a previous post. But that trick involved taking advantage of the victim’s relief, whereas this one uses their guilt to manipulate them.

It’s used when the time-stealer’s demands have overridden the victim’s politeness, and the victim has finally – finally – told the time-stealer where to go. This usually means that the victim has become angry enough not to care about hurting the pest. He or she has probably said, in a raised voice and in no uncertain terms, that they are unhappy with the time-stealer’s behaviour. The victim will tell the pest to leave them alone – probably putting it into unambiguous words for the first time ever.

When the call is over, the victim will start calming down. He or she will start feeling guilty about the outburst and worrying about its effects on the other person. It is then that the advanced manipulator will ring back.

Pests will usually take their cue from the victim during this second phone call. Sometimes the victim will be shocked enough at their own behaviour to apologise and take back everything they’ve said, in which case the time-stealer’s work is done. Sometimes the victim is apologetic about the outburst, but brave enough to stand by the essence of what they said. In that case, the pest will probably offer their own apology for the behaviour that prompted the outburst and commence new, subtler manipulation techniques.

Sometimes the victim repeats the substance of the outburst rather than apologising for it. This usually happens for one of two reasons: either the victim has been made angry again by the fact that the pest has phoned back, thereby showing that they’ve ignored everything it cost the victim so much to say; or the victim is still angry because the time-stealer has phoned back too soon. Either way, most time-stealers realise that when the victim is prepared to state their unhappiness with the situation on more than one occasion, the manipulated relationship is coming to an end.

Time-stealer tricks: booking in advance

April 29, 2007

Victims of time-stealers are usually the victims of their own politeness too. Otherwise they’d be much more effective in achieving a pest-free life. Most victims are brought up to be polite, and this politeness is so ingrained that they can’t bear to straightforwardly tell someone they aren’t interested in seeing them. They use various socially acceptable ways of signalling “no” without saying “no”, and hope that the time-stealer will get the hint. The time-stealer takes advantage of this by ignoring the hint and focusing on the fact that the word “no” has not actually been said.

A lot of victims try to put off arrangements by being dreadfully busy in the near future, inventing packed schedules as a way of saying “Please give up.” So the time-stealer trick is to assume they’re telling the truth and say, “Since you’re so very busy at the moment, let’s make plans to meet up in plenty of time.” They invite victims to meetings well in advance, knowing that the further in the future the suggested arrangement is, the less plausible the excuse will be.

The furthest in the future I’ve ever known a time-stealer to arrange something trivial was about six months.

Instant redial

March 8, 2007

The quick – sometimes instant – redial is a fairly advanced time-stealing trick. The initial step is to ring the victim and have a conversation where the outcome is that the victim feels let off the hook. If the victim says “I’m busy Saturday… can I ring you next week?”, the pest will say “Yes, of course, ring me whenever you’re free.” The aim is to give the victim a feeling of relief that they have got rid of the time-stealer, if only for a brief time. Really advanced time-stealers will say something like, “Good luck with [something happening in several weeks’ time]”, so that the victim thinks they have gained at least a few weeks of respite.

The pest’s aim is to harness that feeling of relief. So what the time-stealer does is to ring back unexpectedly while the victim is still feeling relieved. Some pests leave it an hour or two; I’ve known people to ring back within thirty seconds. The victim will still be feeling happy and relieved, and will be caught completely off guard when the pest makes a fresh demand to meet up. The other advantage is that they are more likely to answer the phone, because they will assume the call isn’t going to involve any demands on their time – after all, they’ve already said ‘no’ and the pest seems to have accepted that.

The victim is also likely to be feeling warmer towards the time-stealer than they have for some time, which makes them more likely to agree. It’s only later – if at all – that they will realise that the warm feeling that persuaded them into a meeting was only engendered by the pest’s earlier fake acceptance of their refusal of a meeting.

The relationship between a time-stealer and a time-giver, between pest and victim, wouldn’t survive without smokescreens.