Saturday, May 14, 2011

Surreal Conversations

It started around the time they threatened us with a shutdown.

We gathered in a room and sat quietly.

Someone (that would be me) asked about outside work if we were furloughed.

“My understanding is that if you have signed permission from Counsel for outside employment, then you’re fine.”

My response:

“I can’t understand this at all. Can’t we just use our judgment?”

Very honestly, I was busting a gut.

Like, I pay bills. I work hard to pay them. I give everything to my job and then some. I follow the ethics rules to the letter and when I am not sure, I ask or don’t do it. Rationally, how could I possibly anticipate the exact timing of the shutdown, seek suitable outside employment in time, and on top of that get supervisory approval after a Counsel review?

The response came back, sympathetically: “We’ll look into it again.”

I looked around the room. Nobody else seemed to care. Maybe it was like a forced vacation for them. They’re a younger crowd, so I can see it.

I am middle-aged. And all I could see was my bank account, draining. Quickly. Have you been to Trader Joe’s lately? Chop’t? It’s called money. It pays for things. It doesn’t grow on trees.

It wasn’t just the shutdown. It was also the months and months of media coverage. How federal workers are lazy. Overpaid. Proposals to freeze our pay. Cut the ranks. “Encourage retirement.” Etc.

Anyone could see that federal workers were under attack. One doesn’t have to overreact, but it makes sense to be prepared. Who knows what the future could bring?

It occurred to me, then, that I was square in the middle of a surreal conversation. In a regular conversation there would have been a lot of dialogue. But one really couldn’t say much of anything at that particular place and time. So it turned quiet, and felt strange.

I remember that I walked out, totally embarrassed. My face was red. This was unlike me:

A) I don’t embarrass easily.
B) I hate talking about money.

In fact most federal workers I know don’t talk about money. Except in the context of years-till-retirement.

Surreality is everywhere.

Another example.

My kid comes home from school and tells me I have to help her get ready for a test.

Me: Go online and get a worksheet.

Kid: There are no worksheets.

Me: What do you mean there are no worksheets? It’s MATH!

Kid: The teacher doesn’t follow a book.

Me: What?

Kid: You don’t get it. The teacher doesn’t teach.

Me: What?

Kid: The teacher doesn’t teach.

Me: What do you mean the teacher won’t teach?”

You can see where this conversation is going, right?

It all reminds me of this surreal interchange between Steve Martin, playing the bumbling “Inspector Clouseau,” and soccer trainer/killer “Yuri,” in The Pink Panther.

Clouseau thinks he is interrogating Yuri successfully, but the information he wanted is right there in the open:

Clouseau: Is there anyone with you?

Yuri: No.

Clouseau: Are you carrying a pair of high heels in that bag?

Yuri: No.

Clouseau: Not even a small pair of pumps?

Yuri: No.

Clouseau: Who are you?

Yuri: I’m Yuri, the trainer.

Clouseau: And what is it you do, Yuri the trainer?

Yuri: I train.

Clouseau: So, you are Yuri the trainer who trains.

Similarly, I am having this idiotic conversation about a teacher who won’t teach. And as you can imagine, this is after a full day of work and I am coming home covered head to toe in to-dos.

Fast forward to an actual parent-teacher conference with this individual.

I didn’t want to have a conference. But I actually could not find a review sheet online that looked anything like her homework problems. I can’t see any other way.

I walk in to the classroom and the following dialogue ensues. Straight out of an episode of “Seinfeld.” Have you seen this one? It’s called, “The Trip” (Episode #41).

Jerry and George are in a hotel room in Los Angeles just before Jerry goes on “The Tonight Show”. The housekeeper comes in to straighten up and asks how they want the beds made up:

George: Uh, Jerry, you want your blankets tucked in?

Jerry: Excuse me, what?

George: You want your blankets tucked in?

Jerry: What blankets?

George: When Lupe makes up the beds in the morning.

Jerry: I don't know, whatever they do.

Lupe: I tuck in? Yes?

Jerry: Tuck in, tuck in.

George: Alright, so that's one tuck and one no-tuck.

Lupe: Okay.

George: Yeah. One second sweetheart. Jerry, I really think it'd be easier if you didn't tuck.

Jerry: Excuse me, fine, you don't want me to tuck, put me down for a no-tuck.

George (to Lupe): Two no-tucks.

Jerry: Uh, hang on a second, You know what? Changed my mind, make it a tuck.

George: You just said you weren't tucking.

Jerry: I'm tucking! Hello? Hello? They hung up on me. They don't know where Kramer is anyway.

George: Alrighty, so. That's one tuck and one no-tuck. Got that?

Now you are ready to listen in on my bizarre conversation with the teacher:

Me: My daughter tells me that you don’t teach.

Teacher: That’s right.

Me: How can you not teach? It’s algebra.

Teacher (gently): Geometry, Mrs. Blumenthal.

Me (irritated): Oh, sorry. Geometry. Why don’t you teach that?

(I’m thinking, he does teach this. And I’m asking why he doesn’t teach it. This is getting stranger and stranger.)

Teacher: I want the kids to discover it for themselves.

I have seen this teacher’s resume. It’s like I am dealing with the Freud of geometry here. Like a mad genius and I am in the lab.

Me: OK, I don’t understand. They have to learn it don’t they? I requires memorizing. How can they ‘discover’ something they don’t know anything about?

Teacher: It’s simple. I give them the worksheets, they sit in groups, and they ask me if they have any questions.

Wow, I’m thinking. I wish I had a job like that. I could just give the customers blank posters and let them draw in the taglines and ask me if they want to know anything about outreach.

Me: OK then. Well, have a nice weekend.

I leave and close the door. I have given up. I bow out gracefully, while I still have my marbles intact.

Surreal conversations.

How do you handle them?

In that case I said to myself, the kid is basically doing very well. Either leave it alone or pull her out of the school. I left it alone.

In the case of the shutdown, I looked for permissible freelance work. That could serve as a cushion in case something happened in the future.

I was fortunate to find two things. One is teaching as an adjunct assistant professor of marketing in a local public university (WOO HOO! No, I don’t want to name it.) The other involves some ghostwriting.

Of course for both of these I had to get permission. Which led me to another surreal conversation:

Supervisor: Counsel wants me to warn you that multiple jobs at the same time could lead you to using core work hours to freelance. Also, you want to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Me: They’re not at the same time, at least not mostly. The teaching is online and it’s one course during the summer. The other one is only a few hours once a week.

Supervisor: Still. Do you see where they bolded the guidance? That means they’re concerned. You do ask about freelancing a lot.

Me: I have asked maybe five times in six years.

Supervisor: Nobody else asks that much.

Me: But isn’t it a sign of an ethical employee that I ask? What am I supposed to do, not ask?

Supervisor: No, of course you should ask.

I am dizzy by now.

I must tell you that my supervisor is incredibly good to me. I adore her. And what she is trying to do is protect me. Because in life, things are decided not only on the basis of fact. They are decided in the context of surreal conversations, where innocent actions can be taken the wrong way, and blow back on the doer painfully, causing irreparable damage.

Like, I learned in this conversation that people wonder why my posts go up on GovLoop sometimes during core work hours. Dammit, I thought, I knew that was going to be a problem. Because the RSS feed gets picked up when it gets picked up – I don’t have control over that.

I am a busy person, driven to write. I write whenever I can. Mornings, mostly, on weekdays and weekends. Right now. Sometimes at night if I have time, energy and am inspired. Sometimes at lunch if there’s something really major going on in my mind. I don’t want to say that I’ve never posted a blog from work – maybe a handful of times, out of 400 posts – but when I am there, I am there. And everybody knows that.

(Even when I am home, I am there…checking in remotely, working to get ahead of a deadline, emailing in ideas and concerns from the news, etc.)

But still, there is the appearance of things.

“Keep a record of when you email the blog in,” she advised me. “I know you don’t blog at work, but protect yourself, just in case.”

That was good advice. Straight. Not surreal. Not couched in a pseudo-message. Direct. I can deal with that. My supervisor did me a favor.

Another misunderstanding about my blog came up, that shouldn’t have surprised me. It is piped to a variety of outlets – GovLoop, Government in the Lab, the Customer Collective, Brazen Careerists, and a couple of others that usually don’t pick it up. And Twitter. LinkedIn. Not to mention whoever cuts and pastes my posts into their blogs, or links to them. And I’ve posted a couple of videos on branding.

When people type my name into Google, it seems like I am sitting on the Internet 24/7 doing nothing else but generating content - and have virtually no time for anything else. That could not be further from the truth. I have about an hour of writing energy a day, maybe two if I push it. The rest of the time I am just too busy with real life.

If I hadn’t had a direct conversation with my supervisor, that perception could have festered and gotten worse. Because now I am working on a book based on all my blogs. I can only imagine the consternation of trying to figure out “how Dannielle has time to write five blogs a day plus write a book plus all the other stuff she does.” It would look ridiculous.

The takeaway lesson from my experience is pretty clear.

Surreal conversations are part of life. You have to turn them into straight ones.

Reality is, most people aren’t direct about what they want to say.

• They may be afraid of coming out and saying it.

• They may not be fully sure of what they think.

• They may not be the best communicators in the world.

It is your job, at all times, to handle the conversation. It’s not always a pleasant job.

Look at the whole scandal over PR firm Burson-Marsteller getting paid by Facebook to ghostwrite negative stories about Google.

We all know that BM (what an acronym) did the wrong thing. And that they’re getting heat all over the place – tarnishing all the rest of us PR folks with the “sleazy” mark again – but looking at them from the outside I am pretty impressed.

They took responsibility immediately:

“Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies.”

When follow-up mini-earthquakes arose, like deleting critical posts on its Facebook page, they continued to take responsibility, saying:

“That was wrong.”

Then again, there is a blog called Burson-Marsteller Watch, “Keeping an Eye on Hell’s Public Relations Firm.” Which actually picked up one of my posts once, which is how I learned about it.

If I were Burson, I would be concerned about the anti-Burson blog. They probably are. And they’ve decided to ignore it. But I’m not sure I would go that route. It might be better if they had a “myths vs. facts” kind of space online where they addressed attacks on their reputation directly. (Maybe they do and I just don’t know about it. They seem pretty good.)

One last surreal conversation…and how it turned into a real one.

Me to supervisor: Why are we wasting money doing things X way. Let’s do them Y way.

Supervisor: OK. Get IT permission.

And then, me to IT:

Me: I want to (described procedure) Y way. It affects nothing. It harms nothing. This is why. Is that OK?

IT: Why can’t you make it work the old way?

I started to feel like Popeye when he tried to punch Brutus but Brutus pushed his head back so that Popeye’s hands were flailing in the air. The point isn’t Y. The point is that the new way is better and safe. It was simple common sense.

What did I do? Of course I am a writer so I wrote a long, detailed email detailing exactly how I felt.

I restrained myself from sending it. 93% of all emails are misunderstood the wrong way. What do you think is going to happen to one that is flat-out hostile?

I showed said email to supervisor.

Me: I shouldn’t send this, right?

Supe (kindly; sighing): Ask (name of person) for guidance. Give him a call.

I do this. Meanwhile IT has someone call me to find out what the situation is. I know her. She’s pretty good, and I trust her. Now it turns into a real conversation. Now I can start to get some results.

IT friend: What’s the problem?

Me: (Explains situation)

IT friend: OK I see. I think we can handle that. Send me an email explaining.

Me: I’ll send you the email I already sent (everyone else involved in this situation.

IT friend: This is probably as simple as writing a procedure. We don’t have rules yet that cover what you want to do.

Me: THANK YOU thank you thank you.

IT friend: And how is your life going?

Me: Don’t ask. (This is the same day as I find out people think I’m blogging 24/7.)

In unison: Let’s have lunch.

In a way, life is really just a series of ongoing conversations. When they become surreal it’s a waste of everybody’s time.

When you find yourself caught up in a surreal conversation, try to get to the heart of the matter diplomatically. Recognize that if the communication is failing, it’s probably not about you. More likely it’s about something that has people running scared, or confused, or they have trouble saying what it is they want to say.

Like my grandmother Muriel, may she rest in peace, once said:

“Life is short. Be kind to each other.”

Assume the best about other people, not the worst. Most of the time they’re just doing the best they can.

Have a good weekend everybody, and –

Good luck!