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When You Leave Others Thinking, "What A Jerk!"

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So my husband and I had lunch in a great vegetarian place except for one thing: The couple on a type date.

The guy was so loud and obnoxious. First of all he kept interrupting the woman. Every time she started to say something he had to agree, disagree or amplify.

The other things he did that screamed "I'm a jerk" included:

1. Bragging about his "positivity," degrees, experience, books read (this was by far the worst)
2. Asking the waitress her name and then not using it
3. Taking forever to order as he deliberated out loud
4. Telling the woman he would have to get the soup if she wouldn't order dumplings, which apprarently he has never tasted
5. Interviewing the woman like a job candidate

My husband said - better to be more reserved. Humble. Ask how the other person thinks, feels, etc. and wait for a response. Listen!

Sometimes by observing quietly we learn a lot.

Demanding Women

Officially I have 15 years I of professional experience but if you actually count all of it - from advanced education, fellowship, internships to temp jobs to entry-level administrative and database work -the amount goes up to 25+.

During that time, for whatever reason, I have worked mostly for strong female executives. Their demands were usually exacting and they did not spare your feelings when you made a mistake.

I think it's about proving yourself. Many of my friends tell me the same thing about these larger-than-life, legendary figures. Particularly bosses who earned their stripes in the '70s and early '80s. It's not just something you see in the movies - these women clearly have confronted lots of stereotypes about passivity and overcome them.

I was thinking about this today. I watched "In The Land of Blood and Honey," by Angelina Jolie, with my husband this weekend. Ostensibly it's about Serbs vs. Croats but from what I could tell it was very much about women's degradation as a class. Over and above any other kind of distinction.

It was a really upsetting movie. As much as "The Stoning of Soraya M." It left me sleepless for a night.

I was raised in a traditional religious family and we didn't use fancy words like sexism. But I saw it a lot - it was insidious and awful. Women worked to help out at home, not as the primary breadwinner. We were not the main focus of religious education. We were not supposed to know much about politics or the economy either.

We were supposed to look good, act nice, get decent grades and babysit.

Those who stepped outside the norm were seen as "achievers" but also odd or mannish. Mainly people wondered "what kind of boy would marry someone like that."

Things have changed quite a lot, and now "high achievement" is expected. Although you're still left to figure out on your own how you will handle your family responsibilities, especially mothering, on which the bar seems extraordinarily high. And it's up to you to figure out how to be "assertive but not pushy."

I just want to say that I am grateful to all the demanding people in my life. Of both genders. Not just my bosses but my family and friends too. The ones who have insisted that I follow through on my potential as a whole person, not just a human of the female gender.

I think it's important to say this out loud because there are still so many women who are caught up in all the stereotypes and feel lesser because of it. Even me, sometimes.

Anyway, you know who you are.

Thank you.

Yom Kippur Apologies - Insight from a TV Commercial

Tonight starts the fast of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It's traditional to begin the fast by apologizing to the people in your life: "I'm sorry if I did anything to hurt you this year."

I'm not a huge fan of these general apologies. What do they mean? "If" I hurt you "by doing anything" during "this year."

You might argue that the vagueness has to do with not wanting to call attention to something that could cause a fight.

But actually, I think most people just hate to apologize directly and specifically, because they mistakenly think:

* "Apologizing creates anger whereas 'going on' enables it to be diffused."
* "If I admit guilt, I will get punished."
* "Apologizing keeps us in the past, and we need to move on."

(Ever noticed that executives tend to share these beliefs?)

Bounty Paper Towels captured these intertwined feelings well with their 1990 TV commercial, "Bounty Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry." All the bad characters are kids and puppies - how can you be mad at them for spilling the cereal, even if it is on purpose?

Some people at a high level are savvy and they know that apologies carry meaning. So they offer these vague, general utterances but devoid of feeling or commitment to change. Instead it's just for show, manipulative, carefully and legalistically worded so that there is no real liability.

If I have any (Jewish) New Year's resolution this year it is to avoid the phony or pointless and stay grounded in what's real. I do think we should apologize immediately and fully when we hurt people. I don't think we should apologize for being ourselves.

Neither should we walk it back for integrity - for speaking, writing, or thinking critically. Solid, objective news reporting, or blogging, or books are not sins. Neither are music, movies or art an occasion for apologies either.

Believe me,  I have disagreements just like anyone else. And there's lots of stuff I don't like out there. I see anti-Semitic movies like The Passion of the Christ and Drive. But they are art, and I don't expect any apologies for that, nor honestly for most of the public cultural displays that strike me as wrongheaded.

If I could have any prayer for this Day of Atonement it would be that maybe we say less and do more. Apologies are words, and words matter but they're less important than action. I hope we decide to treat each other better, as human beings, and stop being so hurtful and cutting and cold.

Just my two cents, praying for a peaceful New Year. "Shana Tova" to you and yours.

Permanent Disbelief & Its Impact On Government Public Affairs

"Permanent Spin" has an eye-catching headline but the Weekly Standard article makes a pretty routine claim: You can't trust the government.

This article in particular focused on political PR, criticizing the Administration for refusing to label several terrorist attacks for what they were. Jibes like this fly from both sides of the aisle and in popular culture; even Saturday Night Live joined the fray with a satirical skit mocking a candidate for secretly taped remarks at a fundraiser that undermined his carefully crafted public messaging.

Sometimes political PR goes off-the-cuff, and people can't decide whether it's a good thing or bad. The New York Times reported on the angst within the party that followed unscripted remarks at a national political convention. The New Republic had mixed reviews but admitted that it could be "accidental political genius." Others said flat out that it was in fact "genius," no miscalculation at all.

In the civil service there is PR too, but we call it "public affairs." People don't trust that either. A good example is the explosion of conspiracy theories surrounding a posting by the Social Security Administration of their intent to buy 174,000 hollow-point bullets. (Not just bullets mind you but "hollow-point," which sound extra-scary for an Agency you think of as primarily in the business of distributing elderly people the savings they worked for all those years.)

According to the solicitation was posted on August 7, 2012. A keyword search on Google of "social security" and "bullets" for the dates August 7-15 yielded more than 7,000 results. The article at Business Insider had a typical introductory paragraph with alarm bells:
"First the DHS needed 450 million rounds of ammunition, then the NOAA requested 46,000 rounds, now we've discovered an online request at calling for 174,000 rounds of ammunition for the Social Security Administration (SSA)."
Finally, a week after the original solicitation was posted, Social Security put an item in its blog (not on its homepage, nor Press Releases and News - explaining the the ammunition was for law enforcement and public safety purposes. (Note that there is no link that I can find from the Agency's website homepage to the blog.)

To put it mildly, the blog post did not exactly put out the flames of the conspiracy theory rumor mill, especially given the purchases of ammunition by other Federal agencies. Reported the Chicago Tribune:
Even late night talk show host Jay Leno joked, "What senior citizens are they worried about? I mean, who's going to storm the building?"
It was not untypical for the official response to be later rather than sooner. And it's not surprising that such a delayed reaction is ineffective.

What is hard to understand is this: If we know that people don't trust PR ("spinmeisters") in general, and they don't trust any representatives of government either, why do we continue to act as if the public hangs on our every word?

I would go so far as to say that the public is in a state of "permanent disbelief" at all official statements. Or perhaps "suspension of belief." Or "constant skepticism."

Call it what you want, it seems that it is time to match strategy with reality. If you know that you are abou to do something controversial or discordant with your audience's expectations of you (e.g., buy ammunition for an Agency that doesn't seem to be about law enforcement) then it makes sense to let people know ahead of time that you're about to do so.

But even that is not enough. If you know that your actions will be perceived skeptically, rather than defensively hide the explanation on a blog unlinked to your website, it makes sense to put a big and clear feature story on the homepage for a good week or two.

And when you put that feature story out there, it's probably also a good idea to add some facts, figures, historical examples, and other concrete data out that show you have a really good reason for doing what you did.

Plus make a senior official available for interviews to respond. Anything from mainstream media, to bloggers, to daytime talkshows and late night TV - wherever the audience goes. Yes, even to outlets that are critical of you - especially those!

While it's impossible to completely defuse skepticism about the validity of government communication, it is absolutely possible, necessary and required to do a better job of talking with our audience rather than at them. The goal is never to make up stories or mislead, but rather to promote a positive working relationship unfettered by secret doubts about what's going on behind the scenes.

Good PR is ethical PR, and that includes being transparent as much as security concerns will allow. There's nothing wrong with engaging an Agency's critics. In fact, that is the very definition of citizen engagement - to go where the issues are, not just for the feel-good outreach campaign hurrahs.