The Misery Contest


Have you ever noticed how misery has become a contest? It seems like no matter where you go, every time you try to tell a tale of woe, someone else has their own tale to tell, and of course it tops yours. Have a rash? They have a burn. Have a cut? They lost a limb. Got dumped? They got divorced and lost the house in the bargain. There’s always something.

I’m not sure if this is supposed to be commiseration or one-upmanship, but either way I’d like to say “you’re doing it wrong.” Commiseration should be something simple, serious, and heartfelt. An acknowledgement of our common humanity, perhaps coupled with words of comfort. “Dude, that sucks. I’m really sorry to hear that.”

While I would prefer not to encourage one-upmanship (I consider it a distasteful habit, like picking your nose in public or voting), if one is going to engage in it should be done properly as well. Save it for when people are discussing something of value, like a house, a car, or a job. The only proper application of such one-upmanship is when someone is being a particular douchebag, for example talking about their new house, car, and job all at once. In such cases a limited amount of one-upmanship can actually be a public service if applied immediately and without mercy.

In order to curb this outbreak of “misery contestants”, I would like to share an idea my wife and I came up with some years ago. It’s a simple little thing that can be done by anyone but, I think, might just help. Just carry around a roll of nickels with you wherever you go. Whenever someone starts in with the misery contest, hear them out. Let them get it all out there. If you’re feeling particularly pernicious, you can even egg them on a little. When they’re done, simply hand them a nickel and say, “Wow, you’re right. Your life is way worse than mine. Here, have a nickel.” Then walk away.

This simple gesture of faux sincerity and honest scorn will hopefully be the antidote to their sincere display of faux commiseration and honest self-aggrandizement.


Taking Back the Internet


I was talking with my friend Keri of HeelsFirstTravel.com (which I’ve mentioned before, and who’s been a guest blogger for me as well, but still check them out because they rock), and it seems there was a troll who popped up in the comments section of her blog the other day. I’m not going to dignify the comment by repeating it here, but suffice to say it was inappropriate.

I know there are those who would say that trolling is part of the internet, and that we have to accept it as part of doing business. I’ve even said as much myself. But maybe I’m getting a little quixotic in my old age, because I’ve decided it’s time we take back the internet. I’m tired of the trolls and the sleazebags dominating the internet. I’m tired of feeling like I can’t go into what amounts to the public square without having to worry about seeing the verbal (or sometimes literal) equivalent of someone throwing feces. I’m tired of not being able to invite people into what amounts to my digital home without fear they’re going to track filth all over the metaphorical rugs.

Let me be clear: I’m certainly not advocating for governmental interference. Not only would that go against all of my core principles, the chilling effect that would have on speech vastly outweighs any benefits we might garner from it. Besides, the truth is there are places and times that I myself enjoy kicking back and acting the fool. I have one friend whose Facebook page I troll regularly. Note the keyword there: friend. As in “I actually know him in real life”. Given the chance I would say the same things and worse to him, and he’d say the same and worse to me. It’s part of our friendship dynamic. I’m also part of a group that shares awful (and I do mean awful) videos from around the internet. The kind that should come with a warning label that reads “watch this at your own risk – better yet don’t.”

So what am I calling for? I guess the best equivalent would be community policing, or neighborhood watch. A public shaming of those who do such things, not on the internet (because that only feeds their egos and drives them to do it more) but a real-life shaming. When guys (and let’s face it, it’s mostly guys who do this, but if girls do it they deserve their share of real-life hate as well) start bragging about their latest online escapades, let’s start letting them know it’s not funny, it’s not cool, it’s just sad and pathetic. They may go to their dark little corners of the internet to nurse their grudges among their like-minded ilk, but frankly that would be an improvement. Let them congregate amongst themselves in a self-imposed exile and leave the rest of us to enjoy our own company.

It’s the moral equivalent of making fart sounds in church. A few people might laugh nervously, and a couple immature goofs might get a chuckle out of it, but most of us just sit there in uncomfortable silence and hope they go away. (Not that I consider the internet to be a church, but it’s an analogy. Work with me. I swear it’s apt.) It’s time we all stand up in the metaphorical pews and denounce them for the fools and hecklers that they are, and chase them back under the bridges where trolls properly dwell.


What Do I Owe You?


I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about society, specifically an individual’s place in it and what we owe to society as a whole. I’m not speaking about taxes and such per se, but rather the social conventions that make up the social mores of society, and the point at which those social mores conflict with our belief in the spirit of the individual and individual expression. With Miley Cirus quickly tanking her musical career with twerking, Anthony Weiner destroying his political career with his… Twitter account, and President Obama rapidly, well, for the sake of civil discussion let’s say “adjusting” America’s reputation in the world on a daily if not hourly basis with the Syrian situation, clearly we hold public individuals accountable. But at what level do we hold private individuals accountable? And should we?

Obviously there are some actions that, while not necessarily physically assaulting others, we believe to be beyond the boundaries of appropriateness. Screaming profanities at a child is not acceptable. Public nudity is (generally) considered outside the lines. Even the unauthorized use of someone else’s property, and no it doesn’t matter if you return it with a full tank of gas, is completely out of the question, whether they were inconvenienced or not. But is that all? Or is there something more?

In our personal relationships we set boundaries, and those boundaries can be somewhat flexible. As we get to know others better we adjust those boundaries, although some things will always be off limits (although what and to whom varies from individual to individual). The difference between standards that we set amongst ourselves and for ourselves can occasionally cause conflict, the most common of which is people judging others or feeling judged. Personally I have no problem with either one; feel free to judge me, because lord knows I’m judging you. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying, has a different word for what they are doing, or has no standards for behavior at all.

But that doesn’t mean we have a right to restrict each other’s behavior. Should we call each other out on it? Depends on the relationship. In a work environment, there are (hopefully) guidelines for what is and is not acceptable, and ways to address unacceptable behavior. Outside of those narrowly defined terms, you either need to find a nice way to address it or live with it. For example, maybe the person in the next office talks on their phone really loud. Not so loud that it justifies a complaint to HR, but still. Either you need to find a way to talk to them about it, or get some headphones. And that’s the way life goes.

Personal lives are the same way. If you know someone who engages in what you consider to be obnoxious (but not illegal) behavior, you either need to find a nice way to approach them about it or let it go. Of course they may not listen, or they may be unwilling or unable to change. Then you either have to live with it or stop spending time with them. Life’s full of tough choices like that.

Which kind of brings me back to where I started. There are no guidelines about public behavior, but there is this: if you put it out there for everyone to see, you’re inviting comment from everyone who sees it. Right or wrong, good or bad, fair or not. Public figures accept this as part of the package (or at least they should, because they’re gonna get it anyway), but private individuals need to accept it too, on the small scale. Being a private person doesn’t mean everything you do is private, and we all need to accept that, as well as accepting the consequences of our actions. Even twerking (which I promise to never do).


Special Bonus Post: Don’t Just Say It, Live It


Just recently, I wrote about how to address a customer service situation from the customer’s perspective. As luck would have it, I ran into just such a situation these past few days, and I wanted to share it with you all.

I bought a new custom build computer from Microcenter in Fairfax, VA, and there were issues with my order. I won’t go into the gritty details, because this is actually meant to be a positive story. First, let me say that I discovered just how hard it is to follow my own advice. I was angry. I might even go so far as to say livid. So polite and patient were hard come by. I have to give complete respect to almost everyone I dealt with (one technician was a little surly on the phone, but then I was a little surly as well; you get what you give). When I finally went in to pick up my computer, everyone was very polite, and I definitely appreciate that. I did manage to keep my cool, and followed my own rules.

The manager I spoke with, Abdul, was very accommodating, very patient, and very helpful. He listened to my story, he apologized for the inconvenience, and he made things right for me. Let me point out I was very close to never shopping there again after having not one but two computers in a row built there, and he salvaged everything. That’s the power of good customer service right there.

Let me also say this: my old system is going to my wife. I’ve had it for seven years and it still works great. The only reason I’m giving it up is because she needs a new computer. I look forward to my new one. If you need a new computer, or just want new components or anything else and are in the Northern VA area, I suggest you check them out.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m telling everyone I know. Because that’s how happy I am. That’s the power of good customer service, too.


How To Get What You Want Without Really Trying


The other day I was out grocery shopping, and I saw a sweet deal on my favorite soda. I go through the stuff like most people go through water, so I jumped on it. When I got to the counter it didn’t ring up correctly, and I brought it to the clerk’s attention. He said it would ring properly after the sale finished, but it didn’t so I brought it to his attention again. Long story short, the soda was mislabeled. I had to go through a bit of a song and dance, but I got my money back (and the soda too!), which was pretty nice.

The experience reminded me that I’ve had plenty to say in the past about bad customer service, but having been on both sides of the retail counter plenty of times, I’ve also seen plenty of bad customers. While the retail experience has been perfected from art to science (quite literally), the retail customer doesn’t seem to have changed much from the dark days when I plied the trade. For those of you who might find yourselves in a customer service crisis, here’s some tips on how to get the most out of the situation.

Be Polite – I can’t think of a single situation in my life (other than a fistfight) that hasn’t or couldn’t have been improved by being polite. I’ve seen a lot of people try to intimidate store clerks and managers, either physically or socially, and I have to tell you it almost always backfires. Being polite at the least keeps the situation in the realm of negotiation, which means you might get something, rather than demand, in which case you’re far more likely to get nothing.

One of my favorite misconceptions in retail is “the customer is always right”. I don’t just mean this as a factual misconception, I mean this as a misconception in the sense that anyone in retail does or should believe this. Maybe if I only had a handful of customers come in on a regular basis and my livelihood depended on them, then maybe I would consider this phrase, but still unlikely. In this day and age, when most retail is as anonymous as an online chat room and I have no reason to believe I will ever see you again, why should I go out of my way to put up with your crap? Because you’ll badmouth me to all your cheap friends, who are as likely to pull the same stunt as you are? Yeah, that’s a threat.

Here’s another way to look at it: suppose I came to your office one day and told you that you were doing everything wrong. I (very loudly and obnoxiously) explain how you should be doing your job, running your business, and handling every situation, even though I clearly have no idea what I’m talking about, and chances are better than even you saw be stealing some rubber bands from the supply closet fifteen minutes ago. Then, to top it all off, I insist that I know how to run your business because I worked in a similar business for a summer in high school, thus implying that any idiot can do it.

Would you at all be inclined to give me anything I want under those conditions? If so, you’d be the first.

Be Patient – The next biggest sin I see people committing (and I do this too, but I try not to) is that they assume there should be someone ready to help them as soon as they need it, especially if they feel like they’ve been wronged somehow. I get this, I do. You paid good money for a specific product or service, and that product or service was not produced. You want satisfaction, and the longer you have to wait, the more you feel you are being cheated, because your time is also valuable.

Here’s the thing: They’re (usually) not making you wait on purpose. Most stores understand that having an unhappy customer standing around fuming does not make them look good to the other customers. But there are other customers to consider, and that’s assuming someone is even aware of your needs. Then there are certain procedures they need to follow, which if they don’t could mean they lose their job, which means a lot more to them than your displeasure (and trust me, they will never get fired just because you asked to speak to the manager and they were following the procedures).

Most of all, if there’s any flexibility to be had in this situation, you want it to work for you, not against you, and the fact of the matter is you are not in the position of power that you think you are. They might prefer not to lose you as a customer, but the more of an asshole you are the less they care, and there’s no law against not giving in to your unreasonable demands. Even on the (very off) chance they’re in the wrong, what are the chances you’re going to sue over a can of tomatoes or even something as big as a sweater? Slim to none, and they know that. So cool your jets.

Be Flexible – This one’s a little tough to internalize, but it’s important. Most people go into a customer service situation expecting they are there to right a wrong. Not so. You are going into a negotiation, and the rules are a little fuzzy. There may be laws that apply, but do you know them? Do you really think the kid behind the counter does? And does anyone really care? There’s store policy, but that usually has some leeway to it. And then there’s custom and convention, which are pretty weak guidelines at best.

So understand that you are not there to right some moral wrong. You have a situation you want resolved, one were you feel you were not treated fairly, and you have a specific preferred resolution in mind. That’s nice. You might even get that. But be open to the possibility that there are in fact laws, policies, or even customs and conventions that are going to work against or even completely prevent you getting exactly what you want. And that’s even assuming you are completely right about the situation, which I’ve seen all too many times isn’t the case.

So now what? Well, you can resort to screaming and demands and see how far that gets you (usually escorted out of the store), or you can be flexible. Oftentimes unless you are completely in the wrong store managers will prefer to find a negotiated middle ground where the customer walks away feeling satisfied, and you can use that fact to your advantage. If you were expecting a full refund, maybe a partial refund, or a discount on a future purchase or exchange. Be open to alternatives.

Be Firm – This goes hand in hand with being flexible. Unless you are completely in the wrong (in which case you should make as quick of a retreat as you can), stand by your guns. Don’t let the manager or anyone else try to bully or snowball you. I’ve seen plenty of times where they will pull out a circular or ad and say something like “that was last week’s sale” when they forgot to change the signage in the store, even though we both know their own store policy is to honor their posted prices.

There’s no need to be a dick about it, but make sure to stand your ground and be aware of your position. The best thing to do in these cases is to simply refuse to argue with them. If they pull out the circular, nod and say something like “I’m sure that’s the case, but the posted price on the shelf was different.” This way you aren’t engaging them, but you are refusing to be scared off as well. And notice: still polite. Eventually (if you are patient) they will likely offer some recompense. If you’re flexible, you should be able to get something satisfying.

UPDATE: Within a few days, I got a chance to test out my own advice. Check out what happened.


Telephone Etiquette


I realize I may seem a bit old fashioned, perhaps even like a fogey when I say things like “people need to learn basic etiquette”, but I prefer to think of it as making reparations for a misspent youth. I wasn’t always the most polite person, and what I demand of others is no less than I demand of myself. I also don’t ask for people to do things that seem (at least to me) to be useless relics of a bygone age, such as knowing which fork to use at the dining table or which side of the road to drive on. But there are certain basic courtesies in a modern, connected age that should hold steady if we are to call ourselves civilized.

The one that seems to be most prevalent of late is a lack of basic telephone courtesy. I’d like to blame this on the wide-spread use of cell phones, but I’ve been aware of it since I was a kid, mostly because it was the only kind of courtesy my parents could seem to drill into me. It transcends generations and class boundaries, so that can’t be it either. It almost seems as if somewhere along the line there was a breakdown in passing this knowledge along, a failure to communicate, if you will. I’d like to take it upon myself to rectify that by laying out some basic rules for modern phone communication.

Identify yourself. Don’t assume I have caller ID, or that I used it. The fact is, I might have several people listed under that number, or I might not even have you listed. Also, some numbers are blocked. If nothing else, I might think someone else is using your phone. Don’t expect me to recognize your voice right off the bat either. It might be noisy where you are, where I am, or we might have a bad connection. And believe it or not someone else might answer. You don’t want to start talking dirty to my grandma and only find out after she starts talking dirty right back (she’s a naughty one).

Establish the purpose of your call. I might have an hour to talk, or I might only have five minutes. I might have answered the phone because I was expecting a call from someone else (which is another reason to identify yourself), and need you to bugger off. You have no idea what’s going on in my world or you wouldn’t need to call, now would you? Knowing why you called helps to establish the parameters of the conversation, and it helps me to determine if I’m ready, able, and willing to participate in this conversation. Maybe I really do want to chat with you, but I have a project due in a half-hour; knowing what your intentions are up front saves me from having to be rude and cut you off mid-sentence.

Don’t violate the established purpose of the call. This one cuts both ways. If someone says they called to share something with you, let them share it, then be ready to clear the line. If you want to have a lengthy conversation, you can ask if they have time to talk, but now the burden is on you to accept a no. Likewise, if you established up front this would be a short call, don’t try to turn it into an hour long diatribe about your life. On the other hand, if they made it clear up front they wanted to have a long conversation and you accepted, get comfy. You bought into this, so settle in.

Be gracious about letting go. Sometimes things come up. Even if someone said they could talk, circumstances change. Sometimes you’re just a lot more longwinded and boring than anyone could have expected (and if this happens to you a lot, think long and hard about what that says about you). If someone tries to cut in and say they have to go, let them. Don’t keep talking over them, and even worse don’t play the “just one last thing” card, because we all know it’s never just one thing. Sign off and call them back another time, preferably a few days (or weeks) later.

Consider alternate forms of communication. We have text, email, Facebook, Twitter, and (god forbid) old-fashioned letter writing. Think before you pick up the phone and know what you need. Phones are best used for one of two things: either you need an immediate response (so the others are out) or you just want to hear that person’s voice. Either is acceptable, but again, establish that up front. It helps to set the tone of the conversation as well as the expectations. If I know you need an immediate response, it means this will be a short call (unless it’s a complex problem, in which case call me to say you’ll email me the details, then get off). If you want to hear my voice, either I’ll find time to talk or, even better, we’ll find time to get together face-to-face. If we can’t do the latter, at least let me do you the courtesy of giving you my full attention, which is obviously what you want and need.

If more people follow these simple rules, the result will be clearer communication in all our relationships, both personal and professional. For my money, that’s the only reason for any kind of etiquette.


Free Spoiler Zone


I am the internet’s worst nightmare.

The other night I was listening to Marketplace on NPR (I love Kai Ryssdal, I may have mentioned this before) and I heard a fantastic commentary on the issue of spoilers. Beth Teitell made an excellent case about how we’re all setting ourselves up for spoiler disappointment while at the same time becoming more sensitive to spoilers.

I am the worst of the lot.

Just the other week I finally watched Jekyll (2007) from the BBC on Netflix. Note the year on that one. If someone had told me any of the salient plot points before I watched it, I would have been beyond infuriated, but really, it’s been around for over five years. How could they know? More importantly, why should they care?

This is typical for me. I watch movies months after they leave the theater (with rare exceptions), and I’m usually several weeks behind in my TV show watching. I’ve been known to run away from conversations I’m not even party to with my hands over my ears screaming “NO SPOILERS!” like a lunatic, and that’s just in real life. On the internet I’m far worse.

But the truth is we can’t avoid spoilers, nor can we reasonably expect to. Part of the fun of pop culture is that it’s popular (hence the “pop”), and we want to talk about it. Denying people that just so we can enjoy things on our own schedule is selfish. At the same time, expecting everyone to be able to invest their entire lives in keeping up with everything worthwhile all the time is just silly, too. It’s not like we’re still in the age of single-screen movie theaters, three TV channels, and nobody to talk to but the people in our small towns.

Therefore, I am declaring a Free Spoiler Zone.

It works like this: there is a statute of limitations on the right to declare “NO SPOILERS!” Once the statute of limitations has passed, it is incumbent on each individual to either be in the know or to guard themselves; prior to that proper decorum requires the asking of “Have you seen…” or a similar inquiry before discussing anything, as well as a reasonable warning to anyone joining the conversation. This should help alleviate the distress being caused by our over-saturated, media hyped world, and allow us all some peace.

The rules I suggest are as follows:

1. An absolute moratorium on any communications within 24 hours of an event. Don’t even talk about it; you don’t know who is in earshot. I don’t even want to hear “OMFG THAT WAS SO GOOD!” or “Meh, this week’s episode was okay.” Let me find out for myself, especially if I’m in a different time zone.

2. Barring sporting events, reality TV, or  other “real time” entertainment, any electronic communication for the first week must be preceded by the phrase “SPOILER ALERT”. If it’s real time entertainment, after 24 hours you take your chances, but please, don’t be a jerk; if you know someone TiVo’d it, don’t ruin the big game.

3. For all other TV shows, every in-person conversation must include “Have you seen…” or some other socially acceptable form of spoiler alert for one month. After that, you need to either clear out your DVR or climb out from under the rock.

4. For movies you get one month of nobody says nothing. Then all bets are off.

5. Actual news events are exempt from these rules. News should be shared.

6. Feel free to share political shows, commentary, debates, et al to your heart’s content. You deserve what you get.

While I am willing to negotiate on the length of time involved in each rule, I truly believe that following these rules will improve our lives. Everyone will have a free and fair chance to enjoy their quality entertainment without fear of having it ruined, while at the same time encouraging and enhancing the sort of interpersonal relationships we’re losing for fear of not being able to share our love of the great and diverse culture we all enjoy.

However, I am declaring one category of entertainment completely off-limits to spoilers (by special request from My Not So Humble Wife): books. I actually have to agree with her on this one, for a lot of reasons. People read at different speeds, borrow books from each other, and most of all we want to encourage more literacy, not less. Besides, I haven’t finished the Illiad yet, and I can’t wait to find out how it ends.


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