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.
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.
I don’t remember how old I was when I started drinking caffeine. I can’t remember being so young that I wasn’t sneaking Cokes every chance I got, even if it meant finishing off the half-flat cans my Dad would leave sitting half-empty on the coffee table from the night before. It was in high school I started drinking coffee, and just out of high school I started smoking. Of the two, I’ve actually found quitting caffeine harder, although not by much (and not that I’ve tried many times).
I’ve quit smoking three times in my life. Every time I quit I go through the same stages. First there’s what I think of as Queen High Bitch phase. I’m not a nice person to be around for a couple weeks (even more so than usual). Around the third week or so I just get a little jumpy and surly, but I’m at least a little tolerable. By week four I’ve calmed down enough that people can talk to me, and after that I start to slowly adjust to life without nicotine. It doesn’t sound like much, but trust me when I say it’s the longest month you’ll ever experience, and the next few aren’t stellar either. The patch doesn’t help (ironically, it has too much nicotine) and the pills make me jittery (I started smoking more to calm my nerves), so I just have to white knuckle my way through it.
The first time I went a month and a half. I had lost my license (I was a terrible leadfoot when I was younger) and couldn’t get out for cigarettes, so I just gave it up. As soon as my friends started taking pity on me and got me out of the house, that went the way of the dodo. The second time lasted a year and a half. I was doing fine until I lost my job, and even then I did okay for six months until boredom got the best of me. Smoking was at least something to do.
The last time I can clearly remember seriously giving up smoking was the hardest. I quit a little over a year ago, and I was doing pretty good. Then I found out my father was in the hospital, and things were looking bad. I’m not using that as an excuse, mind you, but it was what pushed me over the edge. I couldn’t take the stress. Ironic in a sad sort of way, but there it is. And here I am, a year later, smoking as much and drinking as much caffeine as I was before I quit a little over a year ago.
I was talking with my Mom on the phone the other day, and she asked me to write a blog post that would get her to go on a diet (sorry for outing you, Mom). Here’s the secret to quitting smoking, giving up caffeine, getting more exercise, or going on a diet: there is no secret. Despite what an entire industry of self-help books and many, many weight loss programs, gyms, and “experts” will try to sell you, there is no magic bullet. The only way to do it is to decide for yourself that this is a change you want in your own life, for you, and to stick with it, no matter what.
I know that sounds simple, and that’s because it is. Please do not make the mistake of confusing simple with easy. Rolling a two-ton boulder up a hill is a simple task; ask Sisyphus just how easy it is. Ultimately however there is no substitute; no matter how many pills, patches, or plans you use, it will always come back to that one simple thing, that one choice you have to make every day (and sometimes several times a day). As Master Yoda put it, “Do, or do not; there is no try.”
If you make that change for someone else, you are shifting the burden to them, and sooner or later they will do something that will make you want to “punish” them. If you do it for some reward, you will hold out until you get the reward, and then go back to your old habits. If you set a goal of “I just need to hold out until…” you’ll make it that long and maybe a bit longer, but then what? You have to acknowledge that what you are seeking is real change, and change is hard.
Is it worth it? That’s up to you to decide. But then, that’s the whole point.
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.
The other night I was in my “Literature of the Asian Diaspora” class (it’s amazing what qualifies for an English degree these days) when we started discussing the origin of the term “Asian American”. Apparently the first academic use of the term was in the 1970s at UCLA (although it may have been in use colloquially among the civil rights movement in the 1960s before that) as an alternative to the arguably pejorative “Oriental” (I take no stance on the issue, but I understand the argument).
The point I raised in class, and my professor seemed to agree with me, is that “Asian American” is a constructed identity. Setting aside any flippant comments about there being no such place as “Asian America”, there is no “Asian” culture. There is Japanese culture, Korean culture, Chinese culture, Indian culture, and a host of others too numerous for me to name or even be aware of. Each individual named under this broad, constructed identity of “Asian American” does not partake of the same cultural background, any more than every person of European descent comes from the same cultural heritage.
I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit over the last few days, mostly because I find it something challenging to relate to. On the one hand, as I have mentioned before, I come from perhaps the most common of backgrounds, and face few of the challenges that an Asian American or other racial minority would face in America today (although from what I have read it’s a far different story in Japan or elsewhere in Asia, so at least it’s not a global phenomenon). On the other hand, the concept of trying to construct an identity for oneself is something I believe everyone struggles with, and as the world is changing perhaps faster than ever, it is something that we each continue to struggle with.
For myself, I can look back over my life and see how my own sense of self has changed drastically in just a short (or so it seems to me) twenty years. When I was 15, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be a world famous actor, working the stage with both grace and abandon on Broadway and beyond. Fast forward a decade, and after one of the worst years of my life I was burning almost every bridge I had, leaving Richmond and unsure of anything except that I would never, ever be a professional actor. I kept my hand in on a few amateur shows in school after that, but my heart wasn’t really in it anymore. Jump ahead another decade, and I had been married for three years to the love of my life, who I hadn’t even met when last we checked in, and working at the job I currently hold.
Each step of the way my sense of self changed, but it was a gradual change, with the occasional jarring moment of realization. At no point did I wake up and say “today I’m going to decide I no longer want to be an actor”; it was something that accumulated, just like the choices, opportunities, and yes, even the mistakes I have made all along the way have led me to the place and person I am today. Perhaps that is what we call the process of “growing up”, or perhaps it is something more. I don’t know if being a straight white male means that process has been easier or harder for me, because I have no basis for comparison. I can say almost unequivocally that having bipolar disorder (undiagnosed before I was in my mid-twenties) certainly provided its own unique challenges, but again I can’t speak to how my life would have been different otherwise, only that I do not doubt it would have been.
As I have reflected on my life and how it has changed, and as I have considered how I have constructed and re-constructed my own identity, I have only come to one certain conclusion. I do not want to be viewed as a heterosexual, or a Caucasian, or male, or as someone with a mental disorder, or as part of any other group. I only want to be viewed as me; unique, individual, hopefully ever-changing and evolving and yet always recognizably Bob.
I’d like to take this opportunity to explain to the ladies why it is that “men don’t clean”.
You see, this is a lie. A calumny. A slander of the highest proportion. We clean. We just don’t clean the way you clean. There is a difference.
You’re probably thinking right about now that I am simply making things up in an attempt to defend my gender, but the truth is I’m not. In fact, I’m going to paint a situation, walk you through it, and show you how every time you have been making false assumptions about men not cleaning.
Picture this: you ask your boyfriend/husband/son to clean a room. You leave for a half-hour, come back, and it looks no different to you, or at best only slightly tidied up. You say something to the effect of “I thought I asked you to clean in here,” and he maddeningly responds with “I did.” You can either exhort him to actually clean it or just give up in frustration now and do it yourself, because you know you’re going to have to do it anyway.
Now, let me explain what has happened.
You walked in to what, to a man’s eyes, appeared to be a clean-ish room. There might be a few things out of place, but overall it’s in decent shape. When you walked in and said “Could you please clean this room up?” the panic set in. He knows you think the room is filthy, but he has no idea why. He tries his best to guess what it is you want done, but he knows he is destined to fail. The only question is how much time does he intend to waste on this doomed effort. Some younger or over-eager fools will even spend more time and effort, thinking this will somehow earn them mercy. When you return and crush his spirit with an offhanded “I thought I asked you to clean in here”, her replies with the only defense he has, feeble though it may be: the truth. “I did.” He then watches you bustle around the room in a bad mood, engaged in arcane rituals that, when you are done, have made no discernible difference whatsoever.
Now, I know that sounds crazy, and that’s because it is. Men and women do not perceive the world in the same way. This is insane, but it is something that we simply have to accept. Ladies, what you need to understand is that, when you start going on about “cleaning”, we don’t share your vision. I don’t mean that in the sense of “I just don’t share your artistic vision”, I mean that in the sense of “I’m pretty sure you’re an insane cultist worshipping dark beings from beyond this reality and trying to summon them forth to devour our world”. But we love you anyway.
Because we love you, we want to make you happy. This is why we get scared and frustrated every time you say things like “please clean this room”. It’s like you’ve been watching the Saw franchise again, and you’ve decided that a combination of test and torture is just the thing to brighten an otherwise boring day. We both know there’s no way we’re going to win this one, but you ask anyway. Unless your purpose is to look for an excuse to get frustrated with us, perhaps the following advice will be useful to you.
First, keep in mind that we have different standards of “clean”. Remember the old saying about “if you want something done right”? Well, it applies doubly here. I’m not saying we’re going out of our way to shirk, but when you ask someone else to do something, you really can’t expect them to do it the way you would do it unless you’ve spent a few decades mercilessly drilling them on perfect technique.
Second, consider spending a few decades mercilessly drilling us on perfect technique. If you don’t have that much time to spare, some straightforward directions on what you’d like to see would be better upfront than a disappointed sigh on the back end. Keep in mind that if you do this you don’t get to say “well that was just for starters!” after the fact. Make the list comprehensive or don’t bother.
Third, are you familiar with the concept of “comparative advantage”? If you want the room cleaned just so, perhaps while you’re doing that he can be mowing the lawn. If you also want the lawn mowed just so, perhaps he can pay the bills. If you want that done just so, perhaps you would be more comfortable living alone.
Which brings me to my final piece of advice. Nobody is perfect, and we all find ways to annoy the crap out of each other on a daily basis. Learning to accept these foibles and follies is a big part of what makes relationships work, maybe the only part. After all, the rest is fun, not work. Focus more on the good times getting the rooms dirty than the confusion about trying to get them clean again.For the rebuttal from My Not So Humble Wife, be sure to read “Dirty, Dirty Men“.
I was discussing gun control with My Not So Humble Wife the other night, and something strange happened. She’s mostly libertarian like me, but unlike myself, she actually believes in putting certain limitations on gun ownership. Tanks, for example, are straight off her list for private ownership (no, I am not kidding, this was a serious part of the discussion). I personally see no problem with it for several good and sundry reasons that I won’t get into now, so she upped the ante to nuclear weapons. I couldn’t name even a theoretical reason why someone might want a nuke (self-defense? sport? cocktail party conversation starter?), and I had to concede that even my tank argument didn’t apply. Let’s face it, if you need a nuke to defend yourself against the government, the situation is already well beyond salvageable.
This is when things got weird: we talked it out and came to a reasonable solution we could both be okay with. She conceded that the government didn’t need to have gun registration laws (it’s no business of theirs who owns which guns), and I conceded that certain classes of people (namely felons) shouldn’t be allowed to buy guns, so background checks are acceptable. I couldn’t get her to budge on non-violent felons, but my big beef there is with drug laws, and that’s a different issue anyway, so I was willing to concede the point. We also both agreed that waiting periods should be abolished, because the technology exists to do immediate background checks, and those checks should be done everywhere, including gun shows.
What’s so weird about all of this? Watch fifteen minutes, or even five minutes, of political television and then ask me that question again. Granted, we came from roughly the same starting place, but we still had some strong views that we disagreed on, and we both gave a little to get to something we could agree with. It’s called “compromise”, for those of you too young to remember what it looks like. And I blame the iPod for its absence in contemporary politics.
Sounds crazy, right? Bear with me for a little while and you’ll understand. When I was a kid, we had one TV in the house (well, two, but the one in the basement was tiny, black and white, and got crap reception, so it doesn’t count). It got exactly two channels: whatever my sister and I could agree on, and whatever Dad decided to put on when he got home. Occasionally, when I was very lucky, my sister would be at a friend’s house before my folks got home and I would have a few hours of TV to myself, but that was a rare luxury and one I didn’t count on.
Growing up like that I had to learn the art of compromise. Granted it usually involved a lot of yelling, screaming, cursing, and more than a little hitting, but that’s politics for you. What I didn’t learn was an attitude of entitlement, one that said I could have whatever I want whenever I want and everyone else could go suck an egg. That all changed when the iPod came along.
Don’t get me wrong, the iPod was and remains one of the greatest inventions in human history. The chance to have your music, your way, whenever you want wherever you want is a glorious thing. But it shapes expectations; people become accustomed to having what they want, without having to negotiate with others. It’s not like the boom boxes and ghetto blasters I had as a kid, when “sharing” music was a very immediate and sometimes involuntary experience. Facebook and other social media have only exacerbated the phenomenon; people choose the stories they want to hear, and they shape the media they are exposed to before and as much as the media shapes them.
This sort of “a la carte media” has expanded into all aspects of life. If you can’t find a cable channel that caters to your specific tastes, there’s a YouTube channel that will. Streaming radio will introduce you to new music, unless you skip past a song you decide you don’t like in the first few beats. And there’s a website out there dedicated to every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that aren’t.
What is the net result on politics? The politicians we elect reflect the media of our time. It used to be that politicians were like mass media: they appealed to broad demographics, even to the point of being criticized for chasing “the lowest common denominator”. But hey, at least they were accessible to everyone. Now every politician is like a personalized playlist, narrowly targeting key demographics with a hyper-partisan message, and who can blame them? The electronic graffiti that litters the walls of our social media pages screams for it, begs for it, demands the same hyper-partisan rhetoric they are only too happy to deliver. If we aren’t getting the politicians we want it’s only because we’re getting the politicians we’ve been asking for, and maybe deserve.
There are two approaches we are offered from antiquity, one of which we are all familiar with and one that is less familiar although not completely unknown. The more common is the “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The less well known but still famous is the “Silver Rule”: Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. I believe it is instructive to examine both of these approaches to see how they differ, and how they can guide us in life and in law.
The Golden Rule is what I think of as affirmative guidance. It tells us what we should do. It doesn’t restrict or circumscribe our actions away from things so much as guide us toward things. While this seems good on the surface, I’m always leery of things that look good (too many “candy from strangers” commercials as a kid, I guess). The first caution I would bring to the table is that maybe what I like isn’t what someone else likes. Just because I want you to do it to me, how do I know that’s what you want done to you? I’m not talking anything sick or extreme here, but there’s a lot of human activity that falls in the grey areas between “obviously wrong” and “of course I’d be okay with that”. If you don’t believe me, swing on by house next week. It’s almost time for my annual mohawk, and my wife is going to be out of town; I’ll do your hair first, then you can do mine. It’s the Golden Rule, after all.
Standing in opposition to this is the admonition to not do unto others. While this doesn’t lift nearly as much weight from a moralistic perspective, it does just as much work from another perspective: that of circumscribing negative behavior. Again, if there is objectionable behavior someone would actively enjoy, there’s nothing in this rule that would stop them from doing it to someone else, but then the Golden Rule practically requires them to go out and do it. At least this rule just amounts to “keep your hands to yourself”.
That leads into the other aspect of where I think these two subtly different moral guidelines have major differences in their implications. Many people, some among them being either moralists or lawmakers (and even moralistic lawmakers) like to cite the Golden Rule when debating the merits of different laws. Why? Is there something inherent to the Golden Rule that makes it a superior basis for a legal system? Citing something like Hammurabi’s Code I could at least understand (not that I think that’s a good source mind you), or the Magna Carta. But instead they refer to “the Golden Rule”. Aside from its qualities as a common point of cultural reference, what else does it offer in terms of jurisprudence?
Consider my point from above: the Golden Rule is affirmative. It does not circumscribe behavior as much as compel it. All laws are compulsory by nature, in that they compel us to act a certain way or refrain from acting in a certain way for fear of punishment (if we would have behaved properly without the law then we either don’t need it or can safely ignore it). So laws that are made with the Golden Rule in mind are looking to compel people to take a good action, to “do unto others”. They are not designed from the perspective of refraining from negative action, that of “do not do unto others”.
The essential question then is, what sort of government do we want to live under? What sort of system do we want to have? Do we want a system that determines in advance what actions we should take, and uses the threat of force to compel us to take actions for the benefit of others? I’m pretty sure that’s been tried, and it never seems to work out very well. The alternative is a system that writes laws carefully, narrowly tailored to circumscribe intolerable behavior but otherwise leave open the grey area of noxious but tolerable behavior. It’s perhaps not as pretty in theory, but works much better for a diverse plurality than reaching for fool’s gold.
I made the mistake recently of giving someone advice, specifically unsolicited advice. It was a rookie move, and one I used to make a lot. I’ve avoided it for a long time, and for the very reason that seems to have befallen me now: I think it may have cost me a friend. To those of you who believe that giving advice, even well-intentioned advice, is a good thing or a noble act, I would like to take this opportunity to caution you against it and explain why exactly it’s a very, very bad idea.
First, chances are that the person you are speaking with is not looking for advice. They want to vent. This is a perfectly normal human need, and one that friends are supposed to fill. The desire to make things better is a strong one for a lot of us, maybe even most of us, but it is an egotistical, maybe even arrogant one. Consider: you are asserting that, given your limited knowledge of the situation, you can offer a solution that will make things better that they have not tried, that they can and will implement, and that won’t cost more than they are willing to invest. Looking at it that way, even if they are asking for advice, are you really qualified to give it?
Second, if they aren’t asking for advice and you try to offer it anyway, you’ve just communicated (either directly or indirectly) that you are not really interested in them, you are interested in yourself. I know that sounds backwards, but it goes back to what I said above. You’re more focused on how you would handle the situation they are in, not in how the situation is affecting them. Your focus is on satisfying your emotional needs in this situation, not theirs. Not the best message to send when someone has made themselves vulnerable to you.
Third, and this is the big one, there’s no win here for either of you. Let me lay some basic game theory on you. I see eight possible outcomes in this situation:
- They take your advice, things work out, and they give you no credit. You resent them for not acknowledging your part.
- They take your advice, things work out, and they give you all the credit. Now they start to rely on you to fix their problems in the future.
- They take your advice, things don’t work out, and they give you the blame. Suddenly it’s your fault.
- They take your advice, things don’t work out, but they don’t blame you. You still feel like an ass.
- They don’t take your advice, things work out. You feel like an idiot for giving bad advice, but no harm done.
- They don’t take your advice, things don’t work out, and they wish they had taken your advice. See #2.
- They don’t take your advice, things don’t work out, and they somehow blame you. Don’t ask me how this works, but I’ve seen it happen. You’re still at fault.
- They don’t take your advice, things work out. You have enough self-confidence to shrug it off and say “looks like I was wrong.” No harm, no foul.
Maybe I’m overlooking some possibilities, but the way I see it there’s a 1-in-8 chance of a desirable outcome, and that one outcome can be more easily achieved by not giving advice in the first place. All of the undesirable outcomes can be avoided by… why look at that: not giving advice in the first place.
This is compounded by the fact that most advice comes in the form of blatantly banal and pointless platitudes that are only useful to the people who don’t need them. Things like “be yourself”, “fight for what you believe in”, or “never be afraid to speak your mind”. Here’s the advice that should accompany all of those that nobody ever seems to give and everyone needs to internalize: actions have consequences. Feel free to “be yourself”, but if that means having multiple body piercings, visible tattoos, and a blue mohawk, you need to know that will limit your job opportunities. You can “fight for what you believe in”, but be aware that reasonable people can disagree vociferously about issues they feel passionately about, and that doesn’t make them evil or wrong; it simply means they disagree, and a refusal to compromise will get you nowhere. You can “speak your mind” as much as you want, but that doesn’t mean people will like what you have to say, nor does it mean you won’t be held accountable for having said it.
Which brings me back to where I started. I was myself; I spoke my mind; I gave advice; and those actions have had very real consequences. Once upon a time that friend read this column, and maybe still does. If so, I hope there’s still room for forgiveness. If not, I’ll live with the consequences. Because that’s who I am, and I’m not afraid to be myself.
I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend at work that later spread (rather ironically) to some fellow coworkers. It was on a topic of grave (pardon the pun) importance in this day and age: if it was the zombie apocalypse, would you want to be the first person turned into a zombie or the last person left on Earth after everyone else had been turned into a zombie? Think about that one for a second. Go watch a few episodes of The Walking Dead if you think it would be instructive.
Got your answer? Here’s the ones that came up: almost universally the decision was be the first. The reasons given ranged from the maudlin (“I would hate to watch my entire family and all of my friends die”) to the perverse (“I’ve always enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet…”), but there was solid agreement on this point; as usual I was the lone dissenter. I said, unequivocally, I would invest my entire fortune in canned food and shotgun shells and ride this one out. My reasoning may sound flip at first, perhaps even grotesque, but I ask you to bear with me.
To start, answer this perhaps indelicate but I promise serious and on-point question: have you made love enough in your lifetime?
No need to answer out loud; feel free to keep it to yourself. Regardless of your answer, let me take it a step further. Have you read every book you would ever want to read? Seen every film? Have you experienced every great or wonderful moment you could ever want to experience? If nothing else, have you seen every sunset or sunrise you ever need see again?
Answer me every one of those questions, and then answer this one again: would you be the first zombie, or the last?
I also pointed out that, if you remove the element of the fantastic from it, the question becomes one of the essential nature of humanity. Death, in all of its forms, is unpleasant at least and gruesome at worst. It is rarely desirable, and it is always final. Change the question even slightly: “if every person on Earth were going to die in a car crash, would you prefer to be the first or the last?” Does your answer change?
Life is for the living. It’s easy to forget that as we go through the motions of job and school, get trapped in the daily grind of wake up, commute, work, commute, sleep, rinse and repeat. There are joys to be had, great and small, victories and triumphs and losses and tears and great walloping gobs of life to live. And when the zombie apocalypse comes, I’m going to ride that sucker out in style. Feel free to stop by; I’ll have plenty of canned food and shotgun shells to go around.
I know it’s just a game, a thought experiment, and perhaps I take it a bit too seriously, but I think sometimes games are worth taking a little seriously just to see where they take us. If this game takes you to a place where you appreciate life a bit more, perhaps enjoy a sunset, kiss your spouse one more time, pet your dog, or just give an extra piece of candy to the kids who knock on your door tonight, then it was a game well played.
Happy Halloween, everyone.