Saturday, January 29, 2011

Complain Well

(News-Herald, January 27) As much as human beings like to complain, you’d think we would be better at it. But there are many folks who remain remarkably ineffective as complainers.
There’s a script that seems to play in people’s head: I will tell him how outraged I am and horribly wrong he is. I will verbally kick him in the keister, and he will suddenly cower and declare, “Heavens, but you are so clearly right and I am so clearly wrong. I bow before your verbal mastery, and I will crawl on my knees to fix my terrible wrongness.” And yet, it never happens.
There are a few simple things that people can do to be better, more effective complainers (there are also things complainees should do, but we’ll tackle that list another week).
First, figure out what effect you want. There are times in life when you have a choice between saying what you really want to say and getting the result you really want to get. You can have one or the other, but not both. Before you start complaining, decide which one you want. If you just want to rant and rave and vent your anger, that’s fine. But you’re unlikely to end up with the result you want, so you can safely ignore the rest of this list.
This is why people are reluctant to enter local politics or school sports officiating—too many people who want to unload on officials like an angry drunken internet troll. These sorts of complainers never accomplish anything except making complainees very tired.
Own your complaint. There’s nothing less effective than the anonymous complaint. It is hard to convince somebody that you are standing in the courage of your convictions when you don’t have courage enough to say who you are.
Complaints are hard to dismiss when they come from real, live flesh and blood humans; they are easy to dismiss when they come from anonymous shadows.
Stay focused. What, exactly, are you complaining about? Stick to your point so that your message doesn’t get muddled. This is a good rule of argument in general—if you want to complain about the serving size of the gelato, it doesn’t help to observe that the server always has been a cheap jerk. If you want a refund from a business, don’t wander off into a discussion of how stupid and ugly the owner is.
Broadening your attack increases the collateral damage. In the midst of disagreement with me over a service being provided, a gentleman added the observation that I am a well-known Big Fat Jerk. The misunderstanding about the service was settled fairly quickly, but the observation about my disreputable character (accurate or not) was then impossible to retract.
“There’s not enough mustard on this hot dog,” is easy to erase. “I always have hated your mother,” is not.
Losing focus makes it easy to lose sight of your actual complaint. Once we’ve opened up the issue of how much you hate your mother-in-law, mustard serving size will quickly fade into the background.
Why should they care? County commissioners and city councils are often subjected to constituents who believe these officials should care about a pet issue. You can’t really address whether or not to start a meeting with prayer until you get people to see why the question even matters.
Know what you actually want. Many complaints are a burst of bluster followed by an awkward silence. The silence is because the complainee is too smart to say what he’s thinking, which is something along the lines of, “Yeah, so…?” or “What do you want me to do about it?”
Sometimes the complainer wants the impossible. “Get in your time machine, go back to last week, and say different words,” is not possible. “Die and/or get off the planet,” is not likely.
Knowing what you are complaining about matters, but simply sputtering, “That really bothers me!” invites the complainee to respond, “Bummer. Hope you feel better soon.”
What you want doesn’t have to be concrete. “I want you to understand that this was a real problem for us,” is good enough, perhaps even more motivational than, “I want you to give me a pile of money to improve my mood.” But if the complainee is on his A game, at some point he should ask you, “What can we do to make this right?” If you don’t have a reasonable answer to that question, all of your well-crafted complaining will have been wasted.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The World of Swim Meets

(News-Herald, January 20) Sometimes love takes you into interesting new places. In my case, it has taken me to swim meets.
Swimming is not one of the bigger spectator sports. If the world of sports were a high school cafeteria, swimming would not be sitting at the table with the popular kids. More likely it would be back in the corner, sitting with just one or two other friends (all of whom packed their own lunch), laughing and carrying on and making fun of what everybody else was wearing.
Swimming as a sport is defiantly viewer-unfriendly. It makes no concessions to the uninitiated; if you want to watch, you really must bring an interpreter. I believe that swim teams could draw bigger crowds—they just don’t care to.
There is an announcer, perhaps one of the most futile jobs in sports, because the average pool-area PA system works only slightly better than an set of empty coffee cans connected by 100 feet of heavy yarn. It is easier to find recognizable English words in the off-screen teacher voices in Peanuts cartoons. Once interpreted, these announcements turn out to contain only tiny nuggets of info on the order of “Some people are going to swim a bunch for a while.” I have no doubt announcements in clear English with some actual informational content would help newbies settle in.
And settling in is the operative concept. I’m used to the habit of grabbing some food after a sporting event, but I have learned that it’s wise to eat before a swim meet. That’s because swim meets last anywhere between two and 147 hours.
Part of this is just a general lack of urgency. During actual races swimmers move like lightning, but between events the arena could be mistaken for relaxed open pool time at any Y, where some folks are just hanging out. This is what football would be like if coaches could call time outs for as long as they felt like.
And there’s diving, a sport that is unaccountably sandwiched into swim meets. There is nothing comparable in the sports world. It would be like pausing a football game between quarters for the golf teams to play eight holes. Because, after all, both sports are played on dirt and grass.
I hate to ostracize divers further, but they need their own separate event, on their own separate day.
Other issues are harder to address. For instance, telling the swimmers apart in the pool. Hard-core fans will tell you that they can identify Nathan swimming even though he is mostly under water wearing a scrap of cloth that you couldn’t write his zip code on. But these fans have been watching him swim since he was three years old and have memorized the pattern of freckles on his shoulder blade. The newbie fan’s best hope would be the swimmer’s name tattooed across his or her back. This may be too much to ask.
There are lots of subtleties to study. Before the meet even starts, everyone knows who is actually fastest. Swimmers need extraordinary mental toughness both to face opponents who they know are better, while battling the water and their own bodies, alone. And swim coaches need the minds of chess masters to place the right people in the right event, because there are points to consider for the team win (though until the muffled announcement at meet’s end, you will have no idea how that is going).
Much of this would be a concern for the casual swim fan, but making accommodations for the casual swim fan is like making accommodations at Leonardo’s for talking snow men or refitting the Venango Airport for landings by spacecraft from Mars.
Swim fans are a hardy and deeply committed breed, usually with a personal connection to someone down in the pool. Someone may decide to go see one Venangoland football game just for something to do; people don’t just wander into swim meets. The fans and swimmers belong to an elite group, and they don’t appear to be in a hurry to let any shmoe off the street just wander in and join the club.
Maybe they feel that they’ve never been invited to sit at the popular kid table, so they have realized they just don’t need it. Or maybe they like sitting in the corner where they can do things the way they like without apologizing to anyone. I’m just glad I have a native guide to help me enjoy it all.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Years Exercise Place

(News-Herald, January 13)About 18 months ago, in a fit of household cost-cutting, I ended my membership at the Y.
I figured that with a bit of discipline and determination I could exert myself at home for free. I already own a lazy treadmill (it used to let you run to nowhere indefinitely, but now shuts itself down after twenty minutes). I even invested in a nifty stand that lets you turn your outdoor bicycle into a housebound bike that also doesn’t go anywhere. Going nowhere may seem like a boring way to exercise, but the advantage is that when I collapse from exhaustion, I do not have far to drag my weary carcass home.
I gave myself a year to try the home sweatiness plan. Then I gave myself another six months to convince me that my year trial hadn’t been an utter failure. And then I slunk back to the Y and became one of those people who started out the new year resolving to turn over a new leaf. A big, fat, heavy leaf that has to be turned over again and again until my heart rate is elevated into the fat burning cardio zone.
I’m not sure what to blame (well, other than me) for my home fitness failure. The big bike ride to nowhere did get monotonous, and this last summer I was somehow too busy too often to bike and kayak as much as I really intended to. Although I am to athletics what Twinkies are to fine dining, I don’t fear physical activity. Yet somehow, my exercise regimen slowly devolved from a daily routine to a grudging celebration of the first day of each new month. It was time to admit I needed help.
Not that the Y provides me with a personal trainer or a chauffer to drive me to the weight room. They do provide motivational programs (the Silver Sneakers are using their exercisial accomplishments to create snow men), and since my last membership they have filled up the gym—excuse me, I mean “fitness center”—with nifty new machinery.
The new machines have little attached televisions, so by rejoining the Y I have also reattached myself to cable tv. It has been over two years since I cut off the cable, and it turns out that I missed the exercise machinery more than I missed regular tv programming. But the shiny colorful things moving around on screen help distract me from the complaining parts of my flailing physique. It also turns out that Dr. Phil is much easier to take when I’m gasping and sweating and can’t really hear him talk.
Mostly, though, I think what I’m experiencing is the power of place. As much as we think of ourselves as self-contained masters of our domains, we are often slaves of location. As infants we are unrestrained impulse; we will do anything anywhere. But as we age and learn self-control, we also learn to associate certain behavior with certain places.
We like to have our own special places to live, and even sub-divisions within them. I write these columns every week sitting in my personally accoutered man-cave. Occasionally, I have been forced to write them in other rooms, even other buildings, and I can certainly do it—but I don’t like it, and it’s almost uncomfortable.
We build our own little nests for our various purposes, and even multi-purpose rooms rarely are. Parents of sleep-averse infants are advised to make bed only for sleeping—not playing or reading or snacking. Couples experiencing a lack of marital harmonious activity are given similar advice.
I associate my home with many things, but not working out, and I have no space assigned to that purpose. So part of what I have hired the Y for, again, is a place that is only for getting sweaty and winded. When I walk into my living room, there are many things to do. When I walk into the fitness center, there’s nothing to do except hop on a machine.
We don’t generally buy hardware in a restaurant. Businesses are designed to be places dedicated to certain activities, and new places for familiar activities can feel awkward. The importance of place is likely also why folks are suspicious of church-skippers who declare they can commune with God any old where. The importance of place probably also explains why folks who grew up in Venangoland find, even when they wish it were not so, that no place feels quite like home.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Christmas Retail Lessons

(News-Herald, January 6) Some of the hard data is in for the 2010 Christmas shopping season.
Some of it isn’t all that useful. Super Saturday 2010 (the last Saturday before Christmas) shopping was way up over 2009, but in 2009 there was an East Coast blizzard on Super Saturday.
The narrative about how Americans have mended our spendthrift ways and are now huddling in our bedrooms, stuffing carefully preserved dollar bills under the mattress—well, as it turns out, not so much. According to the folks at MasterCard Advisors Spending Pulse, the pre-holiday fifty day spending total was $584.3 billion. In 2007, prior to the current crooked-banker-induced wave of financial debacle, the total was $566.3 billion.
Of that, $36.4 billion was spent on line (same source). That’s a 15% rise over 2009.
I was part of that trend myself. I came into a bit of e-money, so in addition to my usual local retail fieldwork, I did more-than-usual shopping in the cybernetic storefronts, and I’m beginning to understand some of the appeal.
It’s not just selection and the fact that many on-line stores can “stock” anything (or even something, since the bookstore chains have decided to get out of the bookstore business). That just makes it harder to browse. It’s not price. Once you factor in shipping and handling, an online purchase can be pricier. And bargain hunters have had their parties largely pooped by online retailers—online competition virtually guarantees that retailers all arrive at the same price point. But there are other lessons that Venangoland businesspeople can learn from the webland sellers.
First, no service trumps bad service. There are plenty of websites that provide no help at all. For example, Barnes and Nobles is a major book retailer, but trying to find anything on their site is like searching for a needle in the scrambled haystack in the dark uncleaned attic over your crazy aunt’s garage. There are many other selling sites that also leave it to the customer to solve the Mystery of How to Buy Something.
Traditional brick and mortar stores used to think they had an edge because they provided a warm human touch. But that edge only exists in stores where the human touch is actually warm and helpful. Unfortunately, too many Venangoland retail workers clearly wish that customers would stop asking for help, messing with the merchandise, and just generally intruding on the employee’s personal time.
It’s not that I don’t understand the source of many salesperson’s irritation, because that’s another things that makes online shopping attractive. I refer, of course, to other people in the stores. Most seasonal shoppers are perfectly fine, experienced, wise and considerate. But there is that ten percent, oblivious, inconsiderate, just plain rude, that make major annoyances for the rest of us.
When you click “proceed to checkout” on line, you don’t get stuck behind the person who wants to stop and chat for an hour with the checker, or the person who thinks store employees are stress-relief punching bags, or the person who is always apparently surprised when they’re asked to pay for the merchandise, or the person who wants to pay in check filled out with quill and ink. Nor do you find yourself in a store where management is trying to save a buck by hiring one tenth the employees they really need to handle the traffic.
The real irony about on-line shopping is that web-based retailers are spending big bucks to implement features that bricks and mortar stores can have for free. Online retailers hire people just to answer customer questions, investing in personnel, phone systems, and on-line chatware. In a physical store, the employees are already there—they just need to be trained, empowered and encouraged to help. It should be so easy for real stores to beat web stores at the human game, but many web stores are trying really hard, and many real stores are trying not at all.
I love love love many of our local retailers, the specialty shops, the places where there is a real personal touch. But the history of retail is the story of people who can’t afford to get comfortable. Franklin and Oil City downtowns ruled the roost, and then there was a mall. The mall thought it had a lock on the local market, and then there was Wal-Mart. Some folks adapted, and some folks folded, and we achieved a new equilibrium. But before anyone gets too comfy, they’d better take a look at the internet.

From my Flickr