Need something? Why not ask?

A funny thing happened on the way to Professional Development Day. I found myself listening to the speakers.

On campuses around North America, Pro D Day is often a euphemism for corporate indoctrination — implanting banal pro-team ideas in the minds of attendees, breaking down the individual in favour of the collective. And this one, Cultivating a Civil Community – Minding What Matters 2.0, had its share of that, which might account for why faculty seemed to be in sparse attendance.

But the theme resonated with me because I’ve found civility — or something like it — sometimes lacking in the culture of TRU. And as the keynote speaker admonished us at the day’s outset, incivility has real costs in terms of productivity lost to depression, stress, absences and turnover.

In keeping, I thought, with the theme of the day, I made a point of joining a table of people I didn’t know. They were all CUPE staff, as it turned out, all female, some of them friendly and good fun.

When we collaborated on an exercise in translating our personal values (mine: creativity, honesty) into tangible suggestions for improving civility at the university, my CUPE colleagues were almost obsessed with the value of respect (or, as Aretha Franklin famously sang it, R-E-S-P-E-C-T). It eclipsed all other values, whether internal or interpersonal.

I could understand this fixation. Though nominally “faculty”, I know what it’s like to feel like a desk-bound Coke machine subject to people’s demands. Web services is one of those jobs in which your work is highly visible (everyone interacts with it) while at the same time many people have opinions on it — indeed, believe they have a keener sense of it than you do.

As well, I think it’s rather easy for people to assume that Web services are indeed a service, one that is owed to them rather than something we all have a stake in making better. The jibes and criticisms can be withering. The demands are frequent. At their least gracious, requests can take one of two forms: direct orders; and complaints. I find myself wishing more colleagues would simply ask or suggest. But Canadians aren’t always comfortable with asking, perhaps because it implies a negotiation, or an admission of need — either way, a ceding of power or authority in the transaction.

Asking is deference. Asking implicitly recognizes the asker’s non-claim to greater power (I’m sorry if that sounds convoluted). Civility is about deference insofar as deference acknowledges the other person’s role and contribution. Demands, by contrast, are the unseemly projection of power. (And of course, “asking” without a please or some acknowledgement that you’re incurring an obligation is inauthentic and rude — e.g., the stark, impersonal “are you able to”.) Expressions of gratitude — a simple ‘thanks’, the merest acknowledgement of an extra effort made — can be likewise in short supply.

I found it interesting that the keynote speaker, who set the day’s tone, was from “south of the Mason-Dixon line”. I’ve sometimes wondered how it came to be that the Southern U.S. famously cultivated and preserved civility and manners — and what role slavery may have played in that incubation.

Slavery represented the ultimate power relationship. Some slaves were whipped in the fields, while others worked in the kitchens, parlors and porches of the slave owners. And in the latter case their humanity had to be recognized. Lording it over your maid or butler would have been superfluous, anyway, when both of you fully understood the totality of the power relationship. Civility glazed over that bleak fact, imposed a veneer of mutual respect that made the relationship — and household environment — tolerable.

The paradigm in the North, on the other hand, has been the impersonal industrial-age factory. This absence of literal slavery is hardly cause for smugness. Factory workers are, not unlike slaves, economic units (though perhaps more akin to the cotton-picking than mint-julep-serving variety). On the factory floor, orders are barked, obedience expected. The foreman has a stake in productivity (i.e., his higher position on the pay scale); the worker, less so.

But the campus never was very industrial; and, anyway, the information age has eclipsed the industrial, or so we’re told. Reams have been written on how managing knowledge workers (who are sometimes well educated) is fundamentally different from the factory floor. Meanwhile, terms like “microserfs” express resentment over a lack of fundamental change from industrial practices.

Stranger in a Strange LandIn the same group exercise — translating personal values into tangible suggestions for improving campus civility — my collaborators were again fixated, this time on the notion that the online “telbook” should include each person’s photograph, so we can all put faces to names. I suppose it might help; but I also had to wonder why I was the only one at the table — the only one in the vast ballroom, in fact — geekily wearing a nametag. And why were my colleagues across the table — all from the same department, it seemed — all sitting together, gossiping up a storm? Mostly, I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

But that’s often been my feeling at TRU. It strikes me as an intensely clannish environment, bifurcated between staff who’ve worked here a very long time — nowhere else, in many cases — and a large number of sessionals and limited-term appointees, like me, whirring through the revolving door. (Perhaps we’re the tatters in an anachronistic bubble of privilege.) It’s a surreal dichotomy that no one likes to talk about.

Memorably, the staff at the table next to ours proclaimed a kind of manifesto when it came their turn: “We are not economic units!” their spokesman shouted, sans mic, to the vast hall. Yeah, I could relate to that, though I knew it was also a rhetorical statement, and that I, like many, am perforce an economic unit, a plug-and-play widget.


One of the strangest moments came at the end when another member of the audience explained how he tells his son to think to himself “it’s a pleasure” each time he assists someone. It sounded quaint, harking to a time — not long ago — when people routinely said that in response to a “thank you”. There was stunned silence, then titters as the crowd exhaled through the double doors into the foyer and quadrangle.

But many points had been made. In our rush to the illuminated screen, and in the media-driven coarsening of our culture, we’ve abandoned, in large measure, both face-to-face interaction and the civilities that used to define it. Still, my new CUPE friends and I managed to talk, banter and share perspectives. It felt civil.


3 Responses to “Need something? Why not ask?”

  1. March 11, 2013 at 1:41 am

    Great post, Larry. Many us remark on the apparent decline in civility, but few people give it much thought.

    Might I suggest getting one of these coffee cups? http://www.wearehappytoserveyou.com/

    Why not ask? reminded me of recent experiences at US airports. The security staff have taken to saying things like: I need you to stand over here. Or: I need you to empty your pockets.

    One dare not object to their incivility, of course. I don’t even want to imagine the consequences of asking if their mothers never taught them to say “please”. They are invested with authority — and have the stinking badges to prove it.

    At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, did you ask the CUPE workers if they considered the possibility that what goes around, comes around? That’s certainly been my experience with respect and other examples of civil discourse. As our minister says: heap burning coals of kindness on their heads.

    Your discussion of cultural differences prompts another thought (your post is so thought-provoking!) I’ve long been amused at the capacity of American and French people to offend one another. The French being so formal with strangers and respectful of private space, while Americans tend to be outgoing and excessively familiar. So, the Yank bursts into a Paris shop without so much as a Bonjour Monsieur, paws the merchandise and demands to know the price of everything. All in English, naturally. The shopkeeper’s response manages to combine sang-froid with hauteur. Later, they both tell their wives: I’ve never met anyone so rude!

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