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Grotesque

Grotesque! The grotesque murder of Jamal Khashoggi is literally “bone” chilling. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman (MSB), allegedly ordered the murder, is a grotesque thug. The response of Mr. Trump, supposedly the world leader, is nothing short of grotesque. And our Secretary of the State, Mr. Pompeo’s genuflecting behavior to MSB is sickeningly grotesque.

The history of our nation’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is borderline grotesque, which may be attributed to the nature of geopolitics, or, oil-driven dependence (so, why not advocate alternative energy to wean ourselves from reliance on these oil-rich countries that are run by despots?). Still, it doesn’t mean that we should actually and publically help the royal family orchestrate a cover-up of a blatant gruesome murder of a journalist (not an “enemy of the state”), which is what Trump and his minions are trying to do.

thistle

On Khashoggi’s case, Trump said, “innocent till proven guilty.” Yet, with all other matters that have inconvenient evidence against him and his conduct, they are “fake.” Black is white, and up is down. This sorry excuse for a human being has no morals, no principles (except money), no courage, no shame, no conscience, no intelligence, no curiosity, no compassion, no decency, no manners; what he has in abundance is narcissism.

And one the latest developments is that a few House GOP representatives have been designing a whisper campaign to smear Mr. Khashoggi’s life, such as his sympathy with Muslim Brotherhood in his youth, or fabricating his associating with terrorists. So, the modern GOP, having become the champion of pollution, big time deficit spending, pedophiles, misogyny, white supremacy, now champions murder.

At first, from his campaign days, I was outraged by Mr. Trump’s words and deeds. Then, I became outraged by the lack of consequences of his words and deeds; or, I was outraged by his defenders. Now I have to make myself numb at his words and deeds, and supporters’ cult-like adoration, and I am horrified at myself. We have collectively come to view Trumpian “discourse” as “normal.” I have come to detest the expression: It is what it is. In the political arena, Mr. Trump hasn’t changed a bit during the last two-plus years. But our nation has; we have adjusted our responses and reactions in order to live our “normal” lives. So, yes, the United States of America’s government has become grotesque, and the people of this nation are dangerously approaching that grotesque signpost.

full moon

My fear is that when a nation has gradually normalized creeping fascism, we first forget how to, and even then forget the need to, halt the ugly march. Voting is (still) the one most important non-violent tool we have for halting or at least slowing this march, and we need to mobilize everyone around us to use this tool.

VOTE!

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Questions with Only One Answer

Why is it: When grown men report sexual assaults (by priests or athletic coaches) 30 years later, there is public outrage (in favor of the reporting men), but when women report sexual assaults 30 years later, there is public doubt (against the reporting women)? The public might not doubt the actual sexual “encounter,” but there are always other shadows of doubt following these women, such as their memory accuracy, their conduct (like, they asked for it!), their “timing” of the reporting, or the actual identity of the perpetrator.

If the “failing” New York Times only publishes “fake news,” why was the article on Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s proposal to wire tap and to evoke the 25th Amendment on Mr. Trump taken so seriously by the White House?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell openly vowed to make President Obama a one-term president, right after the election of 2008, and stole a Supreme Court seat in 2015; he now promised the conservatives that the senate will “plow right through” Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation. But House Minority Leader, Ms. Pelosi, is the devil incarnate?

What happened to the deficit scolds who were so vocal all through Obama’s eight years of presidency? Now, we are facing $1.5 trillion deficits, thanks to the tax cut that was plowed through without one hearing, and the GOP wants more tax cuts (for the 1%). The same scolds are silent; why?

There was a lot of anti-establishment/anti-elite sentiment in the 2016 election, especially among the Trump supporters … a sentiment to which I am not unsympathetic. But in what universe is Mr. Trump not one of the elites? His world is one of the mainstream establishments and his whole life has been defined by nothing but privilege. How does he sell himself as, and how do his supporters view him as, one of the “everyday” crowd? Much of the anti-Hilary sentiment was based on her “entitled” attitude. Again, I am not unsympathetic to anti-entitlement sentiment, but in the current Judge Kavanaugh carnival, how is he not the poster boy for “entitlement?”

The answer to these questions is: HYPOCRACY! Or, as the Chinese saying goes, 不要臉, bu yao liang, “Don’t want face.” A subordinate answer: White men are allowed to enjoy entitlement privileges but not women or minorities.

And the world is truly laughing at us now, at Trump’s latest UN speech … as he was reading from the teleprompter.   Speaking of teleprompter, didn’t the GOP (Trump included) criticize President Obama mercilessly for using teleprompter too often? Seriously, though, Trump should only read from teleprompter, at least he sounds more coherent (but not necessarily wiser).   At his post UN press conference, absent his teleprompter, he was borderline incoherent for 80+ minutes. The President of the United States of America!

If Trump supporters still think his words are pearls of wisdom and long-suppressed truths, I have but one question to ask: Would you feel the same if the identical words had come from President Obama?

I am an agnostic, but god help us.

mammatus-3

 

Staying Sane in the Age of Crazed Politics

I scream silently every day. I have struggled to compose coherent frameworks under which to discuss politics and management. The constant barrage of political dramas – which often are non-issues – hit us every day. It’s exhausting and maddening; the majority of them are based on lies, baseless claims, or twisted logic. Clearly, and sadly, if the king yells loud enough and often enough, his believers take his lies as facts.

Indeed, this was foretold by Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” I weep silently every day; I weep that such a monster’s prophecy could be realized, and that so many of my fellow citizens choose to deny his monstrosity.

more clouds

I have taken digital reams of notes on my computer. I have attempted several drafts on various topics…and quickly abandon them because I cannot write fast enough to keep up with the latest outrage; that is, outrage on my part. Most important is that I take pride and caution in my use and choice of language. And I object vehemently that somehow adhering to professional standards is dismissed as “elitist,” and being courteous is to be a “snowflake.” Yet, there have plenty of moments where I feel torn between just blurting out my frustration and disgust and holding on my core belief of being a decent human being. While my daily private language has been horribly corrupted, I ultimately hold that without observing norms in the public discourse, we are no different from our barbaric forefathers, and not that much different from the baboons and chimpanzees with whom we share common ancestors.

Of course, I am referring to Mr. Trump, his defenders and sycophants, including Fox “news.” When opinions, let alone reporting, ignore factual information, the conversations are one-sided. When a person in a leadership position chokes off all dissent as “fake,” that person is deemed dictatorial or authoritarian. In the business world, such a leader might get away with said behavior, as long as she scores good profits…for a while. However, ultimately and eventually, there would be enough of a public outcry that the organization would have to take corrective action. With public figures, the consequences, at times, can be much quicker. Roseanne Barr’s show was cancelled for racist rants and Samantha Bee was admonished for grotesque choice of words.   Not for Mr. Trump, though.

smithrock

If Mr. Trump has one “achievement,” it is in the domain of winning applause for figurative murder, mostly from his base, not just voters but more disgustingly, most GOP officials and public figures. From the perspective that nothing Mr. Trump can say or do is ever wrong – and whoever criticizes him is absolutely wrong – Mr. Trump’s devoted followers are quintessential cult members. “ … the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

But, to admonish the Trump followers who occupy public offices or prominent positions in the society with, “History will not judge you kindly,” is to miss the point: These people are a-historical; they are, and choose to remain, dismissive of history as too distant and immaterial. Like followers of Mao Tse-Dong, Stalin, or Hitler, the people doing Trump’s bidding care only for the present, the opportunity to exploit power to accumulate wealth or wallow in gratification of poking their “enemies.” And presently, they feel as if their up-the-establishment is the revolution that will be recorded as such in history. Like the previous followers of dictators, these people care mostly about upsetting the apple cart; the goals of building a different apple cart are much less important, and that’s adequate excuse for promised goals that are unfulfilled or altered.

Try such approaches in the business world. Ironically, the business world in the States is enjoying some loosened regulations but also has to contend with chaotic national politics and growing hostile international environment.

coast1

The most recent tax cut largely benefits the very rich; that’s ok, the rest get some anyway. (Even though their share of the tax cut, small to begin with, will disappear in a few years. In fact, for many, the minuscule tax relief is about to be consumed by increasing fuel prices.   But it’s the here and now that matters.) As regards immigrants being chased away or frightened into hiding, having their lives upended, the followers apparently cannot grasp the ramifications for industries that rely on immigrants. And when retail price increases hit them, they will find other targets to blame. History means nothing.

Yet, it isn’t right or sustainable to feel outraged all the time. We have to eat; we have to tidy up the house and wash dishes; we have to tend to our children or elderly parents. We still have to go to the grocery store just to get some ketchup; we still have to pay rent or mortgage. So, we oscillate between normalcy and mad sadness (per our predictable reaction at the next mass shooting).

As Dahlia Lithwick captures well our “collective madness:”

We are trapped in a kind of national collective madness, where lies are truth, truth is derided as fake news, corruption is cleansing, and cruelty is good governance. Suddenly the adults are children and the Parkland, Florida, kids are adults, and every time you think it can’t get madder, it just does. It’s a world in which the mere act of declaiming, “This isn’t normal,” or “They’re not telling the truth” is dismissed as hysteria and overreaction. Jokes can hurt feelings, but ripping children from their parents leaves no lasting moral footprint.

And this last point, ripping children from their parents as the administration’s latest immigration policy, Mr. Trump tweeted that it is Democrat’s fault.

Perhaps our collective madness is tantamount to a collective opioid crisis. We know better, but we cannot help ourselves. We kind of know we are wrong, but we cannot possibly admit our misjudgment to ourselves, let alone to others. For those of us who think we are the sane ones, how do we know that we are not the crazy ones? the ones with the addiction? or, the cult members? Against what do we ascertain reality?

In my last post, by now long ago, I mentioned that exit is often the strategy for coping with an intolerable organization, but not so for an intolerable society or country. In Ms. Lithwick’s piece, she employs a symbol from a fable by which we might learn to identify for each other the sane ones. Perhaps. But then, the next question is: how do we know that the very symbol we use for sanity check isn’t the hallmark of an echo chamber?

bandon 5

In the end, I have to insist on facts, verifiable facts. Opinions based on facts have more legs to stand on, and opinions based on out-of-thin-air assertions are still hogwash. Or, BS. We don’t like political correctness? Then, let’s call bullshit “bullshit.”

I learned, from a recent New Yorker article these principles, by French “thinker and activist,” Simone Weil in her 1933 journal:  “Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.” And, “Refuse to be an accomplice. Don’t lie—don’t keep your eyes shut.”

So, after months of gnashing my teeth and feeling too immobilized to write for the public eye, I decided to assert my voice again.

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

Twisting Facts Is Easier Than Straitening Lies…Or, Believing Lies Is Easier Than Understanding Facts

Thomas More said to King Henry VIII, “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?”[from Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons”] In today’s world, sadly, people in power and their minions dole out “alternative facts” like casino chips and millions of supporters cannot make the distinction – or, worse, choose to ignore the distinction.  Those of us who value the distinction need to strengthen our voices.

(Note: “Alternative facts” is not to be confused with “alternative reality” a la the social constructed reality in which we each have different interpretations of the same factual experience or event. Simplest example would be: We don’t all see our immediate supervisor in the same way, or our teachers, or our elected representatives, or our country, etc. Yet, each person’s reality is just as valid as the others’…with the facts as the foundation. See my previous posts, here, here, and here, on making such distinctions.)

hoar frost

Ever since I started my blog, I have been trying, sometimes very hard, to stay away from politics, unless I found justifications for tying it to organizations. Yet, the obvious has been staring at me all these years: From a “system” perspective, politics inevitably impacts organizations and vice versa, and individuals involved, which include every one of us, are all players. How can organizations and politics be neatly separated, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars get involved? Why has it taken me so long to admit the obvious? The answer is that it has everything to do with my upbringing: Be modest; be moderate; don’t stir things up; don’t call attention to yourself, etc. And getting into politics is a sure way to draw fire, from all quarters, and these days, people get downright violent in their social media language.

However, I feel compelled to address some political issues, as my internal frustration and despair are mounting. So I will start 2018 full-throttle on politics/systems, still with the attention to organizational/management issues, and I will maintain my civil language.

mt. washington

Two recent developments in our society have convinced me of the need to address political issues: (1) The willy-nilly disregard for facts, conjoined with the failure to separate wheat from chaff, seems to be growing in large sectors of the society. This alarms me and convinces me that we need to emphasize facts and evidence whenever we address policies that would impact a large swath of people, hence the opening quote. I acknowledge the body of research teaching us that emphasizing facts does not sway opinions, at least not in the near term, but I believe that in the long term the facts win out, hopefully before being cruelly reinforced on a battlefield, provided they’re not allowed to be ignored. [The allusion to battlefield is inspired by George Orwell: “…[W]e are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue… the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

(2) The recent onslaught of #MeToo stories made me realize that in public, I tend to put myself down…again, the need to be modest and moderate and not make waves always nags me. The saving grace is that whenever the stakes are high, I rise to the occasion and assert myself without the usual provisos. (In private conversations and amongst friends, I am totally comfortable because I know I am safe.) The #MeToo movement (which, unfortunately, touches my own history) finally wiped away those cobwebs in my psyche.

Enough!

3 finger jack

So, in today’s post, I want to establish my intent, and lay down a couple of philosophical thoughts for why facts and evidence should always be our foundation.

Kathryn Schultz states in her “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them(The New Yorker, Nov 6, 2017 issue):

One of the strangest things about the human mind is that it can reason about unreasonable things. [emphasis mine] It is possible, for example, to calculate the speed at which the sleigh would have to travel for Santa Claus to deliver all those gifts on Christmas Eve…And it is possible to decide that a yeti is more likely to exist than a leprechaun, even if you think that the likelihood of either of them existing is precisely zero.”  

What is “real” vs. what could be “real” is the key. However, making such distinction often requires critical thinking. Any theory, conspiracy or not, when it’s proposed on the internet, and especially if it’s picked up by MSM, becomes a legitimate consideration. I don’t know how this has come about, but the practice of bending the facts has been going on for a while (re, Orwell). Most noticeably, of course, is equivocating between Darwin’s scientifically proven “Evolution” theory and the totally bogus “Intelligent Design,” for which to date there has not been any evidence presented that does not even more compellingly support evolution.

Ever since human beings began to organize for common purposes, politicians have always been known to bend the truth, either for their personal gain or for “the greater good.” (This applies to politics in organizations as well.) But few have blatantly espoused lies out of thin air, boasted about such acts, and blame “fake news” every time they are being called out.

As Hanna Arendt observed decades ago: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

“Fake news” used to be employed as a propaganda tool for disseminating falsehoods. But now, as the President of the United States of America, Mr. Trump has turned the table around, by creating a fountain of lies while labeling what he doesn’t like – especially when his lies are revealed – “fake news.” This has emboldened other politicians, both domestically and internationally, to employ and abuse the term whenever reporters challenge them.

However, the people who abuse “fake news” indiscriminately seemed to accept the predictions of hurricanes Harvey (hitting Texas in 2017) and Irma (hitting Florida right after Harvey) and the descriptions of the horrendous aftermath. But while they accepted that category V hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico hard, they balked at that aftermath narrative and blamed the Puerto Ricans for their plight.

glacier pond

So nowadays, instead of accepting facts, as Hanna Arendt predicted, we have become suspicious of fact- and evidence-based reporting. In other words, we suspect everything. From the perspective of the Russian interference in the US 2016 election, if the Russians’ intent was to get the American people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, our opponents have already won.

I no longer care to try to understand how fact-deniers “think” and their rationales. I no longer worry about how to converse with those who simply refuse facts. “Telling like it is” doesn’t need to be rude, and certainly shouldn’t be devoid of truths. “My [nuclear bomb] button’s bigger than your button” may be satisfying to some, indeed it would be downright laughable if it weren’t so frightfully pointing toward Armageddon. And when people rely on only lies, coupled with rudeness and taunts, their “conversations” become shouting matches, as evidenced in the current Trump-Bannon spat over Michael Wolff’s latest tell-all book on Trump’s White House.  (Google these names and you will have your choices of reading.)

All I can do is to stay on evidence and emphasize the facts, relentlessly.

Isaac Asimov said it well– (1980):

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Linking back to the quote earlier from the Fantastic Beasts, “life” may be magical, that doesn’t mean that we rely on magical thinking to live our daily lives.

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Fact, Truth, Reality…which one is debatable?

  • Author’s note: Since our move to the northwest, I have been busy setting up the new household. Our lives have been full yet relaxing. We haven’t quite completely immersed in the local community, but that’s just a matter of time. Neither have I resumed my painting, but that too, will be part of my daily routine in due course. In the meantime, I have had the urge to comment on some aspects of the development of our society, which intertwines closely with organizational life.

 


 

A child asks mom, “what is that man doing?” Mom says, “He’s entertaining.” Child, “No, what is he doing?” Mom, “He’s performing.” Child gasped, “But what is he doing?” Mom tries again, “He’s making people smile.” Child continues, “But what is he doing?” Mom finally adopts the conventional definition, “He’s juggling.” Child responds, “But what is juggling?” and on we go.

Which version of the mother’s responses is real is beyond debate. All versions are real, depending on where you are, how you see things, and what occupies your mind at the moment. If Mom happens to be fresh out of work, she might answer, “He’s making a living.” Of course, there is also the issue of the “audience.” So, the child’s curiosity may finally be addressed by another different response, “He’s having fun!”

The above example is an illustration of socially constructed reality. The fact is: A man is tossing balls, or juggling pins, or cones, in the air, catching a few before tossing them up again, while catching the other few. There are also the facts that a child is asking a question, and the mother is trying to ascertain how to answer the child satisfactorily. The truth is that an engaging parent would utilize interactions with his child to offer answers, lessons, ideas, etc. But at no point will the parent ever engage in offering “alternative fact,” which is a lie. No parents, with sane minds, would deliberately tell their child that the juggler is fishing or farming, nor that a dog is a “pig,” the sun a “lollipop” or a stone is “bread.”

When I first heard the term “alternative fact,” I gasped. Granted all politicians prevaricate and “spin,” but to engage in downright lies, to espouse random accusations without a shred of fact, or to formulate policy based on an opinion pulled out of thin air, it makes me wonder, “Might this be what living in the days of [one of the most seditious Roman emperors] Caligula felt like?” Good God. I heard of one apologist’s defense of “alternative fact,” that it is used as a means to stay defiant. Defiant against what? Establishment? Do facts now only exist in the “establishment”? Or, using facts is now considered “elite”?

Back in NM

Back in NM

Then, I began to question myself about one of the fundamental pillars of my being a social scientist: socially constructed reality. I asked myself: How do I make it clear to others who aren’t familiar with this term, the difference between socially constructed reality and lies? We recognize there are multiple realities, which could be called alternative realities, per the opening example and explored further below, but by definition there can be no “alternative facts,” not even as euphemism.

We go through our daily lives, taking “reality” for granted. We don’t even think about our mutually agreed norms, rituals, salutations…etc. We drive on the right side of the road in this country; we apologize when we accidentally bump into each other; we discuss topics using tacitly agreed rules and norms. (Well, we used to.) The socially constructed reality is a perspective for social scientists in their pursuit of generating knowledge. As a social scientist, it is my professional interest as well as responsibility to observe the different realities that people bring into their work, organizational life, and various social situations. And I try to ascertain the core from which different perspectives emanate.

Nuclear physicists and engineers rely on detailed facts to build nuclear facilities. How nuclear energy should be used would be in the realm of socially constructed reality. It may be to the chagrin of the scientists and engineers, having spent lifetimes figuring out how nuclear energy can be used, but that’s our social reality, partly because scientists are also human beings with all human foibles and emotions in making judgment, with which utilization of scientific discoveries happens – or doesn’t. Architects and contractors build hospitals, but when, where and for how much, and how the space is designed and used, often get politicized, i.e. socially constructed reality. Issues such as, who gets the corner office, which wings should house the patients (but somehow admin always gets the nicest wing), or where the bathrooms be located (read “Fix the woman” for the quarrels about access to bathroom; here & here) get decided and resolved through social interactions.

A manager’s view of an employee’s “being late” is different from the said employee’s own reality. The employee arriving late at work might be due to a car accident on the way to work. Or, her child woke up with a fever and she had to make a last-minute arrangement. It is within the manager’s right to say, “She still has to perform work professionally and diligently.” However, a little understanding can go a long way toward building trust, understanding, and workforce morale. Yes, the quality of the employee’s work could become delinquent and shoddy, but is one day’s work performance determinant of the employee’s worth?

If we normalize the use of “alternative fact,” it will eventually trickle down into the fabric of society, including corporations and organizations. I can imagine scenarios where a manager can easily tell a direct report, “Sorry, Joan, I cannot give you any promotion or raise this year because your recent work for project Y was sloppy. I have an alternative fact; I’m declaring that Mary actually saved the project.” Even though Joan had been working overdrive to push for project Y to be done on time. (Perhaps Mary and the manager have been besties for months?) If Joan complains to senior managers, she’s unlikely to be heard objectively since Joan’s manager couldn’t have carried out such “alternative fact” approach without the collusion of higher management. Chances are the higher the managerial ladder reaches, the more often the managers are tempted to use the “alternative facts.” It’s a perfect tool to seize and abuse power.

Now in OR

Now in OR

I used to think “true fact” is a silly redundant expression…well, it still is.

One of my favorite quotes is from the Robert Bolt play “A Man for All Seasons,” about the life of Thomas More under Henry VIII, in which Thomas More said, “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?”[*] In today’s world, sadly, people in power and their minions are declaring alternative facts and millions of supporters cannot make the distinction. Those of us who can need to keep the lights on.

Who knew? My signature mantra seems to be even more pertinent these days,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

 

[*] Taken from the text of the play, available via Amazon. Even more poignant is this quote from Bolt’s Preface to the text of the play (Bolt, 1960):

“A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, and when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee… Of course, it is much less effective now … we would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than themselves. We feel – we know – the self to be an equivocal commodity…”

 

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Even Generic Smile Is Seen As Dishonest And Suspicious

To strangers to American culture, Americans’ smiles can be unnerving. “Is there something on my face?” “Did she know something I missed?” “It’s so inappropriate for him to smile at me.” According to some Russians, for the longest time, American’s smile was a symbol of the evil American capitalism. Non-verbal communication is just as much of a socially constructed phenomenon as verbal communication. Cultural shock is akin to bacteria invading our bodies, annoying, inconvenient, and we just want to find some drugs to zap them away. We rarely see cultural adjustment as a challenge to our emotional well-being.

natures-basket-4

The second story of the Invisibilia focused on changing one aspect of a national culture, Russian specifically. When McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Moscow January of 1990, it was a huge deal. Not only the symbol of capitalism invading a former communist country, the Russian employees of McDonald’s continued the Big Mac’s culture of smiles in their greetings and services. However, it was the totality of the “customer service,” a la American/Western/Capitalistic ways, that tested the uninitiated and curious Russians. From “Hi, how are you?” “What can I get for you?” to “Is there anything else?” and “Hope to see you soon,” it was the complete opposite of what Russians usually experienced in their own restaurants where servers were surly, rude, slow, very slow, and sometimes downright nasty.

How did the average Russian customers react to their own fellow countrymens’ Americanized behavior, at least inside McDonald’s? Would they be suspicious of such unwanted friendliness? Not just smiling, but eye contacting and “faked” chumminess? Guess what people of all cultures would prefer? To be treated kindly…with or without smiles. The featured Russian in the radio story, Yuri, considered the question whether Russians going to McDonald’s are for food or emotional culture, and his response was, “I think emotional culture. People – some people liked food – some people were kinda, like, eh, food is OK. But, you know, it’s really a great place to just hang out.” Contrary to American’s perception of the uniformed soulless fast-food corporate culture, Russians saw McDonald’s an “island of light and humanity.” Socially constructed reality!

dabgqwl

Such attitudinal change in Yuri and his co-workers took hold of their psyche over time, and some of them began feeling impatient with general Russians’ old ways of taking everything so seriously. In fact, two years after Yuri’s foray into the world of Big Mac, he and his family immigrated into the US, and settled down in Boston. Yuri had a honeymoon period in the States. Then, one day while waiting for bus, a fellow rider struck a conversation with Yuri, and they had a great back-and-forth on some personal stuff. Yuri saw a budding friendship and was delighted. The bus came; his “new friend” boarded after Yuri and sat away from Yuri, like all those talking points had just evaporated into thin air. Yuri concluded, “And I still remember that feeling. I was, like, I thought you were my friend. That’s really strange.”

Of course, you know by now that very few things in social science/social world are absolute. So it is with smiling, it can get carried away in customer service. Many American workers who are on the frontline dealing with customers feel burnt out after a prolonged period of smiling too much, a disguise for suppressed frustration. The forced smile has also created the expectation on the customers’ side to think they are always right and can become wholly unreasonable. So, there is a dark side of “keeping up with the smile!”

I remember vividly my first trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1985. The country had barely opened its doors to outsiders. Almost everything was still state operated with zero concept of “customers;” the few mom-and-pop shops were accustomed to not seeing too many happy customers. Everyone seemed dour and impatient. The only friendly people were your relatives, connections with your relatives, or small merchants who’d like to take a little bit of advantage of you if they could. My western style combined with impeccable Chinese often unnerved the strangers, and if I could be quick, I could enjoy a little break of getting what I needed while they were recovering from being caught off guard. My second visit two years later saw dramatic changes across a large swath of the country, and by my last visit in 1991, Shanghai was on the cusp of becoming a cosmopolitan center. By then, my reaction to seeing the smiling Chinese wait staff was, “They are just being obsequious.” I haven’t been back since and have no idea of how people have changed.

Globalization has upended many carts, such as customer services, labor forces, attitudes toward “strangers,” or cultural habits. My take on of the two stories presented in the Invisibilia episode is this: Top-down changes are achievable in a small group and when the leaders practice what they preach. This was the case of the oil rig, presented in the previous post. The McDonald’s case was initiated from the top HQ down to one Moscow store, but it eventually caught fire as more McDonald’s opened up throughout Russia. More than two decades later, Russians’ smile score was higher than Americans’ in the 2015 “Smiling Report.” Yet, when it comes down to individuals living cross-culturally, such as in Yuri’s case, there is still much internal struggle and negotiation with the external world.

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After being in the States for 40+ years, and happy like a fish back in the water, I still occasionally experience a cultural shift and puzzlement. Actually, such a feeling of disquiet occurs to many people when they move from one region to another, e.g. east coast to west coast, or north to south, and vice versa. Sometimes, English-speaking people moving from one country to another English-speaking country, say, US to UK, or UK to Australia, etc. experience even stronger cultural shock precisely because the changes may be subtle and easily taken for granted.

There are no magic medicines or programs to help us overcome the cross-cultural malaise. However, like all emotional issues, we need to take time to understand, really and deeply understand, not just our cultural environment but how we fit in that environment. It’s stop-and-go; it’s constant; it can be tiring and exhilarating; it’s personal, individualistic and collective. And it can be rewarding whenever we “get” it.  Till next time,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

When Tough Men Can Cry Openly…

Why do we take our emotional well-being for granted? We talk a lot about “taking care of” it, but do we do as much about it as we talk? The phrase “mental hygiene” is apropos, but the premise of this metaphor conjures up a gross feeling, like, flossing teeth or basic grooming (yet, what’s wrong with doing these acts?!). (The phrase also belittles the complexity of our mind, as if it could be cleaned in a quick ritual act after each meal.) Of course, someone’s emotional/mental mess may be something easily shrugged off in another person. I think that’s part of the problem; the yardstick against which we evaluate our emotional situation and mental state is a fluid measure. When do we know we really need to do some serious mental flossing? When can we get away with a little tooth-picking? Gross…well, we’d better deal with it.

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Thanks to a friend who sent me a link to an Invisibilia” episode in which the focus was on suppressed emotions and forced “positive” attitude. According to the program’s website, “Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotion.” The two stories in this episode explored whether it’s possible to change habits of an entire group of men and to alter a deeply-rooted cultural behavior. The former story took place on a Shell’s deep-water oil drilling rig, Ursa, the size of about two football fields. The latter took place in the first McDonald’s in Moscow.

Most of us are probably ignorant of the nature and degree of danger for oil rig workers. Seeing deaths of colleagues is not uncommon, while physical challenge and injury are common. The culture among oil rig workers is one of ultimate stoicism and hypermasculinity. No show of emotions, even upon witnessing a death; keeping the work process uninterrupted is the key. Most men carry the same bottled-up emotional practice at home as well. Would the practice for regular oil rigs work just as well for an unprecedented deep water drill? In 1997, the first deep water drilling, 4,000 ft deep, even for the experienced oil workers was “like going from Earth to Mars.” The typical 20-person crew for a regular rig would swell to more than a hundred for Ursa, with all the potential hazards and dangers increasing exponentially.ursa-1_custom-8358af5fba589f61d21864036b6ce4551c33fa4b-s900-c85

The main character in the oil rig story, Rick, was put in charge of Ursa. “He was stressed at home, barely able to speak to a son who was about to leave for college. He was stressed at work, in charge of a giant, really complicated venture that he didn’t know how to tackle. Things felt like they were spinning out of control.” Rick’s saving grace was that deep down he suspected and sensed that something was out of kilter and that he didn’t know what to do.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Out of blue, a “crazy one-eye lady” made a cold call to Rick and offered to work with him on leadership issues. Claire Nuer, now deceased, heard about Ursa and thought that she could offer something useful. Rick accepted a meeting and they talked, through an interpreter mostly since Nuer spoke little English; her native language was French. Rick began the meeting with the typical business of scheduling, planning, production, etc. Claire cut him off with “…if you just don’t tell people you’re scared, you’re not going to create safety together.” That caught Rick’s attention. One can bottle up one’s emotions, fears in this case, only for so long. It would work well…only for so long. One might even coast along on another smaller rig, the old familiar environment…only for so long. When all emotions have no outlet for relief, something has to give. At home, Rick was risking losing his emotional ties with his family, and at work, the risks wouldn’t just be Rick’s “incompetence” in managing, but the potential injuries and/or deaths of some colleagues.

So, who was Claire Nuer? She was a leadership coach, founder of Learning As Leadership. Based on new age Est’s method, popular in the 70s and draconian to many, digging deep into one’s emotions to lay the foundation for healing and emotional well-being. The typical Est experience was a day-long encounter (well into 10 or 11PM) that often made grownups cry (by itself, there is nothing wrong with that). Claire and her husband fashioned something similar in their business, mostly breaking down business executives.

Eventually, Rick joined Claire’s sessions, usually conducted through translation. Since Rick’s motivation was largely his broken tie with his son, he even persuaded his son to join him for an encounter session. That session lead to a 180-degree turn for Rick and his son. That was enough for Rick to get his men from the rig involved.

Now, when a boss wants you to do something outside of work, in this case personal development for the better productivity of the team, even when the offer is on a voluntary basis, you take it, however reluctant and dubious you may feel. So, most of the rig workers went; a few refused to do some of the exercises, and remained skeptical. However, those who were more willing to participate ultimately learned to show their vulnerability, and couldn’t say enough good things about the outcomes, not just about work, but more so about their personal lives. Most of these sessions took place while they were waiting for the completion of the rig construction that took 18 months.

During the few long days of sessions (from 6AM – 11PM on some days), these super macho tough guys gradually broke down, cried, shared their stories and feelings… Even the ones who thought “I’ll just reveal a little…” couldn’t stop once they began the process. I understand these principles, but it did creep me out a bit when I read that they eventually managed to overcome revulsion and massaged each other’s feet, demonstrating deep trust. (Author’s note: In many of these intense workshops, participants are required to do things they would normally eschew. Breaking down old boundaries is an important foundation. While I am not totally against some of these exercises, I always find it obnoxious that participants have to behave according to the program’s demands. I mean, there have to be other ways of showing trust. Yes?)

The efforts and money paid off. The accident rate at Shell fell by 84%, and the productivity exceeded the previous industry record. The energy that formerly preserved the hyper masculine norm was now invested in working together, sharing technical information. Instead of fearing to show lack of knowledge or admitting mistakes, the new refrain of “I need help” made the work process much smoother.

All the converts to the new culture openly admitted that as they become more themselves, they like themselves better. “The old way is no fun.”

Darn it, when it comes to story telling, I just cannot economize and fit all the themes and nuances in one post. I will conclude in the next post the changing cultural habits for some Russians who wanted to work for McDonald’s. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com