Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Perils of Corporate Texting

I don’t think we are going to have to wait until 2012 for the Apocalypse.  There is some evidence that it is already at hand.  The other day I was talking to a neighbour who is an elementary school teacher.  She was complaining that she had a student teacher who she was supervising for a few weeks.  I opined that it must make things easier because there was someone to share the work with.  “No way!” she informed me.  “The woman cannot be left alone.  She’s a clear and present danger.” 

“To the kids?”

“No.  To Western Civilization.  You won’t believe what she does.”

“What?”

“She writes on the board in text language.”

It was my turn to say “no way.”  But yes, apparently she does things like give the kids class assignments and writes, “Wen ur done c me” on the board.  She also writes “Orsum” on well done homework papers.

Call me a Luddite, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  I found this story so amusing that I repeated it to other friends and not all of them laughed.  Their attitude was more like, “I can top that!”  Another teacher said that a dictate had come from on high that if a kid uses text message lingo in a written exam it should be deemed acceptable because that is the way young people communicate and under the pressure of an exam situation, allowances should be made for slips in communication.  Aren’t communication skills one of the things kids are supposed to learn in school?

But not only teachers have to deal with this problem.

You might remember that during the economic boom, consultants convinced businesses that life as we know it would end unless we made the workplace Generation Y friendly.  No one under 30 would want to work for a company that didn’t accommodate their unique characteristics.  Companies were advised to build a Googleplex, eliminate dress codes, stock the conference rooms with Lego and have Starbucks on site.  As part of all that, some businesses became ‘text friendly.’ 

Not only that, because of their greater techno acumen and general joie de vivre, Gen Y people were getting promoted over their older, less with the program colleagues. 

However nobody talked about need for inter generational sensitivity training.  Let’s look at a hypothetical but plausible example of this generational clash of cultures. 

Joshua, a Gen Y MBA, has been put in charge of the financial analysis department of a big American company.  One of his subordinates, Ken, has been with the company longer than Joshua has walked the Earth. 

Joshua thinks that Ken has issues with him because Ken doesn’t respond to his Facebook friend request, and insists on doing things the way they’ve been done forever.  Ken thinks Joshua doesn’t like him because Joshua puts his feet on Ken’s desk when he comes into his office.

Drawing on his experience and acumen, Joshua decides that he and Ken need to have a little talk.  So he proposes that they “pop down to Starbucks” which is conveniently located in the building lobby.  Ken doesn’t like Starbucks because he isn’t sure if you can order plain black coffee there.  But he agrees to go.  In order to show that the portals of communication are open, as they wait in line Ken tells Joshua, “You know, I never know what’s good here.  Why don’t you order something new and different for me.”

Joshua, delighted at Ken’s overture, says, “Sure, man.  You gotta try this new thing they’ve got for Christmas.  Approaching the counter he tells the clerk, “Two Gingerbread lattes.”

Ken insists on paying and they move to a quiet corner.  Ken eyes the frothy drink in front of him like Socrates examining a proffered cup. 

Ken ends up actually enjoying the coffee and the conversation, and both of them feel that they have had a breakthrough.  Ken even promises to help Joshua improve productivity by communicating with text messages when necessary.

Happy, they both return to the office and Joshua decides to explore their new relationship by sending Ken a text message, thanking him for the coffee and the meeting.  He texts:

10Q 4 *$

To Ken, who has worked in finance for a public company for years, ‘10Q’ doesn’t mean ‘Thank you.’  It means Form 10-Q which is a quarterly report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  He knows that ‘4’ means ‘for,’ but he has no idea that ‘*$’ means ‘Starbucks.’  He remembers that in previous quarters they have put together a draft 10-Q in advance, and he thinks that perhaps Joshua is asking him to do a draft.  But there is no 10-Q filing needed for the fourth quarter and that’s what he decides to tell Joshua.

Ken takes his cell phone in his trembling hand and texts:

No 10Q 4Q

New to the game, he doesn’t know if you are supposed to sign text messages.  He decides that ‘Kenneth Abercrombie’ is too much of a challenge, so he simply adds his initials:

KMA

Joshua’s delight at receiving a text from Ken is short lived.  He stares at the message.  He briefly wonders what he’s done to make Ken so angry.  And then he decides that such insubordination and unprofessional behaviour must be punished.  So he texts:

4Q 2 DCM

And he calls Human Resources.

Ken has an adrenaline rush when his phone beeps and he quickly reads Joshua’s message.  He doesn’t realize that ‘DCM’ is text talk for “Don’t come Monday,” and means that he’s been fired.  He studies the message and decides that Joshua is labouring under the delusion that a 10-Q is needed for the ‘fourth quarter, too,” and is requesting documentation from Ken justifying his position.  After all, the kid is fairly new.

So Ken quickly prepares an e-mail with attachments of the pertinent literature.  His outgoing e-mail crosses a notice from HR which he reads with incredulity.

 

And I don’t even want to think about the legal ramifications of all of this electronic miscommunication.

Adventures in Grammar–Definite and Indefinite Articles

I can’t believe you are reading this.  Didn’t the title put you off?

But this is actually kind of interesting.  The other day I was thinking about all the things I was taught in school that have not stood the test of time.  I’m not talking about things that have legitimately changed, like Pluto not being a planet any more.  I’m talking about inviolate truths that aren’t so true in reality.  And one of them has to do with the word ‘the.’  Yes, ‘the.’

What got me started was an experience in a restaurant.  Have you ever noticed that ordering food in a restaurant requires a slightly different manner of speaking?  Normal, i.e., not restaurant food, is called simply what it is:  a steak, a salad, a baked potato.  But when food is prepared in a restaurant, for some reason it has to be prefaced with the word, “the.”  I don’t know why this is.

Consider the following exchanges.

Waiter:  And what sort of salad would you like?  We have Caesar, Mixed Greens, Greek and Oriental.

Customer:   Um.  I’ll have The Mixed Greens.

Waiter:  And what dressing would you like.  We have Italian, French, Russian, Serbian, Franco Prussian, Sino Japanese, Raspberry Vinaigrette, Ranch, Balsamic Vinegar, Red Wine Vinegar, Poppyseed, Bleu Cheese, Caesar, Hannibal, Napolean and Thousand Island.

Customer:  Uhhh.  I’ll have The French.  (Technically, shouldn’t a statement like that terrify the nation of France?)

Waiter:  And for your entre?

Customer:  I’d like The pork chops.

Waiter:  Any soup?

Customer:  Yeah, The French Onion.

I ask you, why do people do that?  I don’t remember learning it in school.  I don’t remember my mother telling me when I went out on my first date, “Be a gentleman and preface everything with ‘the.’ 

I looked back to my education.  I learned that there are two articles in English, ‘the’ and ‘a’/’an.’  ‘The’ is a definite article, which you use when referring to something specific while ‘a’ in an indefinite article which doesn’t refer to a specific item. 

It sounds simple, but it isn’t.  For example, if there are only two articles in English, definite and indefinite, why didn’t I say in the previous sentence that “‘the’ is the definite article?”  If it’s the only one, it’s gotta be specific doesn’t it? 

So now I was totally confused and started to think about how we (mistakenly?  I don’t know) use the word ‘the’ when we mean something non-specific. 

A lot of times when referring to ourselves, we could say ‘my’ instead of ‘the’ but for some reason we use ‘the.’  I wonder if this is to depersonalize things in some way.  Remember Forrest Gump?  “Where did you get hit son?”  “In the buttocks, sir.”  Not, my buttocks.  Or just plain buttocks.  But the buttocks. 

Cops talk that way all the time.  “What part of the body was dug up first?”  “The foot.”  Why would it be ‘the?’  We don’t know which one it is.  It could be right or left.

So do doctors.  “When we remove the brain, we can go in through the eye or the ear.”

Not to mention drill sergeants and bosses.  “If you ever do that again I’m going to give you a boot right in the ass.”  Note that the drill sergeant is half right.  Because he doesn’t specify which boot he will use, he correctly says “a boot.”

It’s the same thing with possessions.  For example, when taxes go up you might hear someone say, “This is going to hit me right in the wallet.”  Why not say ‘my’ wallet?

Or what about:  “How’s business?”  “Down the toilet.”  Now which toilet is that?  Technically. it should be ‘a‘ toilet because we don’t know which specific toilet the business is going down.  It’s the same with windows.  “How are your plans to buy a new house?”  “Out the window.” 

It’s probably one of those things where what sounds better and what we heard from our parents while growing up prevail over grammatical rules and logic.  So the drill sergeant could say “I’ll give you my boot in your ass.”  Technically correct, but not as effective in my opinion.  Similarly, having a business go “down the toilet” sounds much more final and regrettable than “down a toilet.”

But I still don’t think that “the Caesar salad” sounds right.  

PS–Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends in the US!

Whiteboard Jungle

I’m still picking up my six and eight year old nephews after school and continuing to learn things.  Today’s lesson provided insights into social structures in place in modern elementary schools.

Every day, the first thing I say is “So what interesting things happened today.”

They always reply:  “Nothing.”

I then ask the follow up question:  “Really?”

They think for a while, and then invariably describe some fairly momentous event.  Today it was from the older boy.  “I got sent to the Chances room.”

What the hell is the Chances room?  I actually phrased it as, “Oh.  What’s that?”

It turns out that the Chances room is not a place where kids learn how to shoot craps (that happens on the playground).  It is a physical room, and being sent there is the most extreme and feared form of disciplinary action that can be inflicted by the school authorities.  But fear not!  The Chances room is about as far from the Black Hole of Calcutta as it is from the concept of effective discipline. 

The way it works is that during the recess period, instead of running around burning off excess sugar fuelled energy, the miscreant goes to a quiet room to contemplate (mostly likely) his sins.  The room is called the “Chances Room” because the child is supposed to realize that he is getting a second chance.  The quiet contemplation is also supposed to create an environment for the child to conclude that they will avoid transgressive behaviour in the future.  The idea is that they will think and say “Oh my God, there is nothing more horrible than going to the Chances room.  I most surely will never do anything wrong again.” 

Who thinks these things up?

I found out that my nephews had pretty much the same opinion about the punitive value of the Chances room as I did.  The culprit frankly admitted that he didn’t mind the punishment—he was upset because he felt he hadn’t done anything wrong.  As we talked, and remember, I’m totally impartial, I decided he may have a point. 

The facts of the case are as follows.  On the day in question, they were told that they were supposed to do something nice for a person they didn’t know.  So my nephew and his friend decided that they would offer fellow students the opportunity to get a ball point pen tattoo from them. 

I’m sure you can already see trouble on the horizon. 

During recess they asked the other kids if they would like tattoos and got a few takers.  A teacher saw what was going on and decided that the ‘clients’ were having their personal space violated or something and my nephew and his friend were ‘arrested.’  Among the many points my nephew raised in his defense was “We didn’t ask them for money.”  Although he did admit that his friend initially wanted to charge ten cents.

He claims, with some justification, that the kids asked to get the tattoos and no coercion was involved.  Further, he is unaware of any school rule prohibiting the tattooing of fellow students, voluntary or otherwise.  I personally think it’s a grey area—but let’s face it, they could probably have thought of better nice things to do.

Further questioning revealed that the teachers are highly sensitive to the issue of students abusing each other and that is why guilt was presumed in this case.  I opined that it was probably overzealous of the teachers to be so worried about that.  But then, with amazing equanimity, they explained that the teachers probably were justified to worry considering how things really operate in the school social structure.  

The bottom line?  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.   

First remember we are talking about kids under the age of 10.  Among other things, you gain stature (and friends) by getting into trouble.  (That’s another reason my nephew wasn’t that fussed about being sent to the Chances Room—he got bragging rights). It’s not quite like the Mafia, where you aren’t a full member until you’ve killed someone, but being punished definitely earns you cache. 

There is also a hierarchy of coolness with the more cool exercising power over the less cool.  (I haven’t yet elicited a definition of “cool”–watch this space).  That aspect sounds more like prison.  My nephew said that a lot of cool people have lackeys who are expected to do personal favors for them, like get them a Coke or give them choice morsels (as long as it’s not a peanut butter sandwich) from their lunches; or to broker advantageous playground trades of Lego and Transformer figurines.  There is even a form of omerta and the absolute worst crime that anyone can commit is ‘telling.’

The fear of being caught and ‘punished’ is still strong in modern kids.  But because of the relatively benign forms of punishments (teachers can’t even force a kid to clean the whiteboards because it is a violation of their human rights and potentially damaging to their self-esteem), there is more angst about getting caught than being punished.  You have to break the rules in order to be a player, but getting caught shows a lack of skill and style.  (Incidentally, this is probably good training for a career in politics where getting caught is the worst thing that can happen and punishment for wrongdoing is usually limited to a heartfelt apology.)

The example I was given related to tree climbing on the school grounds.  In today’s schools, climbing trees is acceptable as long as it doesn’t present too serious a risk.  So some trees on the school grounds have been marked with red dots which indicate that they are too dangerous to climb and are therefore off limits.

Now I’m no child psychologist, but I theorize that these red dots are the equivalent of a big sign that says “if you are cool you will climb me” in the kids’ minds.  My nephew described a complicated social ritual that occurs with respect to red dot trees.  Of course, everyone tries to climb them.  And equally certainly, the teachers will insist that the child in question immediately stop.  There is no punishment other than being made to get down.  So the finesse that separates the cool from the uncool is how slowly you climb down.  The idea is to show how bad you are by contemptuously complying with the teacher’s demand. 

In response to my observation that the whole thing was idiotic, my nephew protested that no, it is very challenging because no one knows exactly what constitutes a sufficiently slow descent. So you have to wait until the audience assesses your panache; and your ranking in the social hierarchy is as volatile as the stock market.

Life is hard.

You’re Probably Too Busy To Read This

One of the best lines in The Lord of the Rings comes in the second book when Theoden, king of Rohan, asks, “How did it come to this?”

I feel his pain.

I was flipping through the junk mail in my (real, not virtual) mail box the other day and came upon a little flyer. Someone had done their psycho-marketing homework.  It caught my attention.  It was a black card with bold white letters that said:

Too busy to read this flyer? You need . . . MEL.

I was intrigued.

I turned the card over and studied it.  I learned that Mel is short for “Managing Everyday Living.”  Wow, I marvelled. How did they figure out how to do that?

The card explained it.  Bottom line?  They charge big bucks to do stuff for you.  I checked out their web site and found out that, for example, if you are too busy to walk your dog, they will do it for you (“Sometimes looking after that special member of the family just doesn’t fit with a super busy schedule.  On those occasions, let Mel do the legwork.”). They do it all.  They’ll take your car in for service, clean your house, cut your grass.  They’ll even buy your (fill in the blank) a birthday/anniversary/wedding gift.

To be honest, I wasn’t all that surprised by this, having seen a lot worse in Japan.  There you can hire people to go visit your parents if you’re too busy.  If your child is a friendless geek you can hire friends for them.  You can even get an actor to come to your wedding and pretend he’s your boss and say nice things about you.  I’ve heard you can pay someone to arrange your parents’ funeral (preferably after they’re dead) and they’ll go and mourn for you if you’re too busy.  But in a country where the average person works twelve hours a day and spends two hours a day commuting to and from work, I’m inclined to agree that they need all the help they can get.

I’d heard of this sort of service before but never knew anyone who used it.  Sort of like I know that there are shows with Elvis impersonators but don’t know anyone who’s ever gone to one.  So I was kind of surprised that in the face of global recession, the reach of service providers like this has expanded to the point where they are growing their business with mail drops.  After all, in a period of record unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and cost cutting, why would they think people are too busy to look after themselves?  And have the readies to pay someone to do this stuff for them?

So the question is, who are these people who are buying Mel’s service?  Who is so busy that although they have a dog they don’t have time to walk it?  Isn’t that sort of like having a TV and hiring someone to watch it because you’re too busy?  I mean, what’s the point?

Ignoring pets for a moment, think about what this Mel idea does to the concept of gift giving.  I imagine it works like this: “Hey Mel, get my wife an anniversary gift, will ya?  Make it blue.  She likes blue.  Between $50 and $100 should do it.  What’s that?  There’s a discount if I deliver it myself?  OK then, drop it by my office so I can give it to her.”

What a tender, loving gesture.

It’s not only a question of who is so busy, it is a question of what are they so busy doing?  I’m trying to imagine what their day must be like.  We can assume that they have time for basic bodily functions like eating and sleeping. Otherwise they would be dead.  (Mel’s website doesn’t indicate whether one of their services is to continue your life after you die by walking the dog and buying gifts for your family and friends, but you have to contact them directly for details on the deluxe package, so I don’t know).  Anyway, my guess is that these people greatly limit their bodily functions.  You know the type.  Four hours of sleep a night.  Power meals, preferably at a café with WiFi hot spots.  Cell phone surgically implanted into their skull.  Texting while driving.  I.e., they’re busy!

But I still can’t believe that there are enough jobs out there where all people do is work and sleep to sustain demand for Mel’s services.  And, by the way, Mel isn’t a lone operator.  I checked and this is big business.  The Personal Assistant profession (sometimes called Lifestyle Manager) is overseen by the International Concierge and Errand Association and they even offer a professional credential called “Certified Concierge Specialist.”  I take this as further proof that there are a lot of them out there.

So if it’s not high pressure jobs that are driving the demand for Mel, what is?  In the course of my research, the answer to Theoden’s question came to me: It’s the fault of the computer.  The ultimate time saving efficiency tool.  Between e-mail, the Internet and things like Facebook and Twitter is it any wonder no one has any time?

So stop reading this, step away from the computer and go walk the dog!