“I’m sorry; we can’t do that.”

You know how once you get pregnant, all you see around you is pregnant women?  I want to trigger that phenomenon in this post and bring awareness to something I feel is pretty common in our fast-paced American life.  I want to see how often people come up with the “I’m sorry; we can’t do that” line when what they really mean is something else.  Something like, “I’m sorry; I haven’t been trained to do that” or “I’m sorry; my computer can’t do that, and I don’t know how to do anything without the computer” or “I’m sorry; we aren’t willing to do that.  Your request is not as important as other things.”  The real answer is absolutely valid and a fine place to begin negotiations.  The problem is, we don’t often get the real answer.

I worked in customer service for a few years, and I remember the nervousness that accompanied requests to depart from policy.  I didn’t know if I had the authority to make exceptions.  I often didn’t want to be in the position of the middle man going back and forth from the customer to my superior.  It made me feel caught in a conflict that wasn’t mine, especially if it dragged on and on.  Eventually, I got to the point where I rather enjoyed listening to people and trying to come up with creative compromises.  But then I was told that I was spending too much time on these discussions and I should simply state the policy and get off the phone.

Dealing with people is tricky.  They require your time, and time is money.  To be an efficient society, we must streamline our systems.  Any person who does not comply with procedure is throwing a monkey wrench into the works.  So what do we value more, the “works”, the people, or some other ideal?  Once you become aware that you’re getting an “I’m sorry; we can’t do that” response, what do you do?

Here are a few examples of this kind of exchange in real life.  The first one is “How do you want your coffee?”  Steve does not like the prevalent custom of serving coffee in disposable containers.  He likes to drink his latte from a mug.  He rarely orders anything “to go”.  He values conservation of resources and energy and is not too concerned with “convenience”.  We have breakfast often at a local cafe that has recently been hiring new staff.  Young staff.  I am patient and cheerful and as helpful as I can be when I’m placing our order.  I got to ordering Steve’s latte and said, “With that breakfast, I want a latte in a mug with 2% milk.”  “Um, okay.  What size?”  “In a mug.”  “I’m sorry; we can’t do that.”  We happened to have had breakfast there just the day before.  “Well, yesterday you could.”  A more veteran server came up behind him and whispered, “Yes we can.  It’s served in a soup mug.”

I’m not saying this young person did anything wrong.  It was probably about his third day on the job.  The point is that we often get streamlined into making concessions in our decision-making and forget that there are other options.  We don’t have to take the disposable option.  We don’t have to take the profitable option if profit is not our highest goal.   We don’t have to have a lawn or rake our leaves or live in the city or send our kids to public schools or give birth in a hospital.  We don’t have to go “up and to the right” and continue to support a growth economy.  But we’ll probably be told when we suggest an alternative, “I’m sorry; we can’t do that.”

Here’s another example.  I am following a discussion on a blog about an architectural idea coming out of Italy.  The title of the article is “Milan’s Vertical Forest”.  http://pensci.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/milans-vertical-forest   The premise of the idea is to create a “less crowded, less polluted, less inhumane” city by erecting high-rise buildings with open balcony space on all four sides to accommodate trees and greenery that would help clean the air and provide a natural aesthetic.  It sounds great, but it makes me wonder whether it’s assuming “we can’t” do something else instead.  If what Milan wants is forest, why not tear down the high-rises and convert the land into open green space?  If what Milan wants is urban housing, why are they calling it a forest when in reality, it’s just apartments with more balcony space?  Are potted trees really going to thrive there?  And will people actually use all that space for vegetation instead of storing their bicycles and grills and laundry there?  If we really want the city to be less crowded and polluted, why not encourage people to move out and work the small farms in France that are being abandoned, for example?  No, “we can’t do that”, we have to think of solutions that keep people in the city and promote more construction and more growth.  Well, we don’t have to.  Let’s just be honest about what our goals are and discuss from there.

So what happens when you “throw a monkey wrench” into the system and ask for a different option?  Do you get an honest negotiation?  I would like to gum up the works of the political machine and ask for a candidate who would admit that s/he is not perfect in character, is not superior in knowledge about every facet of American life and doesn’t necessarily have to be the prime ideologue, but who would be a skilled administrator willing to represent the people and carry out their ideas.

I don’t want a cardboard cup with the shiny logo and a snappy lid.  I just need a teacup to hold some tea long enough to get it to my mouth.  Any Buddhist will tell you, it’s not about the teacup, it’s about the tea.

3 thoughts on ““I’m sorry; we can’t do that.”

  1. There are something like 7 billion people on this planet now, depending on who is counting. Not all of them can move to the south of France. Most of them know jack about growing food (myself included). We bunch together in economies of scale and keep our potted trees alive on our balconies. (Yes, they can thrive. You have no idea how much they mean to us. Also condo covenants have clout.) When the abandoned farms go back to true wilderness, they can support a much greater level of biodiversity than they did as farms. Cities are not going to be torn down for forests, but they can be made more liveable.

    Your dream candidate just won the election for SF mayor. The major complaint against him was that he was backed by a large, organized, well-financed political action committee. That committee? The Chinese Chamber of Commerce. That’s a lot of people who just want the city to take care of the business of making the city more liveable.

    Do you remember “Yes, We Can!” The boilerplate below said that it will take time, won’t be easy and will require sacrifices, most of which may turn out to be compromises that get us nowhere. We all choose moment to moment how much we are willing to give others of our time, attention, money, emotion, or any other resource. If you want more than your designated allotment from someone, then you must be persuasive. Any Buddhist will tell you that it is not about the tea nor the cup but about the awareness & compassion in the service.

    • I’m weaving my way through your comments and wanting to ask more questions to better understand your references. I have heard that there are about 7 billion people on this planet, and I know that they cannot all take up residence on abandoned farms in France. However, I’m pretty sure that they would all like to eat. There are probably other things on their wish list as well. So, what does it mean to have a place (a planet, a nation, a community) that’s “liveable”? Do we all have the same wish list? Do we bunch together according to our wish lists? How does that effect other communities (including plant and animal communities) with different wish lists? Are there some things we can all agree on and work toward together? What would those things be? What sacrifices would we be willing to make to achieve them? I think that talking about these questions is a way of becoming aware and compassionate. Perhaps these are issues best discussed by local groups, but at some point, the awareness and compassion should encompass a larger community since 7 billion of us tend to overlap more than ever. I was thinking that awareness is the tea. And out of this awareness of relationship comes the question, “What is my responsibility to these communities of living things?”

      I do not have answers for these questions, so I don’t really have anything persuasive to say. I am open to listening; I want to become more aware and compassionate. I want to know what you want, and what I want, and what others want, and I want to see if I can be useful in helping us all. I appreciate your feedback and your engagement in this dialogue. And the fact that you always challenge me to think more precisely!

  2. “I think that talking about these questions is a way of becoming aware and compassionate.”

    Absolutely! I admire what you are doing with this blog and the way you are thinking about the interactions of different living systems. The whole mesh is very complicated, probably more so than any one mind can wrap itself around. Still, asking questions, gathering information, listening to all perspectives, and noticing the choices that we make leads to a deeper commitment as an individual in relationship to the whole.

    The world I live in now is not the one I grew up with. The world my children will know as parents will be different from this one. There’s no way to know whether our grandchildren will want what we want for them. That’s part of the challenge of being responsible to the future. What’s more, there are endless ways new scientific or technological breakthroughs will alter the playing field. We can only keep affirming what is precious to us, protecting that when possible and preserving the memory when not. Chances are good that what promotes homeostasis and well-being will always draw a following.

    I doubt there is any agreement on what is “liveable.” There are ideas and actions and persuasiveness, along with greed, corruption, & short-sightedness. We are all stumbling along individual paths as the planet carries us on a shared path. We are the One and the ten thousand things. I like to think that each of us has an innate genius that will guide us into our roles in the web.

    I like to think of you growing from an eco-worrier to an eco-warrior. I don’t know what battle will be the one that will make you take up arms, but I know that should you determine what that is, everybody better watch out. Your words are power. Your conviction is power. Your love is power. You think of your charisma as manipulative, but in the shadow is your hidden gold. If you use that power to bring attention not to yourself but to what is holy to you, then your faith truly can move mountains (or save them).

    btw, thanks for changing your background photo. The white lettering of the comments is much easier to read against a dark background.

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