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.