Thursday, 24 May 2007

Explaining feminism to people who don't 'get it'

Equality is not when a female Einstein gets promoted to assistant professor; equality is when a female schlemiel moves ahead as fast as a male schlemiel.
-- Ewald Nyquist

One of the ongoing problems I've encountered in being feminist is explaining feminism to people who don't understand. This became particularly noticeable when I took over as coordinator of Linuxchix.

This particular article was inspired by one too many men coming into Linuxchix (a place made by women, with a focus on women's needs), and wanting to help, but ending up derailing a lot of conversations and making a lot of women uncomfortable. The situations mentioned below have all happened many times, and my responses have been refined over time.

(I shouldn't need to say this, but I have found that I do. This is a document aimed at helping people who want to teach men to improve the results of their interactions with women, especially women who have been raised in a European or European-derived culture. There are many resources available for women who want to improve the results of their interactions with men. That is out of scope for this particular document.)

Over time, I've noticed that there are certain problems which crop up repeatedly. So it's worth noting what those problems are, and how I've overcome them (or failed to).

It's news to me

This is the category of people who, for whatever reason, haven't encountered the problems that feminism is trying to overcome. Women who've not yet personally been discriminated against or harassed, women who assume the harassment they have encountered is individual and personal, men who've never been harassed or denied jobs, or who've never wanted to go into traditionally feminine fields, men who've never had women tell them about their experiences, and people who've never seen the statistics of gender bias.

Watch for these people when you're writing 'how you can help' posts, or posts about one potential solution, or one aspect of the gender bias problem. They'll be falling all over themselves saying the usual things: 'I've never seen this problem', 'I wonder if (other solution) can help', 'is (whatever you're discussing) caused by (any of the reasons you're not addressing)'.

Take a deep breath. Resist the urge to scream 'are you blind?'. Inform these people that you're sorry, but this is not news. And send them to some place like Finally Feminism 101 for a primer. Or to a particularly patient friend who knows what's going on.

Be specific. You'll come across as dismissive if you do nothing other than send them there randomly - find a particular section that addresses their specific question, and make yourself (or your friend) available for informed questions. If you are patient, and they're genuinely new to the whole idea, you can develop an ally.

Communication Breakdown

These are the men (it's almost always men) who, when someone (we'll say Diana) complains about them 'always talking about wanting dates' respond with 'but I never asked Diana to go on a date with me'. Or when someone else (Lisa) complains about them never getting the hint to shut up about sex talk when she tries to give such hints, responds with 'noone ever asked me to shut up'.

The sad thing is that in a sense, they're both right. But only in a sense. The man never did ask Diana to go on a date with him - he just talked about wanting a date in front of her, to the point where she felt harassed and pressured. He also never stopped when she hinted or even directly asked him to. Lisa did ask him to shut up - but not in language which he understood.

Unfortunately, this type of man (usually it's men) is used to much more direct language than most women are used to. I've found that the best solution in this case is to have examples of the situation that's being complained about, and to actually demonstrate to the man what he's doing that upsets women, and what women actually say to indicate they're upset. This, naturally, works best in IRC or mailing lists or some other way in which the communication is stored.

If you can't do that, and even if you can, you need to explain that males and females are socialised differently, and trained to use different forms of communication. You need to explain that the strongest 'shut up' a female-socialised person is likely to give is 'would you shut up already!' - and that you understand that he's used to seeing that as a weak signal, but if he wants to associate with women, he's going to have to retrain himself.

(I have had men tell me that 'that's not a serious "no"'. When I asked what was, they tell me that the "no" message should have included a threat. It took a great deal of explanation to inform them that women, in general, don't see a threat as necessary to a "no" message. Just "no" will do.)

If you want the man in question to change their behaviour, you're going to have to let him give himself excuses for his behaviour, and for his not having seen on his own that he's being an ass. Noone likes to see themselves in a bad light. It's very satisfying to yell at someone that he's behaving horribly, but it's not going to get them to change. They have to see benefit for themselves in changing.

You are inevitably going to be asked "Why should I change? Why can't women change?" The answer is obvious, but try to lead him to figure it out for himself. Try to get him to realise that he's asking three billion women - or perhaps only the few thousand he'll associate with in his lifetime - to all change for the benefit of someone they barely know.

This will frequently get the response 'but you're asking me to change'. Remind him that he is the one who wants a different result from his interactions with women. He wants a different reaction from other women - and neither you nor he have the power to change other people. The only two people the two of you can change are him and you - and you're not going to be there every time he talks to other women.

The other thing - and this is going to be difficult for him to understand - is that his behaviour is making people feel uncomfortable, discriminated against, hassled, harassed or even unsafe. This is especially so in cases where someone is talking about dating or his sexual needs and desires, and not taking a hint to stop.

This leads us neatly to the next problem:

Different Perceptions

People like to feel good about themselves. They like to have self-images in which they're the good guy, the nice person. It really upsets them if they're told that they're making people feel scared. Every single one I've spoken to about this has said 'but I wasn't going to hurt anyone!'

The problem is that the people they're talking to don't know that.

Piaget's theory of child development states that young children are egocentric, that is that they think of things from only their point of view. They grow out of it somewhere around pre-adolescence, but can revert in adolescence for a time.

Sometimes I think that the people who say 'but I wasn't going to hurt anyone!' have reverted to egocentrism. It can be very, very difficult for them to understand that the people they're talking to aren't telepathic, and don't somehow magically know what they intend.

You need to try to get that through to them, before you can get to the next stage. I find that it's very effective to say something like 'unfortunately, good guys don't wear halos, and bad guys don't wear horns'. Make a joke of it, let them laugh.

The next stage is to show them that they, personally and individually, are scary. Especially if they've been ignoring women trying to get them to stop talking about sex (or dates, or whatever). Explain to them that women who've used their strongest 'stop' and failed to get them to change their behaviour in conversation are going to be justly afraid that their strongest 'stop' won't work in person, either.

And this, I am very afraid, may be one of the ways in which date rape occurs. Women say 'stop' in a way that men don't take seriously. And the women in question don't have a stronger 'stop' to use short of actually fighting. Yet if the man isn't physically forcing her, just ignoring her 'stop', she doesn't feel that she has a right to physically fight him.

Unfortunately, if you actually tell the man that last paragraph, he'll probably try to say you're calling him a rapist, and will shut down and stop listening to you. Again, it comes down to people wanting to think well of themselves. So just teach them that they have to listen to weaker 'stop' messages than they get in all-male interactions, and to take the weaker 'stop' messages seriously.

I'd be flattered

This is another egocentric argument. The speaker says that they'd be flattered if they were hit on, their breasts (or crotch) were stared at, or they were incessantly hassled for dates or sex.

You can sometimes partially change their behaviour with a simple "yeah, well I'm not you", or "yeah, well some people like haggis, too. You know, sheep stomach filled with offal?". (Feel free to replace haggis with something you know to disgust the person. Especially if they're Scottish.) Unfortunately, this sort of argument doesn't really improve their understanding, though it may put a crack in their egocentrism.

The only way I can think of to get through to these people is analogy, which means you'll have to find an analogy that works with the particular target.

Much as I hate to do it, appealing to homophobia works with many men - asking if they'd feel comfortable in a gay bar, having their butt groped and their crotch stared at, being approached for sex several times an hour. That can backfire, unfortunately - they'll assume that 'being hassled by the wrong gender' is the problem, rather than 'being hassled at all'. Which, of course, leads to the 'you're all a bunch of lessos, REAL women enjoy it' assumption.

Another type of analogy is the interruption one - ask them to imagine themselves trying to concentrate on something difficult and important to them (or if you're in person, get them to try to concentrate on something). Then get them to imagine being poked in the arm every few seconds (or poke them in the arm). Ask them how they feel about being poke in the arm.
Or if you think they'll just say 'but noone wants a poke in the arm', bring them something good. Demand acknowledgement every time. 'Hi, I've brought you a cake. Tell me how wonderful I am.' They'll soon get sick of it.

Of course, they then might decide it's only the attractive women who don't enjoy it.

Another approach is to try to explain that it doesn't matter why a particular person doesn't enjoy the attention, it only matters that they don't. Which goes right back to the analogy about the haggis.

In case it helps, though, here are some reasons women don't enjoy inappropriate sexual attention:
1. It distracts the woman from the matter at hand.

2. It distracts other people in the area from the matter at hand.

3. It is evidence that the person giving the attention isn't paying attention to the matter at hand. (And if he/she says he/she is, rephrase to 'it makes it seem to everyone else as if the person giving the attention...')

4. In situations where women are a minority, it reinforces that the woman is 'other', an outsider to the group, by demonstrating that it's appropriate to act towards the woman in a way different from how the group interacts on their own.

5. In cultures which have a madonna/whore dichotomy (also known as virgin/whore dichotomy), sexual attention directed at her can make a woman be perceived as on the 'whore' side of the dichotomy, regardless of her own actions. And in such societies, a 'whore' is treated very, very differently from a 'decent woman' (aka a madonna).
Note that modern western society has a lingering madonna/whore complex, despite over a century of feminists trying to break that.

6. In societies with the sexual double standard, young girls are taught that it's their responsibility to control the urges of the men around them. In Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Meatloaf expresses the roles male and female are expected to play, according to the double standard. The male is free to express his urges and desires, and the female is required to take responsibility to control them - or at least, to obtain the male's commitment to her for life. Otherwise, she'll be 'ruined' and placed on the 'whore' side of the madonna/whore dichotomy. (In some cultures, failure to control a man can make her the subject of an honour killing.)
Quite frankly, controlling the urges of all the men around a woman gets extremely tiring. Explain to your target that he needs to be careful if he's in any culture with the double standard (for example, any culture where promiscuous men are studs and promiscuous women are sluts or hos). Expressing his sexual attention to a woman is placing yet another burden on her - he just become yet another man who expects her to be the one who controls the situation.

Respectfully asking a woman out in a business setting

A suggestion: if the person you're talking with is a man in that culture, and he wants to be attractive to a woman, tell him to express his attraction in a way which demonstrates that he chooses to be in control of his own urges.

1. Choose a place and time which is as appropriate as possible, then offer her his business card and a polite 'I find you attractive, but this isn't the place or time. I would be honoured if we could go out for coffee sometime." And leave it at that.
Note the choice of coffee - a short, non-threatening meeting in a public place, and at a time when she can legitimately cut it short if she chooses without having to make an excuse. (Going out for drinks is completely out. It's in the evening, so excuses are fewer. And it's in the presence of a noted disinhibitor - alcohol.)

2. If she doesn't react positively, or accepts the business card but doesn't contact him, or even gets annoyed, he needs to be content to leave it. For all he knows, she may have just come out of a frustrating session where someone has just been trying to flirt with her while she was trying to give a serious presentation, and wouldn't stop when asked.
He may follow up once or twice, after a suitable period - preferably a week or so - but needs to be prepared to drop the subject and look elsewhere. She might not be interested in him, she might not be interested at all this point in her life, she just might be the wrong woman for him.
I have also had some women point out to me that even this approach is more than they want - that they're at a business event for business, and don't want the distraction of being asked for social contact. Please point out to the man you're speaking with that even this low-key approach is a compromise, and is the best balance I can make between the many, many men I know who say 'but I want to ask her out!' and the many, many women I know who say 'but not at a conference!'

3. He needs to try to find the balance point between expressing interest and being pushy. It varies from person to person, of course. This should be done at the coffee shop - he shouldn't be expressing any interest (other than the business card) in a business setting or at a conference.

4. He needs to be very sensitive to indicators of displeasure or disinterest, especially if he has a problem akin to the ones in Communication Breakdown or Different Perceptions.

5. He must demonstrate clearly that she doesn't need to fear him - that he is one of the men who can actually hear a 'no' (unlike the men in communication breakdown). He should do this in speech and mannerisms, and not wait until he's actually got his hands on her - if she's smart, she won't let him get his hands on her until she is comfortable that he listens to her.

6. Once he has his hands on her, he still needs to listen. He'll need to listen for his whole life - and she'll need to listen to him, too. It's that 'respect' thing. Comes in one flavour: mutual.

The man needs to understand that women have learned that men come in two broad categories: safe and unsafe. We've also learned that men aren't branded with a label saying which category a particular man is in. Men who want to be with smart women have to demonstrate, to the woman's satisfaction, which category they're in.

The 'get a thicker skin' joker

This is perhaps the most egregious, insulting and nasty type of person to explain things to. I saw a sig line once which I loved: "I was going to be offended, but since you said 'no offence meant', I guess it's alright now."

A lot of people seem to think that 'it was just a joke' is a "get out of jail free" card for social interactions. It isn't. Offensive behaviour remains offensive behaviour, regardless of what other behaviours are tacked on beside them. Saying 'it was just a joke' is like putting seatbelts on the Titanic - it's going to go down anyway.

Women (and blacks, and jews, and disabled people, and even Rich White Males) are tired of explaining why they get offended by certain jokes. Its not how the joker perceives it, rather how the target feels that counts; and that varies across individuals for various reasons.

However, if the person you're speaking to refuses to stop making the jokes without hearing reasons, you can point to the reasons (above) why harassment is unwelcome - most of the reasons also apply to jokes.

I find 'can't you take a joke' or 'get a thicker skin' just compounds the insult. There's the insult itself, then there's the implication that I'm somehow inferior to the joker because I happen to have the social sensitivity to understand that belittling another person is offensive - no matter how it's framed.

Of course, an awful lot of humour is, consciously or subconsciously, intended to divide the world into us (who get the joke) and them (who don't). When someone with the potential to be a them is added to the group (for example, a woman to a group which has traditionally been male), they are tested with the group's jokes: most especially the jokes which target and belittle the type of person the newcomer is. If the newcomer doesn't enjoy being targetted and belittled, they fail the test - they're clearly part of their 'type' and not one of us at all.

And then those groups say, in bewilderment, 'why don't women join our group?'


Anyway, most people who seriously believe 'can't you take a joke' is a reasonable response are very difficult to turn around. The best I've managed is for them to decide that, if they think someone might perhaps be offended, they shouldn't say the joke.

I've never managed to get any of them to understand why. If anyone has a method, please include it in the comments!

But you say 'just treat us like one of the boys' and now you want to be treated differently

When I got hit with this one, for many years I was confused and couldn't figure out how to respond. Recently, I've figured out what is going on.

Women ask to be treated 'like one of the boys' because many men treat women differently. Some think the only way to talk to a woman is to flirt. Some think the only way to talk to a woman is to dominate and command. Some think the only way to talk to a woman is to treat her as a lover, or a mother.

Women, of course, want to be treated as equals and as individuals. Just like men treat other men as equals and individuals. And that's what's meant by 'treat us the same as men': don't flirt with us, don't think of us as a different species that all want the same thing, don't treat us as subhuman, superhuman, or in family roles.

Try to explain what it is we don't mean, as well: we don't mean that we want to participate in locker-room jokes. For the most part, we're not impressed by farts, belches, or how high you can pee.

Explain that we definitely don't want to be the butt of jokes - practical or otherwise. Yes, men sometimes do those to each other. But when I asked a group of men to think about how frequently any particular male in their work environment was the butt of humour, then how frequently the women were, they were shocked. Typically, they would report that there were one or two men who repeatedly made the women their preferred target; and that even if everyone else joshed the women no more than they did the men, the women had a much larger burden to carry.

Ask the man you're explaining this to how to think about their own work environments, then lead them to realise how the women in their environment probably feel. See if you can get them to understand that because they, themselves tolerate this overload of targetted humour, the women who are the butt of the jokes probably feels unsafe or unwilling to complain to them.

See if you can get them to volunteer to try to ease the burden somewhat. Suggest that even something as simple as 'ease off, Joe. It's time you picked on someone else for a while, she's had enough' is going to help. Get them to try to make the 'butt of the joke' load more even.

The wastes of time

I have been reminded of other categories:
1. People who are saying 'I don't get it' or 'I don't understand' specifically to waste the time of the person explaining.
2. People who are acting like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and are trying to say 'oops, did I do something wrong?'.
3. People who are fine about feminism, as long as they don't ever have to change their own comfortable lives.
4. Outright anti-feminists (who usually have completely incorrect views of feminism), misogynists, and the like.

None of these groups have any intention of changing their behaviour, nor do they care to understand. For these, I can only recommend a strategy a friend explained to me: don't speak to them, speak to the audience.

That strategy is only helpful in public, of course. It works best when they address you in a way which has the potential to look unreasonable - you simply take a deep breath, and respond to them, publically, in as calm, reasonable and moderate a way as possible. Keep yourself firmly grounded in reality and calmness, make sure everything you say is reasonable, and looks like the 'moderate' or 'middle ground' view, and let the other person take the extremist viewpoint.

You're never going to change the extremist, the fanatic, or the person who thinks they're absolutely right. But if you act calmly and look reasonable and rational and like a good person, you might change the minds of some of the people watching the conversation. That's your goal.

Monday, 21 May 2007

A comment response

Chris Clarke wrote a wonderful piece called How not to be an Asshole

The sixth comment from the bottom is an ignorant comment from a man called Peter. There were other ignorant comments, but they were well replied to. However, comments are closed now. I take the liberty of replying to Peter here.


I'm actually unaware of anyone who uses sexual harassment or rape to support feminism. Nor do I personally know anyone who wants all men dead. Or even most men.

The definition of 'feminism' that I use, and that I live, goes roughly like this: 'I believe this truth to be self-evident, that all people are created equal'.

All people. Male, female, black, white, yellow, red, pink, green with purple polka-dots. In a wheelchair or on crutches or walking tall on two feet.

I will always regret that fear of being labelled a pedophile stopped my brother from becoming a kindergarten teacher. I regret every man who has chosen not to be a nurse or a teacher for reasons of gender-based discrimination, just as much (no more, also no less) as I regret every women who has chosen not to be a crane operator or an engineer.

You (Peter) said:
"Rape and harassment is not useful as an argument against men, but a fact only women are able to solve. it’s not men who have to solve it. and if women really want to get rid of the fear, they have to swallow it or kill all men. because harassment and rapists are a fact like drug abuse. you can’t get rid of it."

Actually, women alone can't solve it. Men alone can't solve it. The people who can stop it are the rapists and harassers. The people who can most influence it are the peers of the rapists and harassers. The people the rapists and harassers are most willing to listen to.

In the case of female rapists and harassers, that is largely going to be women. In the case of males, that is largely going to be men.
If a woman is making a nuisance of herself trying to seduce a male co-worker who's making his disinterest clear, she's more likely to back off if a female co-worker says "Hey Jill, quit it. He's not interested."
If a male is making a nuisance of himself trying to seduce a female co-worker who's making her disinterest clear, he's more likely to back off if a male co-worker says "Hey Joe, quit it. She's not interested."

You'll note a distinctive similarity in the previous two paragraphs. That's because my experience has shown that the type of person who doesn't read their target's disinterest as a signal to back off is more likely to listen to someone they perceive as a peer. And for the most part, they perceive their own gender as a peer, and the other gender as 'not a peer'.

(I initially included gay/lesbian options, but I have too little experience of gay/lesbian harassment situations to reasonably include how to stop them, so I took it out.)

Basically, Peter ... I think you've got an extremely different definition of feminism to the one I, and all the feminists of my acquaintence, use.

And my experience indicates that you're wrong about how to stop harassment and rape. It has nothing to do with killing all the men: the best way to go about it is for non-harassers and non-rapists to make it clear to the harassers and rapists of their own gender that harassment and rape are Not Okay.


Continuing to read your stuff:
"being dismissed latently and being a slave to her will for all of his life. that’s indeed the same as being raped"

Well, MY marriage is nothing like that. We're equal partners. I wouldn't accept a marriage like that, it's anathema to me. In either direction. My brother's marriage is a partnership of equals. So's my parents'. I know such unequal marriages exist, and that the inequality can go in either direction. If it's willing, it's none of my business (but creepy). If it's unwilling, it's a problem and should be addressed - presumably by the police and law enforcement agencies in the region of the participants.

"you forgot the women who sleep with men only because they feel the power, her body has over them. doesn’t she use him as a material for her?"

Out of scope for this discussion. If it's between consenting adults, it's none of my business. If not, it's another case for police and law enforcement, and it's rape.

"yes she does. and she can. he can’t"

Some men have the same level of attraction as beautiful women, and some women the same vulnerability to that attraction as the men vulnerable to female beauty. But see above: if they're consenting adults, it's none of my business. If they're not, police and law enforcement need to deal with it, and again, it's rape.

And it's out of scope for this discussion.

"you forget that sexuality is much more complex than ‘is it rape or is it not"

Sexuality between consenting adults it out of scope. Rape is not.

"It’s only women who have to understand, understand the nature of power. not the power men have over women (in fact, they don’t have), but power itself. I am still waiting for the feminists to understand."

Males have, on average, greater upper body strength, greater speed, and greater overall strength than women. Yes, small men and large women reverse that. But the dynamic exists that males have greater physical power, and the statistics bear out that (reported) male sexual violence against women is more common than (reported) female sexual violence against men.
This, plus cultural and sociological factors, means that in general, women feel a need to be cautious around men who they don't know well and have not yet chosen to trust.

This is the current situation, and is a large part of what has been discussed in this thread. (This and the consequences of it, anyway)

If you are meaning some greater definition of power - something more akin to Machiavellian politics or Sun-Tzu conflict - then that, again, is largely out of scope. If you're meaning sexual power, I understand it. I choose not to use it. If you're meaning the power a manipulator or abuser has over their victim, I again understand it and choose not to use it.

If you're meaning the power of standing up and saying 'Enough!', I do use it.

If you're meaning the power of looking at a man who's got his hand up the thigh of a twelve year old girl and telling him to stop - well, when I WAS that girl, I wish someone had used it to spare me the humiliation and shame. Humiliation and shame which I shouldn't have felt - I should have felt righteous anger. But society had taught me it was MY fault. That I was, purely by being female, a sexual lure that men couldn't resist.

I have since realised that men are stronger than that. That if just being female makes me an irresistable lure, men must be weak-willed creatures indeed. I think that that point of view is horribly insulting to men, and totally untrue. Men are as human as women, and deserve to be thought of better.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Making an hours-worked clock

I've roughly designed an hours-worked clock for a friend. It's a device for her to put in her cubicle, so her manager can glance at it and know how much additional workload she can take - or more often, how overloaded she is.

Materials (available at a craft store):

  • A piece of craft board about the size of a sheet of paper (A4 or US Letter).
  • Clock numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 6 0s)
  • Two clock hands (one long, one short)
  • Pin for the clock hands
  • Hang tags with numbers 1-10 on them (two sets), or hang tags without the numbers and two sets of lettering to make the numbers
  • Hang tag hooks (two sets)
  • Green, yellow and red construction paper or paint
  • Background paint in your choice of colour
  • Craft glue
  • Blu-tack or equivalent
  • Pencil, ruler, compass, scissors (if paper bought), paintbrush, protractor or set squares, tracing paper, chalk or erasable pencil (or other marking tool)
  • Lettering to make up the following phrases (or preferred equivalent):

    • 'Hours Clock'
    • 'Long: worked so far'
    • 'Short: estimated'
    • 'Yellows this month'
    • 'Reds this quarter'

Making it

  1. Put the 'Hours Clock' lettering in the centre top with blu-tack
  2. Measure the long side of the craft board, divide by three, and very lightly draw a line to mark the right-hand third of the craft board
  3. Arrange the 'Yellows this month' and 'Reds this quarter' in the right-hand third so that each has a space for a hang tag. Stick them and a hang tag for each in place with blu-tack
  4. Using the compass and a pencil, lightly draw a circle in the left-hand two-thirds, so that it takes up the largest part of the space and looks nice to you.
  5. Arrange 'Long: worked so far' and 'Short: estimated' where they look good to you
  6. Use the protractor or set squares to divide the circle into clock sections. (0, 60, 120, 180, 240, and 300 degree positions)
  7. Place the numbers on the clock in the right positions, with blu-tack. 60 at the top, 10 in the '2' position, 20 in the '4', 30 in '6', 40 in '8', 50 in '10'.
  8. Step back and look at the craft board. If you think it looks good, keep this. Otherwise, rearrange elements until you're happy.
  9. Make pencil lines under each letter and hanging tag, and take them off the craft board.
  10. Lay the tracing paper over the craft board and mark the positions of everything on the tracing paper.
  11. Paint the craft board with the background paint and let it dry. Do the same with a second coat.
  12. Put the tracing paper back. Using the chalk or erasable pencil or other marking tool, mark where you decided to put things. Mark the circle as well.
  13. If you chose paint, paint the circle green from the 0/60 position (clock position 12) to the 40-hours-worked position. Paint it yellow from 40 to 50, and red from 50 to 60.
  14. If you chose paper, use the compass, protractor/set square and scissors to make coloured-paper circle sections for the green, yellow and red sets of the circle. Glue the paper onto the clock in place.
  15. Wait for the paint or glue to dry.
  16. Glue the letters and numbers in place. If the hang tags need lettering, do that now too.
  17. Insert the hang-tag hooks.
  18. Apply the clock hands and their pin.

Teach management that when the estimated hours for the week exceed the green, they'd better have a very good reason for asking you to do more work this week, or already be willing to tell you what to postpone.

And that if the 'yellows this month' or 'reds this quarter' exceed what you feel fairly compensated for, you're damn well going to ask for a raise, assistant, or something.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

On Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. We're imperfect beings, and mistakes are part of our nature. What is important is not whether or not we make mistakes, but how we respond to them. I believe a good response to mistakes follows a certain pattern.

1. Acknowledge the mistake. This is very important - if you don't acknowledge that it occurred, you can't do any of the rest.

2. Attempt to correct the mistake. If it can't be corrected (the classic horror story here is a surgeon cutting off the wrong leg), do the best you can.

3. Check this mistake against other mistakes you have made. If you see a pattern, then you are probably consistently doing something to cause these mistakes. Try to identify what it is, and correct it.

4. Investigate this particular mistake. Identify what caused it, and see what you can do to avoid it happening again.

Expanding on each of these:

Acknowledging the mistake

Apologising for the mistake comes into this category as well. But acknowledging it is the most important part. Accept that it happened, and that it needs to be corrected. If someone has suffered because of the mistake, acknowledge it to them as well. Even just 'this was a mistake' helps, but what they want to hear is an apology.

If you're representing someone, you may need to handle a mistake which you didn't personally make. If this is true for you, then you need to be the one to present an acknowledgement or (preferably) an apology.

A good apology accepts the responsibility for having made the mistake, for attempting to correct it, and for attempting to prevent a recurrance. An exceptional apology may also offer some sort of restitution beyond correcting the mistake, but I consider that a bonus and not a necessary part of handling a mistake well.

Correcting the mistake

Try to make a complete correction. Don't just correct the mistake itself, but check whether the mistake has repercussions and correct those as well.

Also, be honest and realistic. If you can't make a full correction yourself, say so and offer to do the research necessary to find out who can.

You're a home renovator. You were supposed to punch a hole through the wall between the kitchen and the living room, but instead your workmen punched a hole into the dining room.

The simple answer is just to take down the panel that was damaged and replace it with a new one, then paint the new one to match the surrounding paint.

The correct answer is to call in some favours. You're in the building industry, and have colleagues who can do the checks to ensure you haven't damaged anything else. Have an architect check whether the damaged wall is structural. Get in your usual electrician and have them verify that the wiring that runs down that wall is still fine.

Then determine what type of panelling the broken wall has, and what grade of insulation (if any) is in there, and repair the wall to at least as good as new.


There are two aspects to investigating a mistake: checking how this individual error occurred, and checking for a pattern. Both are important, and doing both will ensure that you know how to avoid a recurrance.

This is not about assigning blame. Blame doesn't matter, it never helps anything and it makes people miserable. This is about using the past to improve the future.

TV programs such as Air Crash Investigation show an excellent method of investigating mistakes. Unfortunately, most of us can't afford the in-depth investigation that the American National Transportation Safety Board uses for air accidents, but the attitude they have is spot-on. Their focus is on preventing further air accidents. If they identify a specific individual, company or group as negligent (or worse), that is for the courts to handle, not them.