Advice: Outside the Box


Dear Dr. Fred:

I am in a CRANKY mood because I have just had not the first, but the second lunch on my calendar cancel in the past week. Both people had “OK” excuses — one was my banker who had a loan closing move to another day and the other a friend who had a call from her daughter asking her to join her grandson and her for lunch — and they live 20 miles away.

Both they and many friends have laughed at me over the years when I told them I never cancel and I have a policy I learned from my late father that “nothing gets in the way of lunch or vacations.” I have always used this as a guiding rule as dad (who owned a chain of furniture stores in Louisville) always felt his employees did better work if they got out of the store for a mid-day break or took their vacations and got a real break. He even refused to allow them to bring lunch unless they left the store and ate it in a nearby park or other location — not at their desks. His policy’s always worked for me and I come back to work after lunch happier and more “ready to work.”

Meanwhile, friends — including this duo — all laugh at me and feel I am nuts with my “poor priorities” about lunch or vacations (of which I have cancelled just two in my lifetime, once when I was moving on a job transfer and once when I was in hospital with a foot infection). Do you feel I’m right or wrong or just being a jerk when folks cancel? It’s really gets to me.

Dear Cranky:

If you’re seeking affirmation on this matter, you’ve certainly come to the right person.

I too am a stickler for honoring commitments and get very cranky myself with people who don’t operate the same way.

I also agree totally with your dad’s philosophy about nothing getting in the way of lunch or vacations. Despite Americans priding ourselves on being the most hard-working and productive nation in the world, the figures belie that claim. We’re actually one of the least efficient of the developed nations. Experts believe one explanation is that we have such backwards and counter-productive policies about vacations and breaks.

Countless efficiency studies have shown that people need some sustained time away from their work in order to refresh and replenish themselves. When they get that time, they actually do better work. When they don’t, their work suffers, as well as their attitude toward their boss, their workplace and even their co-workers.

Other studies have explored the reasons behind the success of many highly popular and profitable corporations. This research has consistently shown that these companies pay their workers more, and provide better benefits, including liberal breaks and vacations.

Beyond being popular and profitable, these operating standards have another aspect — the message they communicate. That message is one of respect for people’s rights and health and comfort — and for the importance of living by values, in the workplace and in life overall.

An old business adage tells us that “time is money.” I would add that “time is also respect,” because for the most part, we only give time to what is important to us. When we commit to have lunch or any other social activity with a friend, we’re saying that they matter to us enough to spend time with them.

There’s another old adage that says there is no greater compliment we can give to another person than our time and attention. When we cancel that time and attention, especially if it’s done at the last minute, or for flimsy reasons, we convey a certain lack of respect for the other person.

There’s vet another aspect to this whole matter and that’s the role one’s cultural background plays in it. Western culture overall — i.e. Europe and North America — tends to place a high value on individual accountability as demonstrated by timeliness, and honoring commitments. We believe that when a person says they’re going to do something they should do it, and be punctual about it, unless there’s some really good reason they can’t. Anything else we tend to consider irresponsible, disrespectful or even unethical behavior.

However, much of the rest of the world does just fine without being constrained by these social norms. Their whole approach to matters of time and attendance is much more casual. In these countries and cultures, the attitude is “things will happen when they need to.”

In some such cultures, a party may not start at a given time, but whenever people arrive. A task is accomplished when it becomes important to get it done, not at some prescribed point on a clock or calendar. If I say I’ll be at an event, I may or may not make it. I also may or may not explain my absence, and nobody will be bent out of shape either way.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t expect people to honor their time commitments here in this culture. In closing, I go back to my earlier premise that, in this part of the world anyway, such commitments convey respect, and need to be honored as such.

Fred Schloemer, Ed.D., LCSW is a gay psychotherapist. Write him at FredSchlolemer63@gmail.com


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