Thursday, March 11, 2010

Leave Them Their Dignity

When watching The Fog of War, I tried to listen to Robert McNamara's insights on what he learned from his experiences - from remembering the end of WWI when he was two (yes, he swears he remembers) to his participation in Vietnam under Johnson's administration - with an ear for learning versus criticism. Of everything he described, there was one idea that struck me as utterly useful in everyday life, i.e. let them keep their dignity. Basically, when engaging an enemy, give them a chance to do it your way, but be sure to keep their dignity upheld in the process. This method makes for a more likely scenario in your favor. I thought, this is some basic, but very valuable advice.

I'm taking night classes at the community college which has the typical student body of parents, young workers, and a few older folks. Since this is western MA, most of the students are white. In my class, there is only one racial minority... a black man who looks to be in his late 50's to early 60's. And that man loves to hear himself talk. He often starts out as though he's asking a question, but really it's just a lead-in for him to take the floor... for as long as he can spin his tongue. The professor has pulled him aside several times, but it clearly made no impact. Then one day he didn't show up and the whole class murmured their relief. Then 45 minutes into class, he showed up and there was actually an audible, "Dammit" from the back row. I was sitting near the door, so he ended up standing in front of my desk searching the room for a seat. I pointed out that there were several empty ones in the far corner which resulted in his snapping at me that he'd "find [his] own damn seat!" Within minutes of his taking a seat, his mouth started going. It was unbelievable. Even the instructor showed her exasperation. I remembered that he usually went outside at the break (it's a 3-hour class) to smoke and decided that on this break he was going to have some company.

I followed him outside and told him that when I gestured towards the seats, I was trying to help him out. He immediately apologized, but only by getting about 2 inches from my body, requiring me to step back to maintain the usual social body space thinking, "So he's like that." So I took another step back said thanks before moving on to topic two.

"Why are you taking this class?" I asked. "Oh, it's just a diversion to get away from my girls." Since this is a Development Psychology course, we'd all heard many stories about his part in raising his four daughters. I felt pretty sure that he didn't think he needed education on children's development because he already had so much real world learning under his belt, that he could, in fact, teach the teacher a thing or two. So when I heard his answer, I knew my in... "Well, I'm not taking this for a diversion. I need this class and you're taking that away from me." When he asked how, I explained that the time he was speaking was time the teacher couldn't teach. I did everything right... the compliment sandwich ("you ask great questions, I just wish you'd talk less after them, it's cool you're taking this class") and I kept my hands in my pockets. But he got upset. He got in my face. So I explained that I'd been averaging the time he speaks vs. everyone else and had accounted that he took up about 20% of class time just on his needs.

"What are you doing that for? What are you watching me and calculating me like that for?" I explained that he had given me ample time due to all his talking. Then he got really mad and started yelling that if he wanted to take up 50% of the class time, that was his business. I told him, "No, I paid for this class, too, and I didn't pay to hear you. I paid to hear the teacher. So it is my business. Just like it's everyone in the classes business." I saw he was getting excited so I made sure to dig my hands deeper in my pockets. But he started yelling again, so I pulled out the big guns and said, "Do you realize that when you didn't come to class on time today, everyone in the class was grateful. And when you showed up, there was collective sigh."
"What do you mean?"
"No one likes you coming to class because you usurp their learning time."
"Well then I'll just quit the class!" I'll admit, a small part of me leapt with joy at this idea, but knew this was wrong... it was the behavior not the man that needed to go. So I said, "That's not what I'm asking for..." and I got no further because he started ranting about me daring to talk to him like that and telling me how important this class was to him at which point I reminded him that his first response to me was that this was "just a diversion." To which he pointed at my chest and yelled, "You're a liar." And proceeded to rant about how I'm making up words, etc.

I know when to walk away. I raised my hands in the classic surrender position and backed up only to realize that a couple guys from another class had come out to smoke and were watching the scene. One of the kids said, "I have to admit man, class is more about listening than talking." Then he turned to me and said, "I don't think you're going to get anywhere with him." Which was perfect because now it wasn't just me observing his bad behavior. He called to me as I walked away, "Hey, hey. Wait a minute. What. Do. You. Want. From. Me?"
"I just want you to talk less in class. That's it."
He stuck out his hand in a handshake gesture and said, "Ok then."
When I went to shake his hand, he pulled it back and said, "You have to promise me something though."
"What's that?"
"You have to promise to stop being so sassy."
Everything in me wanted smack him upside the head and give him a rundown on patriarchy. But in that same instant, I remembered McNamara's tale and thought, "Give him his dignity. He just had a young, white woman tell him that he's acting socially inappropriate. Let him win this one so you can get what you want." So I smiled, shook his hand and said, "You bet."

I admit, I mumbled under my breath, "Whatever, asshole" as I walked back into the building. But he didn't hear it and we spent the second half in class in educational meditation. The only words he spoke were valid questions that added to the class content. I was getting on my coat by the door as the class was leaving and I stopped him, shook his hand, and said, "Thank you, sir." He nodded solemnly and has blessed us with his silence (except for the occasional question for clarification) ever since.

Always let them keep their dignity.

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