Thursday, April 9, 2009

Life Imitates Art

Last week at work, as all of us slogged sleepily to what seemed like the latest Spring Break ever, I received an e-mail requesting that something my department had been working on be turned in the next day (two days before the original agreed upon deadline). I wondered why, and frankly, felt that I was suddenly shut out of a process that I had been a part of for years now. I sent out a polite e-mail to the supervisor making the request and was told, that it was a decision from above (she didn't say who made the decision or why). I sent out another polite e-mail to the person I originally set the deadline with asking if he could give me any information. The rest of this story could probably be predicted: the second e-mail was forwarded to the person from above who changed the time, who then took offense at my asking the question, and, in what I felt was a rude way, wondered what I was doing getting involved. And he forwarded my e-mail and his response to several people, stopping just short of the superintendent.

One of my favorite books is Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens. I read it in my early twenties, and then I saw a really good movie version of it about ten years later. Now, there's a new production on Masterpiece Classics, which I'm enjoying very much. When I first read the book, I was the same age as Amy Dorrit, the title character. I think that, at the time, I was aware that I loved the book because there were many parallels between Amy Dorrit's life and mine. I'm even more aware of them now, but the funny thing is, this time around, it's Amy's father I'm finding interesting.

Mr. Dorrit has been in Debtor's Prison for Amy's entire life and he sees himself as more important and dignified than anyone else there. He expects all new arrivals to pay their respects. As played by Tom Courtenay, he's beautifully brought to life and seen as the poignant blowhard that he is. Amy spends her life protecting her father from reality. He does not realize that the world has passed him by (or maybe he does--it's what makes him such a great character). In trying to hold onto his view of himself, he is not above hinting to guests that money is what they should give to such an important gentleman, or humiliating his daughter when her decisions do not result in more comfort for him.

So, this week, it became all too clear why Mr. Dorrit was the person I was finding so interesting. I'm just trying to hold onto my little piece of the world and want the respect I feel I deserve, and the set of e-mails, which, due to those wonderful cc and forward buttons, ended up involving four people in my department and five superiors, made my status public, and I'm much too self-aware to not find that embarrassing.

The story should just stop there, but the evening after the e-mail mess happened, I had a pleasant evening with PJ, and thought that I was done with the whole thing. But when I woke up the next morning, I felt angry and hurt all over again. Before school started, the supervisor who had sent the first e-mail (not the rude one) called and apologized. It was a real apology, not an "I'm sorry but you should have...." or a "now let me tell you how I feel" apology. It was kind and heartfelt. As soon as I got off the phone, I realized that an apology was all I had wanted all along. My bad feelings disappeared. Completely. Which, depending on your point of view, points out either the incredible power of a real apology or how petty my problem was in the first place. Or both.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

You're too modest to mention that the person you were dealing with was probably more like Mr Dorrit than you, which is why he reacted the way he did.

Apologies (done right) are wonderful things -- I'm always amazed by the number of people who don't know that, and who think that if they keep blustering and "explaining" they will look less foolish and maintain authority, which is the opposite of what always happens.

Libby Fife said...

I always find it disheartening that people can't/won't think about the impact of their emails. I guess that is another discussion.

I am a big proponent of heart felt apologies. An apology well meant benefits everyone and really doesn't cost much. Sometimes, even an apology that stinks is a good indicator of things as well.

vicmarcam said...

Libby, So true about the impact of e-mails. In this case, had I known mine was going to be forwarded, I would have changed a word. I would have used "request from above" instead of "directive from above." But it was a perfectly good word for the intended audience. In the case of the person who answered my e-mail and forwarded to the multitudes, I think he meant all the cruelty I read into it.
On the other hand, I will often discuss with coworkers an e-mail we all received where they will have read it completely differently than I have (the reason I think I read the cruelty correctly in the e-mail mentioned above is that I'm always the one who reads the most positive intent--I'm kind of the Pollyanna of e-mail reading).

PJ--I've gotten to the point where I will interrupt the people I'm close to mid-story when they are rehearsing what they are going to say to someone and say, "Stop! That's not an apology. Don't say you're sorry unless you truly are, and if you truly are, an apology is all that's needed."
This was the first conversation of more than two words that I've had with the apologizing supervisor. She will probably never realize that, with that one act, she probably created a loyal follower for as long as she lasts at our school.

Shushu said...

I actually think you were stuck for a while in the Office of Circumlocution with the Tite Barnicles! (Little Dorrit is also one of my favorites.)

What you say about apologies really strikes a chord. For a long time, I thought I was a grudgeholder, and then at some point, I realized that once there's a real understanding, often grounded in a real apology, I don't remember the incident either at all or in the same way.