On being ... comparable?

By Ingrid Sapona

I have a favourite dim sum restaurant. It isn’t fancy, but the décor is cheerful, the tablecloths are clean, the service is prompt, and the food is consistently delicious. This place has a lunch special that’s a sampling of seven items and the only one that ever varies is the noodle dish -- sometimes it’s thin, vermicelli-like noodles, and sometimes it’s fat, worm-like ones. Otherwise, time-after-time all the items are the same and they’re all delicious.

Recently, a friend and I were meeting for lunch and I suggested my favourite dim sum place. Turns out he had just had dim sum a day or two before, so we settled on another place. On the day we were meeting, he phoned to ask if I’d mind trying a new dim sum place in my neighborhood. The name rang a bell, but I thought I might be confusing it with another, very well known Chinese restaurant downtown. In any event, since I’m always happy to try new places, we agreed to meet there.

The dining room at this new place was very chic, wth crisp linens and crystal stemware. The menu was quite formal, with posh English descriptions of the items under the Chinese script. And, if there was any doubt in my mind before then, a quick look at the prices confirmed that this place was, in fact, the new, up-town sister restaurant of the famous downtown place.

I hadn’t seen my friend in a long while so we had lots to catch up on. One of the funnier stories he told me was about a weekend at Niagara Falls he and his family had just gotten back from. He and his wife are both hard-working professionals and so family vacation time is precious. Because of this, they often go to very nice hotels and resorts (the kind of place where adults and children are well looked after).

As part of the story about their weekend at the Falls, he mentioned that he and his wife are beginning to wonder if they’re spoiling their kids by taking them to high-end places. (He and his wife backpacked around the world for a year before settling into their high-powered careers and trips featuring four star hotels.) Apparently he and his wife had discussed this in passing on other occasions, but a comment by one of their pre-teen daughters on this particular trip seemed to drive home the concern. Because the weekend was a reunion involving a group of families, everyone stayed at a motel. As they were unpacking, their daughter went into the bathroom. When she came out, she announced (with a note of disdain in her voice, so I gather) that the bathroom counter, tub and floor were not marble. From the sounds of it, that fact was as big a shock to her as her comment was to her parents.

As we finished the last bite of dim sum, we agreed that the restaurant lived up to its reputation. While waiting for the bill, my friend asked how I thought this place compared to the other place. Given that we’d eaten at the other place many times, the question sparked an interesting conversation.

Some of the dishes we ordered that day had rather exotic (not to mention expensive) ingredients, like lobster and truffles, that the other restaurant’s lunch special didn’t include. And clearly, the esthetic and atmosphere was different between the two. Not surprisingly, the costs were quite different as well. The bill that day was more than twice what we’d have paid at the other place.

As we worked through our little analysis, I realized what we were doing was very much like what his daughter did when she unconsciously compared the bathroom in the motel to those she was used to at high-end hotels they’d stayed at. We shared an embarrassed chuckle as we agreed that both comparisons, though not quite as bad as apples to oranges -- were, at best, unfair and unproductive.

I’m not sure why, but I think it’s human nature to compare things. Sure, to the extent comparisons help us differentiate things, they can be useful. But when we compare things subconsciously, we could be doing ourselves a disservice, because something that might be perfectly acceptable when taken on its own, might come up short if the comparison is unfair to begin with.

Anyway, if you ever need a dim sum recommendation in Toronto, let me know. If you’re looking for a high-end, luxurious dim sum restaurant, I know just where to suggest. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a delicious, less formal dim sum restaurant, I also know just the place. As for which is better -- well, the simple truth is, there’s no comparison -- it all depends on your expectations and what it is you’re looking for.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... tone deaf

By Ingrid Sapona

The other day someone called me snarky in an e-mail. I was quite upset by that. It wasn’t that I took offense to it being called snarky (though, truth be told, I’ve always found it a pretty loaded word). What bothered me was the realization that I must have said something -- inadvertently -- that caused a friend to label me as snarky.

It all started quite innocently. That morning I sent what was meant to be a playful e-mail to a friend. The caption of it was: hey slacker dude… I know -- in some bars those would be fightin’ words. But I can explain…

The day before, this friend had mentioned that, though he dutifully adjusted his watch and various other clocks to reflect the changeover to daylight saving time, Monday morning he was an hour late for work because he forgot to change his alarm clock. So the next day I was (obviously) teasing him by calling him a slacker dude. (He’s most certainly not a slacker. Come on -- a slacker wouldn’t even realize they’re late for work, much less comment on it!)

My “slacker dude” e-mail prompted a rather curt reply that started with: “Don’t be snarky”, and was followed by an explanation that he didn’t oversleep again and that, in fact, he got to work early that morning because traffic was light. (Hardly slacker dude talk, don’t you agree?) There were a few other equally short sentences but, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember them, as I pretty much stopped reading after snarky.

I felt just awful. What I intended as a light-hearted poking of fun was clearly taken the wrong way. I felt compelled to write back, but I thought it best to tread lightly so as not to further insult or upset anyone. I overcame the temptation to make any quips (like a crack about his getting up on the wrong side of the bed that morning) or any commentary about the mood it sounded like he was in. And, I desperately wanted to avoid sounding like I took exception to being called snarky, as I didn’t want to offer him any actual evidence of snarkiness.

So, I carefully crafted another e-mail apologizing and saying I didn’t mean to be snarky. I closed by wishing him a good day and said I hoped no other punks would irritate him, as one irritation a day is enough. As I sent it, I hoped I had struck the right tone.

His subsequent e-mail put me at ease, as he started with: “Did I sound like I was in a bad mood? I’m not.” Clearly, he understood that I took his first e-mail as a sign that, in fact, he wasn’t in a great mood. He went on to explain, in effect, that he had just been teasing me. He also apologized because he realized (from the delicateness of my response, no doubt) that I was upset by his earlier remark about being snarky. Later that day, rather than risk further misunderstandings like those engendered by our earlier e-mail conversation, I phoned him to say hello.

Afterwards, I was thinking about that little misunderstanding and I realized that it’s happened to me before -- many times -- with e-mails. For you see, one of my biggest problems with e-mail is tone -- or, more accurately -- the inability to discern the writer’s tone. And yet, when I read an e-mail, I almost always infer a tone of some sort.

Surely you know what I mean -- and come on -- you must admit you’ve done it too. I know others do it because I’ve had many conversations with friends who’ve told me about feeling confused or upset by something someone said in an e-mail, and yet, when they read a particular e-mail to me to get my opinion on it, I don’t necessarily “hear” the same thing they did.

I think it’s a natural thing to do because e-mail has become a way of “conversing” -- such exchanges are really electric dialogues -- and we all know that with conversations it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. (Surely my folks weren’t the only parents heard to have uttered the rebuke, “Don’t use that tone with me (young lady)!”)

I don’t know the solution to this ever-present chance of offending or being offended. For the most part, I like e-mail -- I find it useful for staying in touch with folks (not to mention an integral way of doing business). And yet, every e-mail carries with it the potential for the type of misunderstanding my friend and I encountered.

Of course, over time, maybe this problem will sort itself out. Maybe, with the evolution of text-messaging shorthand and as Gen X’ers become parents, we’ll see the emergence of messages like: DUTTWM (YL or YM)! Then again, maybe not -- maybe electronic communication will make verbal communication so passé that the idea of “tone of voice” will disappear altogether.

Until then, I’m working on being more tone deaf…

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... effortless

By Ingrid Sapona

For the first time ever, I didn’t send any Christmas cards this past year. December was busy with Christmas preparations and actual paying work, but I brought them to my mother’s house, intending to write them between Christmas and New Year’s. As it turns out, I never got around to them. Explained this way, I think most would agree it’s just one of those things.

But it wasn’t that simple. The truth is, I thought about it quite a lot. To allay my pangs of guilt, I rationalized that pretty much everyone I’d have sent a card to gets On being…, so they hear from me pretty frequently any way. But that didn’t put the issue to rest for me because that’s not the reason I write On being…

I also kicked around the rationalization that sending traditional cards is passé in the 21st century. But then why not send digital cards? I send e-cards all the time to friends for birthdays -- and this year I received a few interactive Christmas cards that I thoroughly enjoyed. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to do e-cards.

It wasn’t until I thought about how I feel when I receive Christmas cards that I began to understand what might be behind my seeming heel-dragging on the cards. I love getting the “family photo” cards (though they always leave me speechless -- how could friends that are as young as me have such grown-up kids?) and the “Christmas letters” chock full of news about what’s going on in the writers’ lives. But then there are those cards from people I’ve not heard from all year that have a generic sentence or two of season’s greetings then a signature. The past few years I’ve found I actually feel a bit irritated when I get such cards. Part of me wonders, “why bother”?

Mind you, over the years I know I’ve been guilty of similar behavior. Though I usually manage to write more than two sentences, the gist is always the same -- a pretty superficial hello. Sure, the person knows I at least thought of them when I came across their name in my address book at Christmas -- but are a few lines once a year enough to sustain these relationships? Should it be? No! And yet, in many instances, that’s what some relationships have boiled down to.

So, then I began wondering what would happen if I didn’t send cards. Would some feel slighted? Would some wonder, or worry? Would anyone even notice? (After all, everyone’s as busy as me.) Of course, this all makes it sound like my not sending cards was a form of passive aggressiveness. Well, maybe on some level, it was.

By mid-January the idea of sending cards had become moot, so I mentally moved on. That is, until last week when a friend mentioned she’d just finished sending off her 2006 Christmas cards. Unlike me, she figured belated greetings were better than no greetings.

Her reason for announcing this, however, she wasn’t merely to tell me about a task she’d completed. Instead, she raised it because she wanted to talk about how sad she was when, going through her card list, she thought about the friendships that have slipped away. She clearly felt hurt by the fact that many whom she at least tried to stay in touch with over the years with hadn’t reciprocated. She wasn’t blaming anyone, and she even mentioned that it occurred to her that over the years there had probably been people whom she had innocently hurt by not responding to their cards.

It seemed pretty clear that what we were really talking about was only peripherally about Christmas cards. At the heart of the matter was the disparity that often exists in the energy and effort people put toward friendships and relationships. The way this topic usually comes up is when some friend calls or e-mails to express their frustration about some other friend whom they feel is ignoring them or taking them for granted.

Usually just talking about this to a third party is sufficiently cathartic. But sometimes they feel a need to discuss it a bit, or ask my advice. In such cases, I try to remind them that all friendships involve a give and take and that every friendship has an ebb and flowing of its own. My bottom line advice is this: so long as the behaviour isn’t chronic, forgive and forget. But, I also advise that if they’re willing to do that, they had better take special care to check any counterproductive tendencies they may have toward passive aggressiveness or toward retreating into their own shell.

I also usually mention to them that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found I have very little patience for those who don’t seem to put any effort into a friendship. Regardless of how well you’ve clicked with someone, or how much you have in common, or how far back your relationship goes, I think if the friendship means anything to you, you should be willing -- and eager -- to put effort into it. Mind you, doing so need not be taxing or difficult-- far from it -- for the most part, the effort you extend toward your friends should be a pleasure. But it is an effort all the same.

I suspect there are some who believe that friendships just happen and that they should be effortless. (Or maybe I should say that some people behave as though this was true.) I don’t see it that way, but that’s not such a bad thing because I’ve always found that the things I value most are the things I’ve put effort into. So, I guess you could say that when it comes to my friendships, effortlessness isn’t what it’s about…

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona