On being ... detail oriented

By Ingrid Sapona

Personality tests sometimes categorize people as detail oriented or big picture types. I don’t really agree with that distinction because I personally feel I pay attention to both. The way I see it, the big picture is important, but it doesn’t happen unless you attend to the details. I know, you’re probably saying, “that outlook makes you detail oriented, Ingrid”. Well, fine -- there are worse things to be called -- and besides, I don’t mind admitting I’ve often found details quite fascinating.

My earliest recollections of paying particular attention to details go back to my teenage years. I once decided to make a needlework pillow based on a design on a Persian carpet I liked. At the needlework shop (a very good one) I found all the colours I needed, except black. When I asked the owner for black wool, she said they didn’t carry black. Then she asked what I wanted it for. I explained I needed it to outline parts of my design.

She told me I should use dark brown wool instead. She could tell I wasn’t too keen on the idea, so she went on to explain the reason: black outlining creates a visual distraction that pulls your attention to it. Instead, by using dark brown (almost black), the outline effect is achieved, but the rest of the design doesn’t visually recede.

I went home that day with dark brown wool and with a new attention to a minor, but important artistic detail. Since then, every time I see an old tapestry or needlework in a museum or on display somewhere, I look to see whether anything’s outlined in black. I’ve yet to see any black, which could be coincidence, but I doubt it.

Shortly after that, I was working on a sewing project when I learned about details sometimes referred to as “tricks of the trade” -- things the average user (or doer) probably doesn’t know, but that make things easier, or more professional looking. I was an avid sewer and, over time, I tackled more and more complicated projects. My goal was always the same: to make garments that others couldn’t tell were homemade.

One of my most ambitious sewing projects was a single-breasted suit. There were many steps, but none I’d not faced before, until it came time for the lapel. The pattern’s instructions for the lapel seemed unusual. It said to blind baste the interfacing to the under-side of the lapel using a herring-bone pattern. In other words, not just any blind basting would do. I had never run across this unusually specific instruction before.

So, I consulted my mother, who was a good sewer (though by then I had probably tried more complicated things than she ever did). Mom’s mother was a professional seamstress, so I thought perhaps Mom could explain the technique. When I showed her the instructions, she smiled and said she had never made a suit so she had never tried such herringbone basting, but she wistfully remembered seeing her mother doing that. Well, I tried it and -- sure enough -- that little trick of the tailoring trade helps ensure lapels lay properly.

So, as I write this, Torontonians are getting ready to mark Earth Hour (8 to 9 p.m. March 29, 2008). Toronto is one of 120 municipalities in Canada -- and hundreds more in 26 countries -- to participate in this event aimed at raising awareness of climate change. The Toronto Star -- our largest newspaper -- was one of the original local sponsors and has been writing about it daily for almost three months.

When I read the first news story about it back in January, my initial thought was that it was a clever idea but that it would have little impact. I mean, really, people turning out their lights and turning off their appliances for one hour on a Saturday night, what would that do? Frankly, it didn’t even seem like much of a sacrifice for most. If we really want a sense for how energy dependent we are and how everyone would cope with no power, why not schedule Earth Hour at 3 p.m. on a hot summer Wednesday -- when people are at work or school. Anyway, that was my initial, somewhat jaded, take on it.

As I said, the Star wrote about it day in, day out. Though I scanned the headlines of the stories, it all seemed a bit overblown to me. Until the other day, that is, when I read an Earth Hour business news story that really helped me “get” what Earth Hour is about. The story told how last year UPS saved more than 11 million litres of gas by -- get this -- “implementing routes to eliminate left-hand turns”. It turns out that simply by avoiding left-hand turns, drivers avoided excess idling waiting to turn and shaved 51.5 million kilometres off their North American delivery routes annually. What a wonderful example of a little (not to mention, odd) detail making a huge difference!

After reading that, I realized that Earth Hour will have a lasting impact if everyone who participated comes away with the realization that even seemingly minor changes can have a huge impact on the environment. In other words, the hour of darkness might end up convincing more people that if they just pay attention to a few small details, they really can change the big picture.

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... like Rip Van Winkle

By Ingrid Sapona

The story of Rip Van Winkle flashed into my head the other day. You remember him -- he’s the guy who fell asleep and woke up twenty years later and was confused by how much society had changed. (I don’t remember much else about it -- and it if weren’t for Google and Wikipedia -- I couldn’t even have told you it was a story by Washington Irving.)

Good old Rip came to mind as I was searching for some explanation for why it seems to me that the rules of common courtesy that I learned growing up have changed -- drastically. Could it be that I’ve been asleep for a long time and have woken up in a very different world, like Rip? Though the place looks familiar, things have changed. People seem more focused on themselves than I remember and so it seems they don’t even know when they’re being rude -- or maybe they just don’t care.

I’m not talking about things like road rage or other types of aggressive behaviour -- I’ve certainly been awake enough to notice that’s escalated over the past 20 years. I’m talking about simple, everyday interactions you might have with strangers -- situations that require little more than acknowledgment of the someone else’s existence, but that seem to be viewed as a waste of one’s time, or even as an opportunity to assert one’s own importance at someone else’s expense. I think a few examples will help you understand what I’m talking about.

The past few months I’ve been contacting potential clients. I always start with an e-mail to briefly introduce myself and I explain why I’m contacting them. I ask them to phone me when they have a few minutes, but I also say I’ll follow up with a call to them. My experience is that no one phones in response to such e-mails. (I know -- everyone gets too many e-mails as it is… Fair enough.)

So, about a week after e-mailing, I dutifully call. Nine times out of 10 I get voice mail. (Could it be that everyone in the western world has call display? I suspect that’s the case -- heaven knows no one wants to chance having to talk to someone they don’t know.) Though I prefer not to leave a message, after about the third attempt to speak with someone, I relent and leave a voice mail.

Invariably, the first voice mail message goes unanswered. It took me a long time to accept this as standard behaviour, but now I do, in part because a dear friend once explained that at work she never responds to an initial phone call because, “if it’s important enough, they’ll call back”. With this in mind -- and mindful of my mother’s admonition about not being a pest -- I wait a week and phone again.

This business of me waiting and then calling again -- or, more accurately, the business of me waiting and leaving messages -- often goes on for quite some time. Though every unreturned call frustrates me, I soldier on, knowing that if I don’t at least make the effort, I’ll never get any business. What I find most amazing about this game is the fact that so many people have no qualms about just ignoring me. Granted, in contacting them I’m putting them on the spot, but if they’re not interested, a polite “thanks, but no thanks”, will do. I know saying no is hard for some people -- but by ignoring someone you’re not just showing that you don’t have the wherewithal to say no, you’re also demeaning them -- saying they’re not even important enough to merit you taking time to respond.

Being ignored isn’t the only form of rudeness I’ve encountered in trying to drum up business. I had one woman tell me she’s very busy and that there was “no point” in talking to me. Clearly what she meant is there’s nothing in it for her so she saw no reason to give me the time of day. Then there have been people who say they’ll find time to speak with me but that our conversation must be scheduled, so we e-mail back and forth trying to set something up. Then, when the appointed time comes, I phone and they’re not in. (When that happens I console myself with the thought that they’re not the type I’d want as a client anyway…)

But it’s not just in business that I’ve noticed more-and-more people going about as though other people don’t exist, or as though they don’t matter. When I use the cardio equipment in the gym I like to read. If someone’s in there when I get there and they’re watching t.v., so be it. If I get there and no one else is in the room, I leave the t.v. off and read in peace. I can’t tell you how often it’s happened that I’ve been alone and reading and someone comes in and flips on the t.v. without so much as asking if I mind if they turn it on, much less if I have a preference as to what channel they tune in. What’s with that? On those rare occasions when someone does ask if they can turn it on, I always say sure, partly just to reward them for being courteousness enough to ask!

I know these examples may seem trivial, but I think they’re symptomatic of increased disregard we have for one another. Extending common courtesy is acknowledgment of the fact that we’re all human beings and is a way of connecting with others. It seems to me that one of the hallmarks of a civil society is people being courteous to, and respectful of, others. I know everyone’s under all sorts of pressure and life is hectic. But tell me, am I the only one who believes that our overall quality of life would improve if folks just showed some common courtesies to others?

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona