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Feb 29, 2020

Speaking to the Deaf

We have several Deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues. To be included in a meeting, they need similar accommodations: state your name, do not talk too fast, ad do not talk over each other, do not have side conversations. It is done to allow interpreters or captioners to make a better sense of the conversation.

To be clear, yes, it does have some cost to the rest of us. For some interruptions and bantering is a culturally acceptable and enjoyable part of any conversation; it is a symbol of informality, an invitation to engage. If you have to wait to crack a joke, the timing may be off and the moment gone. And the very intrusion on the other person’s speech may be a part of the joke. I would argue that it is a very small price to pay for including our colleagues, and we should do it on ethical grounds just a matter of course. We are not there yet, but slowly learning.

However, I noticed that the meetings with interpreters or captioners are actually better in more ways than one would expect. Despite going slower, those meetings actually run faster and accomplish more. Why? - because people tend to formulate their thoughts better before they speak. There is less repetition, and fewer asides and digressions. People think a little more before speaking, and sometimes it is not a bad thing. They speak in more complete sentences, do not go in circles as much, and tend to summarize their points. Instinctively, people strive for more clarity, and it benefits everyone, including the speaker. Participants also understand that they may need to articulate their emotions through words, not through tone of voice. That removes a lot of ambiguity in messaging, because the tone is not a very straightforward communicative tool. The tone can be deceiving, and some people come across as angry while they are simply excited. In some subcultures speaking with more emotion is a signifier of authenticity, while in others it shows you are unstable. The Deaf use more energetic facial expressions for the same purpose, and their way of doing it is a lot less ambiguous. Facial expressions are much more culturally neutral, for they have deeper evolutionary roots. If you are looking at a Deaf person signing, you would never be mistaken on how they feel about the subject. To find a common venue between tone and expressions, we all have to explicitly state our positions. There is very little room for concealing your disapproval while remaining superficially polite, or vice versa. You have to say how you feel, and it cuts down on a lot of dancing around.

I have to say, it does take some effort to get used to this form of a conversation. But don’t feel sorry for yourself – it is immeasurably more difficult for both Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to navigate our communicational landscape. I also keep reminding myself that the situation is asymmetrical. All of us who hear can learn ASL if we really wanted to. But Deaf people cannot learn to hear. Hard-of-hearing people cannot learn to hear better. At the very least we should shift our mode of speaking and enjoy the unexpected benefits it provides. Yes, we meet more like Norwegians than like Italians or Russians. So, what? Isn’t learning something new fun?

Speaking of cultures, I think the kind of conversations we are mastering is quite typical in multilingual communities, where almost everyone speaks as a non-native speaker. People learn to accommodate each other by being clear, speaking in full sentences, and avoiding obscure cultural references and excessive word play. When a Finn and a Spaniard speak to each other, they use the Pan-European English in a similar way. And it takes a special skill that a native speaker may or may not possess. American domestic English if full of cultural references, baseball-related idioms and slang that very few people who do not live here can fully comprehend. However, many Americans with international experience easily switch into a friendlier mode when needed, and use it masterfully. African English dialects tend to use similar communication mode, with complete sentences and pauses to allow for fuller comprehension. It is actually not that hard. It is not a poorer, less expressive form of communication. Rather, it is different, but just as rich and perhaps significantly more efficient. You just need better jokes.

Feb 22, 2020

February in the Central Valley

To truly know the seasons, you need to be here for a few years. Each season has a place, between what came and went, and what is yet to come. Your body learns the rhythm, and shapes the experience.

Now is the closest to paradise we will get around here. The sun’s warmth is still a blessing and relief from the night’s cold; it is not yet the punishment of the “too much of a good thing” kind. My skin wants to prolong the in-between-ness.

The quality of light is odd. It is not the yellowish harsh light of the summer, nor is it a weak, low angled light of December. Rather, it is a milky white, hazy light set so soft against the still naked tree branches. Some more flamboyant trees bloom without care or shame. Others wait, collecting moisture inside their trunks and branches. The crazy orange trees bear fruit, on their own time, ignoring everything. The light loves all equally, for now.

It smells unlike spring smells elsewhere in the world. The local bartender concocts a rather subtle cocktail, with earthy, grassy, flowery and dusty base, and hits of smoke so faint it may be only a memory of the past. Every gulp will clear your mind, tell you a vague, unfinished story, and make you thankful – not sure to whom, not clear for what, but it will.

Feb 7, 2020

I hate lines and so should you

Perhaps it is my growing up in the Soviet Union, where waiting lines were as inescapable as they were humiliating. It may be my compulsive instinct to improve anything I see around me. Whatever the reasons, I hate seeing people wait in line for more than 5 minutes. For me, it is always a manifestation of organizers’ ineptness at best, and their callousness at worst. Tolerating lines sends a subtle message that you do not care about people you are trying to serve, or that you are not smart enough to fix the problem. Both messages are terrible PR.

Take, for example, lines to sign in to a meeting. The first question to ask – do you need the sign-in sheets at all? If the food is paid by grant or something like that, then maybe, check on it. If you are collecting attendance fees, then yes. If neither of the two is applicable, don’t do it at all.

The second question is, are there alternatives? Let me give you a few:
  • Let people will come in and sit down. Send a sign-in sheet around, so they all get to sign while sitting down, while the program is going on.
  • If that is not an option, print out several copies of the same list, and have people sign any of them at the same time; this will cut the wait time by ¾.
  • If you have a food line, set it up for two of four lines, so they go faster. Or order food boxes instead of a buffet.
  • Place your swag at the tables, or give it at the front door; do not check names. It is not worth it, even if someone gets two things of swag.
  • In an office setting office, develop a procedure where extra people come out to the front office, if the line gets too long.
  • Have someone triage people as they come in. There is no bigger frustration then waiting in line only to find out this is the wrong office or just to turn in a piece of paper.
  • If your lines are too long, develop an appointment system, for God’s sake. People can have a cup of coffee, walk around, and then come back to talk to you. There are dozens of cheap technologies to do that.
Do not normalize lines; do not pretend they are OK. Things happen, I know, but please perceive a long waiting line as a true emergency, needing an immediate intervention. If you planned one procedure, but something unexpected happened, take responsibility, think quickly, and resolve the situation. Do not just let people wait in line, because you or someone else miscalculated. Ask for help if you do not have any ideas. If you constantly observe waiting lines and do nothing about it, not reporting to someone, not thinking about a solution, you are not doing your job.

Feb 3, 2020

Don’t enable, elevate. The Third Email Rule

If your first two emails to have not been answered, the third email should copy the addressee’s supervisor, as well as your supervisor. This elevates the issue to the next level, and at least lets the supervisors know there is a problem. Going around the person, or calling him or her, or going in person – all of these enable poor communication habits, and hide the problem, rather than address it. Instead, apply good work standards. If you are the only one who does it, you will get a reputation of complainer, and may damage your relationships with colleagues. If we all do it, we are simply following a simple rule, and bringing more structure into our communications.

Those include replying to people’s requests, even if the reply is “no can do,” or “contact someone else.” Regular emails, addressed to you (not just copied to you) should be answered within five business days. Emails marked as urgent should be answered within one business day, two at most. The same should work for office phone messages. The rule applies to me, and yes, my supervisor, the Provost is OK with that.

I can anticipate an objection from many people saying they receive too many emails, especially from students. Yes, I am fully aware of that. However, this would give us an opportunity to review our procedures. No one has to be flooded with emails; it is not fair to the receiver, and not fair to senders. If you get flooded, consider one or more of the following:
  • Change information publicly available on your webpages, so people do not need to contact you as much
  • Manually or automatically forward some of the e-mails to others who can help. Alternatively, create a generic mailbox with several people helping to address your traffic. Delegate and divide labor. There is no reason you should do this alone.
  • Instead of giving out your e-mail address, create a small online form, like those you’ve seen in service areas of many corporations. Structure the messages in a way that it is clearer what people want from you and steer them away if you are not the right person to answer a certain kind of requests. This will reduce time needed to process each email, and allow you to forward more of them to other people who can help.
In short, do not stress out, do not work late, do not ignore. Solve the problem. If you are getting too many emails, there is a problem with your position in the organization. Perhaps you have become a bottleneck, and it is time to delegate more. Whatever the problem exists, it needs to be addressed calmly and solved, not buried.