Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Etiquette of the Promise

A handshake is as good as a promise. Well, at least it used to be. I remember when I was a young boy my grandfather explained to me how business deals in the good old days were often concluded with merely a hand shake, which was as good as a signature. It seems that over time the integrity of this informal agreement has sadly all but disappeared. It can be very disheartening for someone who has honorable intentions to be painted with the same broad brush as the unscrupulous. And in our changed world people are skeptical. erring on the side of caution. The verbal promise sealed with a handshake is no longer the acceptable way.

The importance of impressing upon young children why keeping promises is the right thing to do cannot be overstated. I was recently listening to the tale of a small child who had spent all of his allowance on the single purchase of a much-coveted toy and then wanted more allowance for something else. This form of impatience is not unusual to find in small children and is merely their way of expanding boundaries by trying to push limits. However, an allowance by its very definition is designed to be doled out at predictable intervals in predictable amounts of money. This sort of deal must be upheld by both parties and it this interaction which teaches children respect for one another and for one system by which our society operates and remains healthy. You the parent have made the promise of an allowance and the child promises to accept and use the allowance for whatever he chooses. With any luck, we will have learned how this exchange works by the time we reach adolescence. If we haven't we are likely to face some pretty difficult life lessons just when we least expect them.

Most of us were taught as young children that a promise is a promise and that breaking one is a really bad thing to do. Yet most of us have broken at least one promise along the way somewhere, often times because circumstances in our lives have changed in one way or another and we can no longer hold up our end of the deal.

On a cautionary note, I understand that we can be prone to making promises based more on emotion than on good, common sense when we are in a heightened state of emergency than when we are calm, cool and collected. In desperation we will agree to almost anything. In some cases, we can be bullied into agreeing to do something which
we really do not want to do. This is an inappropriate form of making a promise and should be avoided at all costs. The results can be disastrous if taken to the extreme and this ploy needs to be recognized and diffused immediately.

Inevitably we run into a situation where a promise has been broken. In some financial situations, there are legally binding contracts which can be exercised at the discretion of the lender. In other more casual arrangements there is only a verbal agreement. One option for dealing with this unpleasantness is to put the responsibility of clearing the debt in the hands of the borrower. This way, they are making a deal on their own terms and in a way the deal is with themselves as much as it is with the lender. And because a promise has so much power, it it often used as the final bargaining chip when all else has failed. Clearly this can lead to a broken promise, and it can also lead to a broken friendship. People put a lot of stock in one's ability to keep one's word.

There are people whom we come across in person or hear about from others who have a well established reputation for keeping their word. These people we look up to as mentors. There was a time when politicians, media personalities, and sports heroes filled this bill. Sadly, this has all changed. We can no longer believe much of anything a politician says; we can believe little of what we hear or read in main stream media; and sports heros tarnish their reputations with alarming skill and regularity. However, we all know a few people who speak kindly of others, who steer clear of exaggeration, and who have the ability to see both sides of a discussion and weigh the pros and cons thoughtfully. These people help us maintain morality and integrity in our lives.

In Miguel Ruiz's remarkable book, "The Four Agreements", one of the keys is to be true to your word. This cardinal principle is a foundation building block for any relationship, whether it be of a personal nature or a societal one. Think hard before making a promise. It's a big deal!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Monday, July 18, 2011

Traveling with New Acquaintances

Traveling while on vacation is one of my favorite things to do. In preparation for a long summer tourist season, I was lucky enough to take advantage of a kind invitation to visit a favorite vacation spot with some old pals whom I had not seen in years. When I was told that there would be some new guests along on the trip, I was characteristically thrilled. I love meeting new people and making new friends. We were to spend 10 days together, which is more than enough time to decide how the days would best be structured so everyone would be kept amused or as an option have a low key day if so desired. My host and hostess had appropriately arranged all of the meals ahead of time, as well as which days and nights we would be dining out. As I have mentioned before, it is always a good move on the part of the host to "avoid the avoidable", therefore making these plans was smart and reduced the number of decisions to make throughout the stay.

As a guest, I felt that I should at the very least make an effort to make those people whom I had not met as comfortable around me as possible. That does not mean I had any responsibility for their overall level of comfort, but I wanted a convivial atmosphere around me. Luckily for me the three ladies were great additions to our party and any effort required by me was minimal. It was a pleasure to share time with these new acquaintances.

I gave a tour of the property to one guest while the hosts managed with settling in the others. She had never been to this particular place and was captivated by the natural beauty, the sound of the crashing waves and the songs of the island's birds. Noticing land crabs and tortoise were a new experience and having a pal to share that with made a difference to her. Another guest was unaccustomed to the local flavors and by offering to explain the different foods to it her helped us to forge a friendship. The third woman and I had quite a lot in common including longstanding friendships with both host and hostess and we bonded by sharing some safe stories about our mutual friendships, which of course we expanded upon as we gained trust with one another's sense of humor.

Not surprisingly however, little tensions began to arise. As a professional on the subjects of respect and good manners, spotting these small incendiaries before they flared out of control and diffusing negative energy where possible comes somewhat naturally. However, it requires the agreement and participation of all involved to ease any tensions. It is not uncommon for people to argue about politics and religion or any variety of other subjects, but my feeling is that vacations are off limits for unseemly or aggressive discussions. To my way of thinking, making an effort to put other people's feelings ahead of our own goes a long way to ensuring smooth sailing for our time together. This is a basic cardinal rule of etiquette and one which not only makes sense, but requires common sense, a commodity of increasing scarcity in today's frenetic world.

As a guest who is new to the group, your enjoyment and level of happiness can be more elevated if you make an effort not to ruffle any feathers by bringing up provocative subjects and by refraining from making negative comments about the accommodations or food - unless there is a problem such as a malfunctioning toilet or if you have a real food allergy. When placed in such a position myself, I make an effort to find out as much about the other people as possible before I discuss anything which might be sensitive or controversial. By doing this, I can begin to see where we share common interests and views. To some people trying new foods and seeing new sights is considered a real adventure. To others, such experiences can cause uneasiness. Throw a full moon into the mix and you never know what could happen. I find therefore that treading softly is the better part of valor.

I do also try to follow the lead of my host. If he or she indicates that I may be skating on thin ice or that I have unwittingly touched upon a sensitive subject, I take note and retreat to safer ground. Likewise, however, if I notice that a guest is reacting to a comment as a personal criticism which someone has stated in an insensitive manner, I draw the perpetrator aside privately and quietly share with them my observation, of which they may be completely unaware. If I discover they were aware and simply being rude I suggest backing off, for the sake of the group as a whole. Group dynamics are every bit as important to consider when we are traveling as when we are conducting business. It's really as simple as that. The best advice meeting new people and vacationing as a group is to travel lightly and leave the excess baggage at home. Enjoy the time away in a different environment. Bon Voyage!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gum Chewing Etiquette

Every once in a while a reader sends me a note which I feel compelled to share with others. The following is such a note and deals with one of my pet peeves - gum chewing in public, specifically discarding of what I will affectionately refer to as "The used wad".

Dear E.G.,

You may have heard this from others by now, but I must have my say. Why is there a problem with discarding gum? Swallow it! I have been swallowing gum for 60 years. I have chewed real gum, plastic gum (current version),bubble gum, and spruce gum and it has never "stuck up my insides" as we were told. Unless you plan to continue chewing it later, you can swallow gum without fear of it "sticking up your insides". That doesn't happen. Don't believe me? Leave it in your mouth as you eat and note how quickly it disintegrates. If you plan to chew it later, the bedpost is the only place I would accept parking it. Thumbs down to using the handle of your cup, behind your ear, and the seat belt. Thanks for your opinion. P.H.

Dear P. H.

I definitely share your views as far as the discarding of gum in a public place. It is complete and utter laziness and disrespect of others that some gum chewers insist on sticking their used wad in the obvious secret places with great regularity. Most of us are likely guilty of sticking it under a table or chair or I suppose tossing it on the ground. This does not make it any less disgusting. I am not a big fan of chewing gum in public to begin with and whether you choose to swallow it as this reader suggests or simply place it in its wrapper (good reason to save that wrapper too) or other scrap of paper and pitching in a litter bin, the choice is yours. Putting it on your own bedpost is an option I hadn't thought of, but why not!? Thanks for bringing up this sticking point. E.G.

Having said how I feel on the subject, I am well aware of the many benefits of chewing gum. One is its aid as a digestif. Another is assisting people in clearing their ear drums when ascending or descending in an airplane. A third is to help relieve nervous tension. All three of these practical applications can be very private. One does not need to be walking down the street smacking gum and blowing bubbles. It's unacceptable behavior at any age. I have plenty of friends who use gum to help refresh their breath after a meal. I think that's great and can be accomplished in a minute or two quietly and privately.

If gum gets stuck in your hair, or the hair of your child's playmate during a sleepover, a pair of scissors is a quick fix and a remedy which will not soon be forgotten. I am told that lighter fluid or nail polish remover works wonders as well, especially when you are the lucky one to walk right on top of a nice fresh chunk which blended cleverly into the sidewalk where you happened to be walking. If anyone else has any thoughts on this subject, now is a good time to jump right in!

As to swallowing gum, I have never heard any horror stories, therefore I will go along with that approach as well. It reminds me of the story I was always told as a child about swallowing cherry pits. I was told a cherry tree would start to grow out my stomach if I swallow a pit. Imagine how long it took for me try that one on for size? Alas, no cherry tree. I am not a proponent of swallowing any foreign object, of which cherry pits would be one, but I do think that if you are in a jam, we can gulp down a bit of gum without any harm.

The act of chewing gum should remain a private activity. I know of no one who finds it a good look to either see or hear. If you find pleasure in blowing bubbles, find a pal and go off and have your bubble blowing contests in private. Yes, they are fun. We have all gone through that stage. Just watch out that the bubble doesn't burst all over your face and get into your hair. Your whole view of the joys of gum chewing could change in a heartbeat! When finished with gum, wrap it up and throw it away responsibly. You will even feel better than you can imagine with this simple act of sanitary respect.