Saturday, April 29, 2017

Your Home is Your Castle

A friend regularly posts a thought-provoking ‘Question of the Day’ on Facebook, challenging many of us to focus on a certain perspective we might have on some aspect of life. Recently, his question was “What makes a house a home?”

Like so many of us, I grew up in a house, not a home. I have been developing a clearer understanding about the differences between the two, and just how important it is to be aware of and understand those differences. Houses can be very lonely places, whereas homes are usually vibrant.

My answer to the question was life, love and few house rules. These three ideas underlie principles of respect, trust and encouragement. With these as the foundation, a house will transform into a loving nurturing home, where children can grow up with healthy physical, psychological and spiritual strengths. They will also grow up to be tomorrow’s leaders.

I am often asked questions about children returning to the nest, visitors overstaying their welcome, and family who have decided your vacation pad will suit them just fine for an extended holiday. The question is usually something like, “How do I tell them I don’t want them to come back home, without hurting their feelings?”  “How do I tell the brother I have not seen in several years that he can come for two days, but not a week, without hurting his feelings?” Or, “We don’t want unattended guests, or their pets in our vacation home because they make things so uncomfortable for us and are ill behaved, without hurting their feelings?” This tendency of being a doormat to the world is not required to live a fulfilled, good and happy life.

I answer these questions by stating that honesty is the best policy. If you cannot be clear in communicating with your friends and with your family, something is very wrong. Unfortunately, this is the case for many of us. We have busy lives – all of us. We have limitations on our time, and we deserve our privacy. We have friends who act disrespectfully when they come to visit, and we don’t appreciate that. But something blocks us from saying no. What is it?

We are afraid we will lose their friendship; they will think we are rude; they will think we don’t care; and on the list goes. The fact of the matter is that if everyone used some common sense and followed The Golden Rule, we wouldn’t anticipate and feel these fears nearly as deeply. From an early age, it is important to teach children that there should be no secrets, and that expressing how you feel is important and essential. There is no other way for people to know how we feel, and how their actions affect us unless we speak up.

There will be plenty of times when we may not be in the mood to entertain or to share our vacation home. But, there are also times when we need to reconsider our position. After all, we raise our children to do as we do, for better or for worse. This is the way societies are formed and maintained. We follow the leader, more or less. Sadly, in this politically correct fast-paced world, slowing down to reconsider our position is easier said than done. Therefore, a conscious effort must be made. It’s a reasonable practice to consider putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. But don't presume to wear those shoes before you have clearly stated your position as a host and friend.

Sharing our home is part of what makes a house a home. However, our home is our castle, and as such, deserves respect first and foremost. If we do not have guidelines for how we run our household, chaos can easily ensue. Having an open door policy might be a generous gesture, until you suddenly want your privacy. Parameters for privacy are the basis for creating and maintaining a home that is comfortable for its occupants, and will be welcoming for those visiting.

Once you have invited guests, remember that people appreciate house rules more than we realize. With guidelines in place, we don’t need to wonder or second-guess how a host likes things done. If, for example, you don’t want shedding dogs on your furniture, and your son’s new girlfriend owns a hairy dog, you need to be firm and explain that the dog is not to be on the furniture. If you don’t want to make your two daughters share a room in order to accommodate a visiting relative, be very clear and tell the prospective visitor(s) that you cannot accommodate them. You should feel no shame or guilt for adhering to your rules. You must learn to say NO. The anxiety of unwanted visitors and houseguests is just not worth being sick over or put out.

Mutual respect, caring for one another, and encouraging everyone to do their best is what makes a home welcoming, safe and nurturing. Like any community, no matter how large or small, households run more smoothly with house rules. When everyone lives by the rules of the house, there is very little room for misunderstandings, fears or resentments. The home becomes and remains a place for compassion, good times and love.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Email Etiquette

Settling into 21st Century technology is not without its challenges. It’s not as though developing the computer is akin to discovering a new variety of apple (no pun intended); life on planet Earth has changed forever. With big changes come long periods of adjustment. We are currently in the throes of just such a period now. Just when we think we’ve got everything figured out about one aspect of technology, another new issue springs up.

Such is the case today with email etiquette. Because emails travel almost at the speed of light – who knows, maybe even faster – many of us have come to believe that responses to our emails should be equally lightening fast. This is, however, simply not the case. And this annoys some people almost to the point of distraction.

I received an email recently from a close friend who was pointing out that I hadn’t responded to the emails he had sent recently. Although this was at face value a simple statement of fact, I could feel the irritation this friend was harboring because the anticipated response was not forthcoming in a manner that he felt was timely. Whether his intention was to lay a guilt trip on me or not, that was the effect it had. As I have suggested many times before, we must take responsibility for our feelings, so laying blame on my friend for my feelings of guilt is not appropriate. This exchange does however point out a dynamic that may recalculate our approach to email.

Here are a few thoughts.

If you are going to have an email address and you are going to share it with friends and colleagues, you need to be prepared to monitor it. Allowing emails to build up unanswered is annoying in some cases. Not all emails need a response. I get a lot of emails forwarded to me by friends thinking I will be entertained. I receive numerous announcements and news flashes, none of which need any action at all. I do receive emails however, which do require a timely response, sometimes an immediate one. Those are the ones I focus on, especially if my day is full. Although such emails often require more attention than I can immediately give them, a quick response letting the sender know that their email has been received, and will be answered as quickly as possible, will usually relieve any anxiety.

Don’t give people ‘stuff to do’. Unless you are giving a directive because that is your role as boss, mother, coach, etc., we cannot be expected to just drop everything we are doing to answer an email. By lowering our expectations on when or how an email we send out will be answered, we relieve pressure from both sides. Remember that we have very little idea of what is occupying someone else’s time. Chalk up tardy responses to more pressing demands.

Important emails should still be handled as quickly as possible; even if it means writing to tell the sender that a complete response will be coming shortly. Emails are here to stay. Adjusting to a life with emails is the reality for many of us, but not for all of us. Those of us who skate through life without the ‘benefit’ of technology are not to be scorned. Frankly, I find it refreshing. But for those of us who are entrenched in technology, following established protocols is best. For example, we should try to respond to emails within 24 hours of their receipt. Any communication initiated by email should be answered by email, including business correspondence, invitations, and solicitations we wish to acknowledge.

Those of us who delight in sharing emails about matters of personal interest, political views, or breathtaking photography should not expect a response, nor is one required. If we no longer want to be subjected to such emails, we need to speak up and ask that we be removed from future email lists. Although we may be reticent to request such removal for fear of offending the sender, keep in mind that you are the one being offended in the first place. Alternatively, deleting such emails or tossing them into your junk folder may curb the deluge of such emails. There is always email spam or blocker, too.

We are all still adjusting to this new form of communication. As with most things in life, intentions are rarely meant to be inconsiderate, annoying, or inconvenient. Knowing that a mailbox full of unanswered emails can produce anxiety and irritation in us, let’s do our best not to add to the problem. Think before pressing the send button!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Rushed Communications

A friend overheard a telephone conversation I was having. I ended the conversation with, “OK, bye”, and promptly hit the hang up button, thus ending the call. My friend then said to me that I had hung up the phone too abruptly, not allowing the other person to say goodbye properly. A short discussion ensued. I quickly pointed out that one of the results of hearing only one side of a conversation is that you are not in a position to make such a judgment. My rather tenacious friend was relentless in his insistence that I had been rude. My response is to write this column, which addresses the dynamic of communication.

Clear communication is crucial to maintaining a healthy society. In our rushed schedules, clarity can take a back seat to efficiency. While efficiency has its place, if our message is not clear – and more importantly, if our tone is in any way dismissive – our efficiency will have been wasted. Overhearing a phone call does not provide us with the perspective to be able to assess clarity or tone. Nonetheless, my friend raised a very good point, and in rerunning the overheard conversation in my mind, I suddenly realized that perhaps I had been too quick with hanging up the phone, thereby not allowing the person on the other end of the line to offer his own goodbye.

When speaking on the phone, we cannot see facial expressions, hand gestures or any body language. Therefore, we rely on spoken words, and the tone in which they are delivered to arrive at our interpretation and understanding of the message. The written word presents even further challenges to clarity because we cannot hear the tone of voice. The importance of tone cannot be overstated. There are even software programs designed to measure tone. Delivering a message with compassion and understanding can sound far different from one filled with disappointment or sorrow.

We know how we feel when we receive an email or letter leaving us pondering the real intention of the message. We scratch our heads and often overthink what the author had in mind. Given the way the human brain is wired for safety and survival, our minds tend to reel with negative thoughts, almost none of which ever actually happen. Similarly, how often do we hang up the phone, still wondering what just happened during that call?

When we speak on the phone, we need to be more mindful of completing our thoughts clearly, and to be sure the other person has the same opportunity. Take a few moments to say a proper goodbye. After all, communicating by telephone is different than by email, text, or letter. Many of us receive unwanted solicitation calls and we have slipped into the habit of the quick hang up. We must be sure not to engage in that same speedy exit with our friends or business colleagues. Slowing down can be challenging. However, if we want to be sure our intentions are properly and appropriately conveyed, slowing down can be very helpful.

We must also focus on the clarity of our message. Have you noticed that people don’t quite understand what you mean? They have trouble following directions because the instructions could be interpreted in more than one way. We make the assumption that people understand what we mean without giving them the full story. This is another example of just how dangerous assumptions can be. Furthermore, not only are directions not followed correctly, in order to make things right, we must invest our time – sometimes quite a lot of it.

This is a two way street, to be sure. If someone asks me to complete a task, it is incumbent on me to be sure I understand the directions. “Oh, I thought he would have known” is a dangerous presumption. Only we know what is going on in our minds. We do not know what others are experiencing or thinking at the moment unless they tell us or we ask. Likewise, if we do not communicate clearly what is on our mind, no one will know. We are not psychics. We may have intuition, but this is not a substitute for clearly stated facts.

We will miscommunicate from time to time. We are human beings and making mistakes is part of our condition. When we do mess up, we need to have compassion for ourselves and for anyone who has been swept up in the whirlwind. We need to be forgiving and make allowances for misunderstandings that result from acting on assumptions. Let’s not be so quick to find fault with how others may have ‘done us wrong’ when their intentions were likely quite the opposite. Most importantly, we must take responsibility for any misunderstandings. Taking the high road, and shouldering more of the responsibility than we may feel is actually ours, will place us in a position of strength. From here, we can bring things back in balance. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Funeral Etiquette

A reader sent me the following request.

“My husband passed away last month.  At the wake, some people in the line talked to me excessively long, and two ladies even talked to each other about their inconvenient shopping experiences, while I just stood there.  Can you please address this touchy subject?”

Funerals can indeed be challenging. Some people behave appropriately and others do not. Many people just don't know what to do at a wake or funeral. Their nerves take over and behaviour can become inappropriate. Others have never been schooled in proper funeral etiquette. Think about why you are at the wake. For instance, no one is interested in any inconvenience you may have endured to attend this wake or funeral. Personal feelings and or experiences need to be put aside for the moment. You are present to pay your respects to the deceased and his or her family.

Because grieving is such a personal experience, we each process it differently. This may contribute to the fact that no two funerals are ever exactly alike. There needs to be certain flexibility for people to express their emotions in their own personal ways. This flexibility needs our respect and support, no matter how different it may be from how we may handle such situations in our own way.

When we attend a wake, we should turn our primary attention to supporting the family and close friends of the deceased. Mixed with this is our own sorrow and the grief we may be experiencing. Supporting friends and expressing our condolences, and saying our own last farewells makes for a very emotional time. We need to try to be respectful of the immediate family, and resist turning attention to ourselves.

When in line to express our condolences, we should keep conversation to a minimum and very quiet. Focus on memories and the relationship we will miss. We are part of a larger community of well-wishers and mourners whose collective strength helps buoy the family in this time of need. Therefore, pay attention to the progress of the receiving line while progressing through it. There is no reason to hold things up for idle chatter of a personal nature. Keep your remarks to one or two sentences and move on.  Receiving lines are not the place to share heavy emotional thoughts. Remember there are likely many people behind you to want to pay their respects. Try not to do anything to add to an already difficult time.

Other considerations make for a respectful celebration of life. Whether the wake or funeral is in a church or not, our level of respect should remain the same. How we dress is one of the several ways we can show our respect. I hear a lot of negative comments on the way people dress. Clean clothes are a must - a suit and tie for gentlemen, and a dress for ladies. Blue jeans, t-shirts and ball caps have no business at a wake. Ladies should wear a hat when inside a church, but men must never wear one indoors.

There can be extenuating circumstances. It is acceptable not to be dressed in your best if you have left your job to attend a wake or service, and changing clothes is not an option. Paying one’s respects is more important than what clothes one wears. However, if the option of dressing appropriately is possible, take the time to make the effort. People appreciate it.

Talking in church is a bad habit and ought to be avoided. A funeral is a time for quiet contemplation not a chance for a chat with a friend.   A funeral represents the time set aside by the family to honour the person who has died. Socializing can certainly be done after the service. Be sensitive to the people around you and be quiet.

Snapping photographs and taking selfies at a wake or funeral is also not appropriate. I recall this faux pas made the headlines during a well-publicized funeral. Again, be aware of how disrespectful drawing attention to yourself is during a service honouring a deceased friend. Wakes are solemn affairs. Most people attending are in a contemplative state of mind. Interrupting this quietude is insensitive and rude.

A handwritten note is a great way to convey sentiments of a personal nature. If you write a note ahead of time, there will likely be a place for condolence cards at the wake. Cards may also be sent after the service. Unlike thank you cards, which are sent out immediately after a gift is received, condolence cards may arrive a month later.

Our thoughts are first and foremost with the bereaved. Our own mourning is appropriately done privately.