Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Confrontation Consternation

Confrontation – A face to face meeting. The clashing of forces or ideas.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Growing up, I watched my father haggle with car dealers. I watched my mother engage door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. I saw my grandfathers verbally combat arrogant landowners and indignant baler-buyers. And as I ventured out from behind the towering figures of my elder role models, I began to realize how important it was to stand strong against opposition. Whether that consternation is caused by a smarmy salesman, licentious landlord, or berating boss, I've found it eternally difficult to absorb the abuse, stand my ground and give a concise, firm response that protects and respects.

Baler Bullshit

There seems to be a vengeful pleasure found in some established professionals. As if some form of initiation into the adult cohorts, these seasons businessmen and women take pride in looking down their noses at perfectly competent, incredibly intelligent, young professionals. This phenomenon first happened to me in college, working on my grandfathers farm.

A commercial hay man, probably in his mid-forties, brought in his Model XL baler for repairs. The baler looked like crap. It was full of dents, had rust showing around the edges, and was in general disrepair. I took notes on the main concerns for the equipment, and was preparing the paperwork, when the man made some snide remark about my hair.

To provide some context, when I was working for my grandfather, I had stick-straight hair that fell to my shoulders. I generally kept it under a hat and behind my ears, out of sight and mind. This man decided that, rather than assuming that I was a competent employee, it'd be better to make assumptions about my masculinity, penchant for illicit drug use, and overall lack of usefulness, based on my hair.

I brushed off the mans jeers, and cordially sent him on his way, pretending that his remarks didn't bother me.

That day still brings back feelings of rage. I wanted to sock the man in the jaw. I wanted to do what I'd seen my grandfather do many times before to this same farmer – I wanted to zing him with a one liner that would put him in his place and shut him up tighter than an oil drum. But instead, I balked. I clenched my jaw, and let him pummel me with insults that I'd done nothing to deserve.

At what age do you gain the ability to retort? At what level can you successfully return the bullshit and retain your dignity in these situations? A few years later, I had a memorable experience that spoke to this question.

Finding Problems and Fixing Problems

I worked at a Boy Scout camp for a month or two every summer. These are mostly happy memories of swimming, boating, building monstrous fires and playing pranks on others. But one memory stands out as not so positive.

I was a member of an honor society through the boy scouts and, after a few years of membership, had climbed the ranks and was one of the leaders of the organization. Along with that privilege came great responsibility. With that responsibility came a great potential to screw up, and one week, that is what I did.

We were at an event that was far removed from the main part of camp, at a ceremony for the new members. It was a fairly stressful day, with little sleep and a lot of work, and I had neglected to bring a crucial element for the ceremony. Upon realizing this, one of the adult volunteers pulled me aside, mid-ceremony, and began berating me about this slip up. This man was a well-liked member of the organization, fairly influential, and physically commanding to boot. He towered over me, his temples turning crimson with fury.

I listened to the man go on about my incompetency and inabilities for about a minute, all the while glancing back at the ceremony still in progress. Finally, I had to stop the abuse. I looked the red faced buffoon in the eyes and said,

“Listen, I realize that I screwed this up. I am going to go fix the problem, so that we can have a successful event. When we get back to camp, you can rip me a new asshole. Until then, don't talk to me.”

With that, I stormed off, bent on fixing the error and completing the ceremony. We did and, as I recall, I didn't hear anymore on the subject. In retrospect, I did exactly what I'd seen my father and grandfathers do before me. But not all of my attempts at confrontation have been so positive.

Once You Pop, You Can't Stop

Flash back to the man with the hay baler. We repaired the dilapidated machine, replace the abused parts, and gave it the best face-lift possible. The work was not egregious, but the man had definitely not followed the common sense recommendations for caring for a machine worth more than the truck he drove.

He came by the shop about a week after the initial confrontation. I steeled my nerves as I saw the portly, pompous man approach the shop. He strode into the office and declared,

“So, ya figger out what was wrong with that damned piece of machinery, hippie?”

Without blinking an eye, I glanced up from the manual I was consulting on the desk, adjusted my hat, and just as I'd heard my grandfather retort, I flung the following phrase from the corner of my mouth:

“You ever heard of operator error?”

The man turned seven shades of red under his tanned skin. At first I thought he would jump over the counter and wring my neck. Then I realized that he physically could not jump over the counter, so I was probably safe.

I thought that, as in the movies, my amazing one-liner would shut him up like a steel trap. Unfortunately, my insolence only embroiled his rage, and made his comments worse. After that one moment of shining glory, I closed back up, shut my mouth, and went back to deflecting his jeers with a closed mouth and a determined look.

Lesson learned? Confrontation is more than having the gall to take the petulant route. It's taking that course, then stick with it till the end.

Sales = Constant Confrontation

In my current job, I deal with confrontation every day. It seems that when a 25 year old walks in the door to talk to you about your marketing strategies, it is open season. People have a difficult time looking past my age and my job title to see that I am a person trying to not only further the newspaper I work for, but also help their business succeed.

I walked into a restaurant a few weeks ago, and was met by a business owner who was not only crass, but referred to me by the disdain laden moniker,


The man thought he was a big deal. He dressed snappy, sported designer glasses, and had obviously colored hair. He owned a swanky establishment and knew that, while I was on his turf, I was his mouse. I don't know why, but on that day, I wasn't in the mood to put my head down and wade through the guff. I listened to him talk about his business for a while, listened to his gripes about my paper, and gave him some poignant rebuttals to the scoffs and dismissals he threw my way. At the end of the meeting, he grinned and asked me a heavily baited question,

“So what's your favorite restaurant, salesman?”

I looked him square in his smug grin, and told him about Antonella's Trattoria, a little whole in the wall Italian joint in Davenport. I raved about the authenticity, the service, and the wine. I gave him the address and told him to check it out. It was priceless to watch his face go from smarm to startled in seconds. He actually believed that I would kiss his ass and say that I love his restaurant! As I walked to the door, I turned back to Mr. Bag-o-chips and said,

“You want a salesman response to that question? Ask me again after you advertise with us for awhile. I'll probably say the same thing.”

Just because I sell things, doesn't mean I have no integrity.

So maybe I am learning a little about handling confrontation. I still have times when I fold like a bad poker hand, but I also am getting better at playing it cool, choosing my words, and standing up for myself. I guess it comes with age. To quote a song that resonates with this issue nicely,

"Stand your ground, don't back down, it's the only way to win. And when life throws a punch, son, you've got to take it on the chin."

William Elliot Whitmore, Take it on the Chin

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