A long time ago, a fellow I went to university with and I were talking about his new (potential) girlfriend. She had just written an article in our alumni journal, and my friend asked me if I had read it. The article was about the author (his girlfriend)’s experience going to work in the offices of a multinational company somewhere in South America. She was fresh out of university, and eager to Do Good Work. But the company (and town) she was immersed in didn’t have the same culture of work that she had, which she found frustrating. They showed up for work in the middle of the morning (while she arrived at 8am and had nothing to do until they arrived). They took a break in the middle of the day (while she sat at her desk and ate her lunch to get more done). But never fear! She would help them realize how much better/productive/efficient they could be if they only started their work day or arrived at meetings a few minutes earlier and didn’t take such long breaks at midday. She didn’t consider that she was the stranger in their culture, and everything was working fine without her intervention.
My friend was excited to see her in print, so he pressed me – what did I think? I tried to dance around it and not give him a real answer – sounds like she had an interesting time. But he kept badgering me, so I said, “She sounds like she wants to be the Great White Hope and wants to train the culture out of her colleagues.”
He was gobsmacked.
“You think she sounds like a colonizer?” He was crestfallen.
Well, I mean, she wants to show up and show these backward South Americans how to do Be Successful At Business the North American way, when they’re happy to start work later in the day and have long lunches and still do what they need to do according to their established workday. And yes, at the end of the article she says that she actually learned that her work ethic isn’t the only one that works – which sounded super patronizing to me.
Maybe I didn’t have to be quite *so* honest with him. But when I answered with things like how it sounded like she had an interesting experience, he kept pushing me. What was a girl to do? He reread the article she wrote, and grudgingly agreed with me. I still kind of felt badly that I shone a light on her that he didn’t see.
This anecdote floated out of the murk because I was recently catching up with a friend who asked me how things were going with a project I have been working on. I said that progress wasn’t as swift as I’d like, but I was continuing to work at it. My friend – who has only ever done a tangentially similar thing – then started giving me a bunch of unsolicited advice about how I should work at my project based on their kinda-sorta-but-not-really similar experience and the very generic “not as swift as I’d like” status I shared. About *my* project.
My friend was trying to be helpful, but you know what? There are all kinds of conflicting priorities and unpredictable variables that have slowed progress. And really, if you don’t know what your talking about, maybe stop talking. So now I’m pretty annoyed, and the lesson I’ve learned is to just say “Fine” instead of actually sharing my actual experiences with my friend. I’d pulled away in the friendship. No one likes a know-it-all.
I was thinking about this as a coworker asked me for an assist on an issue they encountered. I figured out the issue, told my coworker what had happened and that when we ran into this kind of issue, it was usually caused by what he was seeing. I shared information about how to troubleshoot and gave him some bonus information about if it isn’t the current cause, it was usually this other thing, and shared how to troubleshoot that flavour of issue as well. I immediately wondered if that was too much – trying to solve problems that weren’t even there in an effort to help my coworker put some learnin’ in the bank for if/when this (or something similar to it) happens again.
And I was immediately angry with my friend again that they’ve now made me question my ability to help my peers – *when they ask for my help*. Ugh.
There’s a difference here – I didn’t ask for my friend’s thoughts on how I’m managing and progressing in my project. This is a labour of love. I’m not looking for efficiencies and how to get it done as fast as possible. My university friend specifically asked me about my thoughts about his paramour’s published article, and my coworker specifically asked me to look at the issue that had him stumped.
But it does bring to light the very thin line between trying to help and actually helping. My university friend wanted to show off his lady friend in a way that he thought would impress me – wordsmithing. My friend wanted to share some ways that she thought might help me get more joy out of my project. And my coworker just wanted to solve a problem. There’s a difference between saying “How can I help” and “Do you need help”, although, the former should always follow the latter, if it comes to that.
Several years ago, I got a flat tire, which was the cherry on the cake of my day. I was ragey about a bunch of (long forgotten) things that day. I know how to put on the spare, so I cracked the lug nuts, and got out the donut, and got ready to put it up on the jack. A older fellow stopped and said “Do you need some help, or would you like to do this yourself”. As a wordnerd, his phrasing struck me. Do I want to do it myself. He was providing me the opportunity to *not* be rescued, without being all mansplaining. I appreciated the gesture as much as the offer of help. When you never give someone a chance to stretch their wings to succeed, they don’t ever know that they can. And maybe that’s why I was so bent out of shape about my friend’s unsolicited advice. First of all, I didn’t need it nor ask for it, but when cooler heads prevailed, she figured I needed help without actually asking me if I wanted it.
This Lent, I’m going to work on being a better listener so that I don’t trample over a piece of information thinking it’s a request for help, and I’m going to assume good intentions when someone else does the trampling.
I’ve created landing pages for the last 3 years of Lent Project. You can access them from the Reflections Projects option in the menu bar. Happy reading, friends!