Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Notes on Civility

By Matt Cantor
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 06:47:00 PM

It’s a function of my age and m-m-m-my generation that I consider civility as important a societal imperative as I do. Not that I’m all that civil, mind you. I do have my bad days. I could excuse that by saying that everyone has their bad days, but I don’t actually think that’s adequately justifiable. I believe that it behooves each of us to do the best we can. I don’t expect someone with Tourette’s syndrome to spare me a litany of curse words (thought I’m usually writing them down as fast as possible to augment my woeful vocabulary) but I do expect those who don’t suffer from either limbic failings or horrible upbringings to do the best they can; to try to smile; to cheer those around them as best they can and to make the party (which eventually comes to an end) as pleasant as possible. 

It was with this in mind that this week, for the second time (perhaps third, I’ll have to review the e-mails) that I expressed Victorian shock (if I’d had snuff on me, I’d-a used it) at the e-mail replies from a contractor to a client of mine. 

The client has sent a list of items that they, themselves, had paid for, to the contractor (actually a high-level subordinate) in something like an Excel spreadsheet in an effort to clear up any question about who had paid for various items so that the final tally could more accurately reflect how each of the two parties stood in their respective debts. 

This particular e-mail has been sent to several persons at the same time and was not addressed to one particular person. The reply, which I viewed as one of the several cc’s, stated that the e-mail had failed to address itself to his particular personage and would be duly ignored until it was addressed properly to himself. The harrumph was nearly audible as I closed my eyes to avoid the dust from his virtual wig. 

The prior e-mail said (and I won’t quote verbatim for the sake of confidentiality) that the client was failing to address the “real” issues in his e-mail to the contractor. 

Without going into too much detail and to summate, the contractor was having a hissy. A snit. He was taking his ball and going home because the other boys wouldn’t play nicely. 

Actually, the clients (let’s call them Bob and Sue) are pretty good. True, the male counterpart, Bob, has gotten upset a few times and expressed some suspicions or worries but, for the larger part, he’s been pretty reasonable. Truth be told, I’ve been much more critical of the contractor than either of the clients, but in a very different way.  

I’m largely working in the background, walking through the site, identifying bits of work that are either clearly incorrect or are simply inadvisable for any number of reasons and then bringing them to the client’s attention. We discuss the merits of each of these things and together decide what we’ll bring to the contractor’s attention. 

In the case of this particular contractor, it did not make sense to try to get them to correct or change every item that I’d noted. These guys were very low bidders and it was clear form the first day on the job that they were not the top drawer. They were able to get big chunks right (well, close enough) but many smaller issues, various codes and practices were largely foreign to these crew and it was important to understand that the clients (and me as adviser) were not going to be able to turn the pumpkin into a coach. Our hope was to simply keep it from rotting on the way home from the ball. But, as usual, I digress. 

I’d been watching the e-mails go back and forth between the parties (I get cc’ed on most of these by the client as a way of keeping tabs on the job) and was increasingly seeing these little hissies glide though my air-space to my unrelenting awe. It seemed to me (and I shared this with my clients) that this fellow was either from some very strange school of contracting or was perhaps just another undiagnosed psych patient wandering the streets of Berkeley. Why would someone who wants to get paid for services rendered act so pugnaciously.  

Now, I’ve been complaining about bad service for years (“if you can’t say something nice, come and sit by me”) and really have to scratch my head when my waiter or waitress flings plates onto the table and acts like it’s some magnificent burden that I’m seated in their section that day. My feeling is, if you don’t want to smile, say hello and aren’t happy to be of service, get a job in a cubicle. Take up space-flight.  

In fairness, contractors aren’t waiters, but they are privy to our lives in very intimate ways and are service providers. Why would someone who wants a happy client and a final payment fail to employ the most basic manners. Number One: Don’t pick fights. 

If you’re having a bad day, take a time out. If you’re drunk, don’t show up. Check your blood sugar, apologize in a timely fashion for your mistakes and did I mention—don’t pick fights. Sheesh. 

We contractors (yes, I still consider myself a part of the club, though I’m usually wearing a different hat) have responsibility, as those who get given keys and very large checks, to bow, shake hands, say thank you and, when disputes arise, as they surely will, to smile, sit down, use our inside voices, and work toward resolution in a spirit of camaraderie. Clients will do well to use the same rules but can not be expected to know the landscape as well as the contractor since we as contractors have so much more familiarity with the playing field. 

E-mail is a nasty form of communication. It’s far too easy to seem curt, flip or cavalier. Since so much of this is used in the contracting world these days, I suggest we start by cleaning up our acts around this. When writing, go out of your way to be clearly friendly, seem helpful and, definitely, to vacate any sense of malice or threat. If you want that sort of thing, you don’t have to hire a contractor. You can just go out to lunch.