A few years ago, I worked at a retail chain that was descending into bankruptcy. Refusing to acknowledge that is was the business model itself that was flawed, upper management blamed us lowly employees and spent what remained of its cash on an expensive set of videos about customer service training. Every week, we would have to watch a new "lesson" on one of these videos and fill out a worksheet. The host of these videos was a weak-chinned, hair-gelled motivational-speaker type named Kevin. Kevin would wax and wane about simple service ideology like he'd just thought of it himself and couldn't wait to share it ("Find out what your customer is looking for and give them that product or service"--holy shit, really? Back up, Kevin).
The indignity of being condescended to for half an hour every shift was compounded by the fact that we couldn't practically apply a great number of the "tips" in this particular workplace because we lacked the resources to do it. One of the main points Kevin kept returning to was, "Don't BS your customers. If you don't know something, don't be vague, find out the answer and tell them." Kevin always used the euphemistic BS when he meant bullshit, but it wouldn't have mattered what phrase he applied because our corporate model was built on bullshit and every answer we gave had to be purposefully vague. For instance, we sold coupon books that had vouchers you could apply throughout the year (2 for 1 this in January, a free that in February, and so on). We had to keep selling these coupon books to hit corporate quota even though our neighbouring stores were closing all around us, and we were likely to be shut down next, and so most of these coupons could never be used. Customers would ask, "So you guys are staying open, right? If I buy this I'll be able to come here and use these coupons?" And we would go, "Yeeeahhhh...?" when in fact we had no idea if we were staying open another month. We were even encouraged to pre-sell items to customers without knowing whether or not we'd be able to give it to them. A customer would pay a deposit for an item we might never get in stock, but we were just supposed to cheerfully take their money.
This preamble is all to say that bullshit is a pretty standard form of communication in business and in life. I think of my friends, some of whom are starting out in professional fields, some of whom are parents, some of whom are both. That's just awash in bullshit, isn't it? If you're a corporate underling, you "fake it till you make it." If your three year-old asks you where the water goes when it drains out of the bathtub, you say, "The sewer somehow? I guess there are pipes?" And then pretend to slip and fall so they laugh and don't ask follow-up questions.
Last week, I wrote about things I feel pretty confident I know. It was a short entry. But now I'd like to share some things I definitely don't know. Unlike work or around nosy, awful children, this is a safe space where I can freely admit I don't know a whole lot of stuff.
Dream: Determine what it is I definitely don't know for sure.
Goal: Achievable. The philosophical idea that goes something like "The only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing" is attributed to Socrates, but maybe it was Mr. Bean. In any case, you get the point. We're all just faking it. But I'm interested to see just how ignorant I am, compared to everybody else.
Plan: Write down a few things I don't know anything about so I have a public record of topics about which I am clueless. For instance:
- If microwaves make things hot in just seconds, why don't we just replace ovens with big microwaves? Why can't a microwave roast a chicken or bake a ham?
- Why is the studio audience always fully lit on Ellen? Aren't they all just baking under tv lighting for an hour? I don't want to see them.
- Why is it called Planned Parenthood when it bills itself as a resource centre for unexpected pregnancy? Call it Unplanned Parenthood!
- Why does it take longer to get somewhere than it does to come back from somewhere?
- Where did Mr. Rogers Neighborhood take place? Was that his house? Because he always put on his coat and shoes and left at the end of each episode. Where was he going?
- Why are there such extensive security precautions to get on a cross-country flight, but you can board a Greyhound bus headed across the country practically carrying a lit bomb and a hockey bag full of guns?
- Why don't we have sweet-flavoured Doritos like cinnamon? I'd eat the shit out of a cinnamon Dorito.
- Has there ever been a store in history where if something doesn't have a price-tag on it, it's free? I hear that at least once a week from a smart-ass customer and I want to stare at them, and say, "Of course it's not free! What kind of system of commerce do you think we're running here, you unbelievable moron!"
- Why does the 24-hour news channel tell me to visit their website for more information? I'm watching you, the news, right now. You give me the information! That's what I'm here for!
- Why do we behave like we used to have control over the weather and now we don't anymore? "You know it's supposed to snow tomorrow." "IT BETTER NOT!" Or what, tough guy? What are you gonna do?
What a sad list. I'm sure there's more. Could it be I don't know how much I don't know?
I just took another corporate training session at work, but this is at another job where orientation is provided by the company itself (not outsourced to Kevin and his 3rd party nonsense) and there is far less bullshit. It's the sort of job and the sort of business model where if I don't know something, I can legitimately find it out pretty easily. But Kevin's condescending tone will stick with me for a long time. Funnily enough, I don't think we got to finish the program before the company completely dissolved and laid us all off, our former customers clutching their coupons angrily. I wonder when forget that so often the guy behind the counter has a boss and a customer both giving him shit. I don't know why we tolerate that, but we probably shouldn't. Sometimes what we don't know will hurt us.