Friday, November 13, 2009

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country

posted Wed, 01 Dec 2004

Here’s another thing I’ve noticed: get a group of people together for some event – a baby shower, a luncheon – and even though it will be absolutely clear that there is work to be done before the event can begin, most people will not pitch in. They usually will if asked, but if required to identify the work themselves and then actually do it without prompting, it won’t happen.

I am not talking about asking someone to develop a unified field theory, I mean work like taking paper napkins out of the bag.

Example: My entire group at work had lunch together yesterday in a big meeting room. When the caterer delivered the food, there were about 20 people hanging out at the tables where we were going to put it. Mike, the guy who had organized the lunch, started moving the trays of lasagna and bread and salad from the cart to the table. No one lifted a finger to help.

The days of servants showing up unbidden – or even bidden – are over for most of us.

When I arrived, I saw what he was doing, so stepped in and started removing the saran wrap from the food trays. It was clear to me that I was not going to get to eat until that plastic barrier between me and lunch was removed.

I muttered something to Mike about how no one else was helping. He agreed and rolled his eyes. “You’re used to working. You’re from a blue-collar background where the families have potluck dinners,” he said. “Maybe they’re landed gentry with servants.”

Last year, Suze organized a baby shower at work for Laura. I showed up early with my contribution – those great brownies with the cayenne pepper – and noticed the room wasn’t ready yet. There were several folded plastic tablecloths on one table, a bunch of covered dishes on another, and cups and silverware and napkins still in the package.

There were four women standing in the corner talking. I looked at them, looked at the unready room, then went to work. I laid the tablecloths, set out the silverware and the plates, put out the food that was there and moved the chairs away from the food tables.

When Suze, the organizer, came back to the room, her arms full with more food, she saw what I was doing. “Thank you so much!” she said, and glared at the other women. “How can they just stand there when it’s so obvious what needs to be done?” She asked them to help and they did, but I had to agree with her: did they not see the same thing I did? That there was work that needed to be done and that it wasn’t going to do itself?

That’s one of the things that makes Harpo nuts at his job. Heck – I don’t even work for Fawlty Airlines or any other airlines, but when I’m there at the gate, it’s perfectly clear to me what needs to be done once the plane is out: the trash needs to be picked up from the gate area, the forms need to be re-stocked, the chairs need to be straightened. Harpo has signs posted in the office advising agents of what to do if they just can’t think of anything to do but nap. Most of his agents are really good – hi Janelle! Hi Ann! – but there are a few duds.

How can some people be so oblivious to what needs to be done?

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