April 27, 2010

Hospitality by Any Other Name

I shared a motel room with a toe nail once—not mine. To be fair, I saw the clipping on the third evening, peeking out from under the table near the window. I notified the office the next morning. When I returned from my client’s site that afternoon, the toenail still smiled at me. Two weeks later, I returned to the same small town, the same motel, the same room, and, you guessed it, the same crescent of someone else’s pedicure winking at me from beneath the table. Yuck!

Last week, I shared a hotel suite with a chunk from a chocolate chip cookie. Again, not mine. The all suites hotel—think high-priced—didn’t live up to the typical standards I associate with it's brand name. The room, although spacious, exhibited a worn, tired look. That alone, not even counting the cookie chunk, made me leery of the suite’s cleanliness. I notified the front desk when I checked out:  about the lingering cookie crumb, and the clock/radio and TV remote that didn’t work.

You might ask why I didn’t just dispose of said toenail and crumb. Or why I didn’t notify the hotel of these infractions earlier. I travel a lot for business. For the most part, the accommodations are great. No alarming features or surprises, but when I can’t be in the room to tell housekeeping myself—therefore creating a relationship with the person—I prefer to not give management the opportunity to botch the job and turn their employees against me. I have to stay in the room for several more days, and I’d rather operate with some awareness of what’s wrong instead of worrying about additional issues. And I draw the line at what I will touch once I know to question the barriers of cleanliness.

Plus, I must admit a certain level of curiosity.  After a day with the cookie chunk I wonder.  Did they do a better vacuuming job today?  Will it be there?  It becomes a bit of a game.

Now don’t get me wrong. I do report problems when they occur, which, by the way, are less than 2% of the time for me. For instance, I had to ask a hotel to remove the used bath towel that still hung from the bathroom door when I checked in. And, well, the toilet in the center of the floor, unattached from any plumbing fixtures definitely could NOT be ignored.

The locations where these things happen surprise me more than the fact that they actually occur. The toilet? One of Disney’s finest resorts. The towel? An upscale hotel. I’ve stayed in two and three star hotels that are spotless and found frightening results in some four and five star locations. Granted, it’s rare to run into problems in the higher priced hotels, but it does happen. Plus, I do try to be understanding of the difficulties of keeping a busy hotel up and running, especially if I’m part of a large conference that week. The toilet sitting in the middle of my room, for example, I found quite amusing, as did my friends. And, yes, the front desk found me another room, blaming an oversight in maintenance records.

So, I travel and try to keep my sense of humor. I wash the obligatory glasses in the room (you don’t want to know why) and I wear something on my feet at all times. At least, I’m not as paranoid as one colleague. He traveled with his own sheets and towels, and not only did he remake the bed, but he spread extra sheets over every surface that he might touch: floor, chairs, etc.

Now that’s going a bit overboard, don’t you think?

April 20, 2010

A Call to Vanilla

Do they still give kids ice cream after a tonsillectomy? I had my tonsils removed when I was five. Back then, the doctors promised you all the ice cream you wanted.

I remember sitting in my hospital room—tonsillectomies required a two night stay back then—and the nurse asking me whether I wanted chocolate or vanilla. I answered in a split second, “Vanilla!”

The nurse blinked at me in surprise and said, “No one's ever chosen vanilla before.”

Her reaction stuck with me. Was vanilla really that odd a choice? We have the saying, “plain old vanilla,” but I don’t find it boring at all.

Over the years, my food choices have reinforced my preference for vanilla. I love vanilla ice cream and milk shakes. I’ll eat, but not happily, a chocolate cake with chocolate icing, but I gravitate toward vanilla or yellow cake with vanilla icing. I like cookies that have chocolate chips or chunks in them, but I’d rather have a non-chocolate cookie. When Nabisco started making Golden Oreos®, I nearly danced in the grocery aisle. I can’t tolerate milk products anymore—I’m not lactose-intolerant, so don’t bother with suggestions there—but I still prefer the taste of vanilla. In fact, one advantage of my inability to digest dairy products is that I can choose vanilla-flavored milk substitutes. And yes, they have chocolate-flavored substitutes, too.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like chocolate, especially dark chocolate, but I love vanilla more. Even when I drink hot chocolate, I prefer the French Vanilla-flavored mixes. Vanilla adds a smooth, creamy texture that enhances all of the combined flavors in any food. Chocolate, in my estimation, overpowers all other ingredients.

This week I’m attending a seminar on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®). If you’re unfamiliar with the MBTI®, it’s a personality instrument that reports preferences in four areas of behavior. Your preference doesn’t mean that you never choose the other option, you just naturally lean toward one choice over the other. I prefer vanilla, but sometimes I choose chocolate. The seminar is not about food, but it got me thinking about this preference and how society implies that I’m unusual because of it.

Those of you who know me, know I don’t mind being different, but often we project our preferences on to other people. The message we send is: “If I do it this way, then it must be the right way.”

I don’t know whether the nurse made me feel wrong back then, but the memory has stuck with me. That tells me something. What do you prefer that makes you step out of the norms of other people? How do you feel about it? For my writing friends, have you given your characters any preferences that set them apart, that define them?

Does my ice cream story resonate with you or your characters?  Vanilla lovers, I challenge you to step up and join me!

April 13, 2010

Truths in Training

After twenty years in the business of training people, I’ve learned a few truths about teaching adults:

1. The client will only give you the information you ask for so make sure you find out as much as you can about their goals and the employees’ attitudes and expectations before you develop or teach a class.

2. Something unexpected will happen. Flexibility and quick-thinking is necessary in these circumstances. Preparation and proper fact-finding (see #1) will eliminate most of these surprises.

3. Almost every class will include participants who do not want to be there. Some of them will try to challenge you.

4. What you do about problems/mishaps during training is more important than the actual problem. These occurrences show that you’re human if you handle them well.

I was reminded of these facts with a recent client.  I cut my training teeth on a very difficult and challenging population, so when a client hints that their employees might exhibit negative or unprofessional attitudes, my manager puts me in charge.

At the beginning of a recent workshop, the atmosphere in the room vibrated with a nervous tension, but I expected this (thanks to #1 and 3 above) and came prepared to involve everyone quickly. Soon I had everyone talking and laughing and the tension evaporated. Then, Sally (not her name) arrived.

What can I tell you? Some people want to be miserable and are not happy unless everyone else shares in their misery. This was Sally. She entered as I explained an activity. I gave her the information and told her that I would let her go last so she would have time to participate. She shoved the papers away and rolled her eyes at me. Undaunted (see # 2 & 3), I squatted beside her seat and told her that I knew her responsibilities required that she arrive late and that the activity was a simple form of introduction. Everyone had done it and it would just take her a second. She picked up a marker, glanced at the paper, and tossed the marker on the table muttering under her breath. Her arms folded over her chest, she glared at me in defiance.

I decided now was the time to go over simple ground rules: listen, share, be on time, turn off cell phones, and maintain a positive attitude. I hoped that Sally would get it and try to participate. She put her head down for part of this discussion, but when I got to the part about attitude, she began to complain. Not to me, but her body language screamed for attention and she continued to mutter angrily. Her classmates exhibited discomfort with her behavior. 

This is where # 4 comes in to play.  You can not let a student hijack your class, so you have to be prepared to try something even if it doesn't work. The other participants expect you to do something and will forgive your mistakes as long as you try.  So, I attempted to involve them in a discussion about the impact of negative attitudes on other people. Sally countered with loud sighs and eye rolls and irritable body language.

So, I stopped and did something I’ve only done a few times in all of my years of training. I focused the class’ attention fully on Sally and said, “Since you are intent on sharing, why don’t you tell us what’s going on?”

She did. She resented the need to come to training after having worked long hours, plus she ran into a few  problems on her way to the class (she described this more fully than I will share here). I asked the rest of the class to raise their hands if they could relate to having days like Sally described. We all raised our hands. We discussed that we often feel stressed and have to do things we don’t want to. That’s just life.  In effect, I gave her permission to not like it, but I removed her right to interrupt the workshop.

After that, Sally participated. She smiled. She joked. She shared. She listened. Was she the perfect participant? No. But by focusing all of our attention on her, I gave her exactly what she wanted. Just not the way she expected me to.  That's the key to #3 & 4.

I’m sorry to say that the following week I learned that her behavior was the last straw for her employer and they terminated Sally. I’m not sorry that she was terminated—her actions indicated a serious lack of respect and professionalism—but I would have liked an opportunity to work with her sooner. I don’t know if I could have helped her or not, but I sure would have liked to try.

In the working world, most of us know that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. What I would love to know is how someone makes it into their mid-thirties without that awareness?

Any thoughts?

April 5, 2010

Signs of Spring and Celebration

During my childhood, I recognized that spring lurked around the corner when my mother piled us into the car to go in search of that perfect Easter outfit. I have fond memories of pastel confections sewn into frilly dresses, shiny white patent leather shoes, and a matching bonnet or hair bow. Each year, I waited in eager anticipation for Easter Sunday to dawn so I could wear my Easter dress to church. Of course, the Easter Bunny featured a lot in my expectations for a few of those years, but memories of egg hunts and baskets dim compared to my recollection of dressing up.

My excitement culminated with our arrival at church. The congregation resembled a garden of beautiful flowers in pastel shades. We complimented and admired each other and preened like peacocks. After a joyous, celebratory worship service, my family went to the Easter buffet at The Clemson House (it was a nice hotel back then, not a dorm), and later we returned home where Dad memorialized our special day in photographs.

I stopped buying a special Easter outfit years ago. The churches I've attended have not exhibited the same enthusiasm that I remember from my childhood, and I have told myself that spending money on a special outfit secularizes the holiday. But this past Easter Sunday, I found myself contemplating what to wear and feeling disappointed that my outfit didn't reflect the joyful purpose of the day. The more I thought about this the more I missed the special efforts that people used to make to express their elation on this day. When we arrived at church, I found myself studying the clothes that the members of my congregation chose to wear, and except for a few people, everyone looked like they might on any other day. It felt wrong to me.

Is it incorrect to feel this way? I believe that I should celebrate the resurrection each and every day, but somehow the special efforts from my childhood reinforced the promise of the newness of life. I miss the special services. I miss the atmosphere of joy and celebration.

Whether your past includes Easter celebrations like mine did, you probably have had this feeling somewhere in your life--the loss of the joy that defined an event in your life. What do you miss? Or maybe you still buy that special outfit and experience that incredible newness of life.