Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Joy of Patronizing

So what’s wrong with a little patronizing between friends?

Folks not my friends would say patronizing is wrong indeed. Recently I came across the “p-word” while reading Confessions of a Public Speaker by one of my favorite essayist-public speakers, Scott Berkun.

Berkun noted that when Dale Carnegie, back during the Great Depression, published his patronizing classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, the critics complained. They said the book wasn’t new: It was full of very old clich├ęs and advice. As for Carnegie, he was confident his book deserved to be a best-seller: He was exploring the concepts of his book with the businessmen he was teaching at his night class in public speaking —even though yes, the old “patronizing” advice dated back to classical times. Once, the story goes, after freely choosing to address a hostile crowd of publishers, editors and advertising men, Carnegie “dodged the bullet” with his audience by being honest, saying to the critics “…Of course I deal with the obvious…—because the obvious is what people need to be told.” And he humbly admitted he was quoting the words of great men. He received a loud round of applause. (P. 138 of Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker)

It was honest Berkun who used the term “patronizing.” Berkun said his work in public speaking often involves telling people things they already know, or once knew and have forgotten. Berkun wrote that he dared not disclose this to his audience because it would, in his words, “be patronizing.” (P. 138) In fairness, he added, “Yet I know old ideas said well enough have surprising power in a world where everyone obsesses about what’s new.”

Judging by Carnegie’s critics, Berkun would be correct to avoid disclosing the truth, but I just don’t know. Maybe it’s a matter of degree. I guess Berkun can judge fellows from the big city: he is from New York himself. In contrast, I am from the Alberta prairie, a dry fertile land, where everybody I know buys their sweet corn from the fields around the town of Taber: You may call me corny for saying this, but I do live in the corn belt and what I say is: Verily, I don’t mind being patronized. And I don’t think my neighbors do either. I’m still chuckling over the time a young man from the faculty of agriculture came by and offered to give some knowledge to an old farmer. The farmer smiled and said kindly, “I already know twice as much about farming as I’m now putting into practice.”

Maybe we acquire a healthy sense of humor about “being patronized” as we age. I’ve noticed how groups of smiling satisfied seniors, when getting onto the Light Rail Transit (A bus-like train within city limits) don’t hesitate to point out to each other where to sit—something groups of uptight teens never do.

Like Berkun and Carnegie, I know a lot about public speaking: I’m a member of Toastmasters International. This is a worldwide organization of weekly clubs, based in (where else?) California, for learning “public speaking and leadership.” My club meets at the back of UnityChurch every week—Here in the Bible belt we have many churches. Believing in Toastmasters, I encourage folks to go be a guest at any club by telling them, to their amusement, that a Toastmasters meeting is almost as much fun as an evening at home watching Star Trek, “but of course you can’t watch Star Trek every night.”

At my club, remembering Berkun’s avoidance of the p-word, how much responsibility should I take for my friends at Toastmasters being uncomfortable with “being patronized” by me? My answer is: None. They are adults, and they can handle their own discomfort. I stand before them not pure and homogenized, but as a man with a level of cream. At one level, I know they know that I know how they know … A sense of humor helps. And it helps, as Dale Carnegie would approve, to mind the don’ts: I don’t do self-righteous, don’t blame, don’t get angry with them, and I don’t purely think they have never known what I am telling them.

So much for the don’ts. As for the do’s, Carnegie would say the way to have a friend is to be a friend. So as I am “speaking the facts,” and reminding people of the obvious, I am also, at one level, admitting that I’m forgetful too—and all too human. “Admitting stuff” is what friends do. At another level I semi-consciously project that I like my audience, my fellow mid-westerners. When I do a speech for my club-members, I “have something to say” which I think is important for them... and for me too, because “you learn best by teaching” and, I admit, that’s the way I remember best too. And of course, regardless of whether I’m being paid, at a visible level I enjoy being there. As I see it, public speaking is classed with the performing arts, where customers never want to feel you are merely “working.” At the risk of patronizing, my advice is: Speak with joy, because grimly going through the motions is only good for the drafted minions of Darth Vader—or for your day job.

I believe all of us are forgetful. Every year the “check out counter” magazines run features on things like home fire safety, setting goals, nutrition, budgeting and how colors can be coordinated for better homes and clothing. Maybe I was once a “fashion challenged nerd,” but I would hope by now I finally know the common advice in magazines, or at least I know “twice as much as I’m putting into practice” but still, it’s nice to regularly see these magazine features in print because I realize there are new babies being born everyday who don’t know. Besides, judging by our actions, we forget… Sometimes I wonder: Will I ever, once and for all, learn to exercise a little more and procrastinate much less? Until I do, there will always be room for more features about such things—And ones on clutter, too.

Being young at heart, although in late middle age, I still like to innocently hope that maybe one day I’ll become wise. Maybe.

Wisdom for me, like courage, seems especially scarce at 3:00 a.m., the hour of the wolf, “when all I can do is lie awake thinking about how my life could have gone but didn’t—and then pour a glass of whiskey, to keep the wolf on the other side of the door…”

Unlike wolves and nature, people are complex. Even a lifetime is not enough to plumb the depths of their conflicted motivations and flaws. By comparison, it’s super-easy to learn straightforward disciplines like mathematics or psychology. Let’s face it: There will always be a place for literature and classic stage plays. We will re-read the old classics, and re-experience the same plays, because of the lessons: so hard to retain and so easy to forget. Maybe some modern critics, maybe to avoid feeling patronized, will say the latest play has new improved props and lighting, or a new interpretation by a new director. Ah, vanity. Under the sun, vanity is as old as the river Jordan.

As for me, nobody needs to  “avoid patronizing me” by claiming anything is new. Preach me the old sermons… I need to sing the carols again.

Sean Crawford
As leaves turn yellow, curl and drop
Calgary 2013
~I guess carol means lesson, as in a preacher reading at a church service saying, “Here ends the second carol.” Hence the title of a short story by Charles Dickens.

~I liked Confessions of Public Speaker, Scott Berkun, O’Reilly, 2009

~I wrote of Dale Carnegie in my essay  Learning to Be Nice, archived May 2013.

~The story of the “hour of the wolf,” using vodka—and then three more little glasses in case the wolf has brought her cubs—is a memory of her Russian uncle, related by Susan Ivanova on the space station Babylon-5, the first ever “five year novel” on TV, by JM Straczynski.

~You meet the nicest people at Toastmasters; of course I advise new guests to try out three different clubs before choosing one to join. My own club includes a single mother, Leanne, who owns every adventure of the starship Voyager—the one with Captain Katherine Janeway—and she rations herself to one episode per night. Leanne’s “my kind of people.”

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