Friday, February 16, 2007

Peanut Butter

I have THREE jars of salmonella peanut butter, one of which I'm about 80 percent of the way through. Of course, the power of suggestion is so strong, that I immediately felt ill upon making this discovery. This is my punishment for not eating the healthy, organic, stuff with nothing but peanuts. But I hate stirring that crazy organic peanut butter! The oil on the top just spills over the side of the jar, making a giant mess. To say nothing of the fact that "real" peanut butter doesn't have that sweet, honey-roasted taste of Honey-Roasted Creamy Peter Pan brand. Well, or the salmonella, evidently.

Working w/my colleague makes me go postal

Dear Here's the Thing,

I'm an engineer. I work in a world where you might think that clear communications between people is essential. But it is a daily struggle to work with a large number of people with varying levels of language and logic) skills.

There is this one co-worker that I have been called upon to work closely with. His emails are barely readible and I often find that speaking to him is like pulling teeth (and leaves me with no paper trail to follow if I need to remember details). I think he might be dyslexic. When we work on projects where we share duties, we end up stepping all over each other because we can't seem to get in sync. I've known him a long time and he is a very nice guy. But working with him makes me feel postal. Sometimes I cross the line and correct his emails to others, making him and me) look a bit of a fool.

I'm a big believer in being honest with people, but I don't think having a heart-to-heart with this guy is going to cure his dyslexia. And I don't think asking my boss not to pair me with him is going to make me look good.

I really just never want to work with him again! What to do?

Thanks for your help,
Geek with a problem

Dear Geek,

This is a pretty sticky situation. But I’m sure you already know that, or else you’d have solved the problem yourself by now!

Not knowing what your boss is like, I can’t guess how he or she would react if you asked not to work with this problem communicator any more. But you seem to think that doing so would reflect poorly on you and, perhaps, hurt your coworker’s feelings. And it sounds like you feel a little mean-spirited (or anal retentive?) for correcting his emails.

You state that you are a firm believer in being honest with people. So my guess is that the honest route has been successful for you in the past. And, if that’s true, than you’re probably pretty good at it. I think you should play to your own strengths.

No, honesty isn’t going to cure dyslexia. It’s not going to improve his writing. (Trust me, on this I have plenty of experience.) However, do you think it’s possible that in an honest heart-to-heart talk you could try to come up with a better system of communication?

For example, can you tell him his writing is difficult to understand and that it would be much easier if the two of you could speak in person? But you say talking to him is like pulling teeth. Why? Is it just that he’s unavailable or is it that he’s also difficult to understand in person? If it’s the former, maybe he’ll make himself more available after you’ve told him that you really want to conduct business face to face. If it’s the latter, well, painful as it may be, you stand a better chance of getting clarification when you’re in a room talking to someone than you do over email. You might just have to keep dogging him with questions like: “What do you mean? Can you give some examples? I’m hearing you say X, Y, and Z…is that right?” Take notes and follow up these conversations with summary emails so that you have your paper trail.

Also, as much as I hate tables and matrices and spreadsheets--which are all the rage among organized, successful, highly-functioning people--I suppose they have some utility. If you feel constantly out of sync with this guy, would it help to have some formal method of assigning duties and tracking milestones and deadlines?

When he sends emails (the ones you’re always tempted to correct), are they supposed to be speaking for the whole project team? In other words, would it be possible for you to write these emails instead? Again, I’m not sure of the context, but if you’re prone to editing his emails it might just be easier to write them yourself.

Bottom line, I think you should talk to him. I trust you can be honest and kind at the same time. At the very least, you might feel better for having stated your case and, hence, be able to refrain from going postal. And if he’s the nice guy you say he is, he should try to work with you on this.

Good luck!

toughening up and my second question

Well, I've polled several people whose opinions I respect and have received some thoughtful and supportive comments. As it turns out, all polled were anti-censorship and pro-honesty. One friend said, "How can I trust your advice if I think you're watering it down for the masses?" (I think "masses" might be exaggerating my readership, but point taken.) Another said that there will *always* be people who disagree, which means, of course, that I can't unpost every post that doesn't spark unanimous approval.

So, I'm going to apologize in advance to anyone I might upset in the course of writing this column. Most people who know me are already aware that I'm opinionated, so maybe, if you've put up with me for any length of time, y'all are more forgiving and less sensitive than I'm giving you credit for!

Dear Here's the thing...,
A good friend of mine recently got engaged. She is considering having the wedding over a holiday weekend (e.g., Labor Day or Columbus Day) because many people will have a three-day weekend, therefore making it easier for out-of-town guests to travel. She is also considering having the wedding on a non-holiday weekend. She feels very strongly that she's being considerate to her guests by having the wedding on a holiday weekend. I, on the other hand, think it's a bigger imposition to choose a holiday weekend because that it a time for personal travel/ relaxation -- not necessarily wedding hoop-la.
So, should I suggest that she choose the non-holiday weekend... or should I just butt out?

"anti-Miss Manners"
Durham, NC

Dear Anti,

I have never been married or even participated in the planning of a wedding, so to do your question justice I conducted a little research. It turns out that this holiday weekend question sparks quite the controversy in the circles of brides-to-be and their friends and family.

Not surprisingly, bride-related sites (e.g., are fairly enthusiastic about holiday weekend weddings. "Extend the fun!" "Plan an action-packed lineup!" Bride-related sites are enthusiastic about everything. They use lots of exclamation points.

On the other hand, some people quoted in a NYT article ( were downright cranky about the idea of giving up a precious holiday weekend to watch someone tie the knot.

I tend to fall in the latter camp. It's the rare wedding that lives up to its potential, at least for the guests, anyway. Oh sure, you're happy for the couple and all, but let's face it, these days the two have likely been paired up for a pretty long time. So it's not like the idea of them being united is exactly novel. But this argument isn't going to have much traction with the bride and groom. So if you're going to suggest an alternate weekend, you probably shouldn't use the "some weddings can be kind of boring and you've been shacked up for a year already" excuse.

But the question remains: should you, or should you not butt in? The answer hinges on whether your friend was actually asking for your opinion or merely musing aloud. If you think she is polling people to see what they'd prefer, by all means, advocate for a non-holiday weekend. Try to think of some reasons that don't include the word "imposition" in them...couples get testy over that sort of reference to their big day.

If your friend seemed firm on the holiday weekend idea, you're probably just going to have to suck it up and prepare for an "action-packed lineup" over Labor Day.

Good luck!