Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The perils of PC-ness

In my previous life, the holiday season was always a bit of a perilous time of year. It was my responsibility to write a year-end message from company leaders to their employees.

For the most part, the leaders were mindful of the diversity of the workforce, given it was a multinational company. We worked so hard to address the non-American employee population, in fact, that US employees would complain at times.

Myself, I generally enjoy learning about different cultures and presenting things in new ways, so it wasn't all that difficult for me to adapt. As a communications consultant, I appreciated that I didn't have to constantly reinforce the need to recognize that our workforce included people with different traditions, points of view, belief systems and orientations. There were times, however, when it would reach ridiculous proportions. I'd wonder where the line was between being sensitive and doing back flips to avoid offending one cranky person who likely would find something to complain about, no matter what we did.

The holiday message brought all of that to a head.

It goes without saying that we couldn't say "Merry Christmas," given a sizeable non-Christian population. If we started listing all of the holidays that our employees might celebrate, the roster would get pretty long and we'd be in danger of missing one and inadvertently creating a rift.

"Happy New Year" sounds as if it would fit the bill, yes? Not so fast! We had a small staff in China, and they'd be celebrating the Lunar New Year in late January or early February. It's a massive event, with Chinese from all over the world converging to reunite with their families to celebrate Gung Hei Fat Choy! So, happy new year was out, though we did have to acknowledge it somehow.

Oh, and there was also the family issue: no doubt those without spouses or children would be unhappy if we told them to enjoy the holidays with their families.

There was one thing that wouldn't be culturally fraught: the company essentially shut down between Christmas and New Year's as a cost-saving measure. But that was emotionally charged. Some employees would still be working to handle customer issues that came up during the holidays.

After taking all of that into consideration, I'd come up with something like this:

"At this time of year, we like to send good wishes to all employees. No matter what you celebrate (or when), we hope you enjoy it with whoever you're spending time with. Enjoy your time off, but even if you have to work and serve our customers (and thank you so much for doing that so well), try to relax and spend time with those you love, feel ambivalent about, or have to tolerate."

Then I'd have to find four different ways of presenting essentially the same message, because I worked for four executives who wanted to send greetings out.

One of the execs would invariably ignore what I wrote for him and send out his own message, which usually read something like this:

"Thanks for a great year. Merry Christmas to you and your family."

I still get PTSD at this time of year, just from thinking about all this mishigas.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

We all shine on.

Hard to believe it's been 30 years since John Lennon died. Somehow it seems odd that I've had more years on earth than he did.

I remember being a high-school junior in the winter of 1980, and deep in my initial admiration phase for the Beatles. My crush at the time was a fellow-Beatles lover with more than a passing resemblance to Paul McCartney, but really he was just an entry drug of sorts, encouraging me to delve deeper into the phenomenon that was the Fab Four. From Paul the cute one, I shifted my attention to George the mystical one who opened my eyes to Eastern philosophy. I was never a massive John fan, but I respected his complexity and his capacity for deep thought and questioning the status quo. In total, their songs spoke to me in a way no other did, both the words and the music behind them. But John's lyrics were always the ones with deeper meaning.

Today's New York Times asks where readers were when Lennon was shot at 11 p.m. on December 8, 1980. I was home, already in bed and asleep, yet I can still vividly remember a scrap of a dream I had that night. It was the Ed Sullivan Show, in black and white, and the Beatles -- just three of them -- were performing. Ringo and Paul were there, as one could clearly see from the figure behind the drums and another playing a left-handed bass. But was that John or George with the guitar? Before I could figure it out, before the camera went to closeups, the dream dissolved.

When the clock radio came on to wake me the next morning, the first thing I heard was Richard Neer on WNEW-FM: "If you're just waking up, I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but John Lennon was killed last night." The synchronicity of the radio switching on just as Neer started his sentence seemed too surreal to be possible. It only happens that way in fiction, not in real life, and it certainly doesn't happen after you have a bizarre dream about a missing Beatle. Besides, it didn't make sense. Lennon hadn't been doing anything vaguely controversial. He'd just been living his life with his wife and kid and three cats on the West Side. Yeah, he and Yoko had just released Double Fantasy, but that didn't seem to be cause for anger. After everything he'd lived through, who'd want to come after him now?

As his death came to prove, sometimes there's no sane answer to why people act out so violently. It seems that the lesson that violence teaches, is how valuable peace and kindness truly are. And that lesson won't ever die, because, as trite as the expression might sound, the Beatles' music will always live on, each recording sounding as fresh and relevant as it did the day it was released.