Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What Did You Say? Me, Change?

My father-in-law (FIL) has no idea that he has caused me several sleepless nights. I had had it in my head to think hard about him during my visit to Nassau, but I did not realise that he would make me think so hard. Here are a few reasons why.

He has assailed me in the nicest possible ways this week with the remarks, "I admire your persistence" or "You spend a lot of time doing what you are doing". Much of the time I have been working on my laptop, in a corner of the family living room; not because it was especially comfortable but being an older house it has very few electricity outlets and I wanted to be near to one of them. It did also offer me a very interesting vantage point from which to observe the week's proceedings. Much of the time I was writing, organizing photographs, dealing with some tricky economic issues with am economics professor friend/colleague who was travelling from New York through Luxembourg, then London, then on to Doha (Qatar), where he was due to make a presentation to a UN Panel. I was also trading, and it was month-end, which meant some book-keeping tasks. In short, I was working. To him, I guess it looked like time spent with a Game Boy. I don't know what he would say if he saw my friend, BW, with his Kindle.

What he meant was that, whatever I was doing, I seemed to be doing a lot of it. My eyebrows rose every time, and I often replied that he too was very persistent. I mentioned that my father had said years ago, "If you want to achieve anything, you must do something." I pointed out to my FIL, gently I hope, that he left the house at around 7.30am and got back around 5pm, and that too seemed "persistent" and "spending a lot of time doing what he was doing". He replied that he had been working. I mentioned that he was supposed to be retired and said that I rested my case.

One of my FIL's challenges is that he finds it hard to let go of certain ideas, added to which he struggles to understand many aspects of modern technology. Although he has a computer he has barely managed to use its word processing, and has not mastered the Internet, so finds it hard to understand how people use a computer to do many things. So, while he heads off to a library to research his articles, I search online. While he has an array of phone calls asking for legal advice and more, I chat through one of several online options. While he drives to his office in downtown Nassau every morning, and spends a good 8 or so hours there or in the courts, I fire up my laptop and have exchanges with people as far away as Dubai, Madagascar, and Luxembourg, to name a few places that were on the map this week. He will complain about having to spend hours in a line to get something done, and be bewildered by the suggestion that next time he spend time online to complete the process.

His family have told him over the years since they bought him the computer that he needs to rise above this challenge. He did say again this week that someone needed to show him what to do. I told him that I wont buy that and explained that in the same way that when he needs information he goes ahead to search for it in a book, he needs to learn find a book that will guide him how to use the computer. Maybe "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Computer Basics" will be on his Christmas stocking. I believe that self-teaching can often be the best way to cement an idea, as one understands best how one absorbs information. I will see if he takes on this challenge, and told him that I will see where he has reached by Christmas.

He has said to me several times this week "Ignorantia Juris non excusat" [Ignorance of the law is no excuse], and because I paid attention in my Latin classes, I was able to reply that ignorance is no excuse for anything at all.

He has also had my head spinning for another reason. That was brought fully frontal with a not very neutral comment, "You're wearing that?" (concerning a lovely pink striped shirt, with French cuffs that I had chosen to wear--my wife loves pink and I'm an exponent of "real men wear pink"; having searched for this shirt in London's Jermyn Street, we had been happy with the choice). If you have not read Deborah Tannen's book "You're wearing that?", which focuses on conversations between mothers and daughters, you might not have thought much about meta-messages: those comments that are meant to sound like helpful suggestions but are also strong opinions. You can listen to Ms. Tannen's own explanation of her book:

A remark such as "You would look better in a [white] shirt" is both a suggestion that the [plaid] shirt you are wearing may not match the rest of your outfit, but it also says clearly to the listener "I do not like your choice". When Gerard Nierenberg coined the term meta-message it did not supersede the notion of reading between the lines, but it put the notion more clearly that the impact of comments come from their context, the relationship, the timing, and the purpose.

I must admit that I think about meta-messages a lot. If you don't understand why someone responds negatively to so-called “positive” words, consider the meta-message. A simple example that is often cited is when someone arrives late and says, “Sorry to keep you waiting. A call came through that I simply had to take.” This may be greeted with a scowl [or something much worse]. To the listener, the meaning as: “My time is more valuable than yours [or in a work context, I outrank you and have the power to keep you waiting].” Bodum, I smell conflict brewing.

I cannot say if I hear meta-messages more than other people, but it's always interesting to watch what plays out when you think that meta-messages are at work. Children get a lot of them from their parents and the title of Ms. Tannen's book covers one of the topics over which much parental meta-messaging goes on, but it involves food, and friends and much more. Spouses exchange them all the time, and because we are dealing with people who tend to see themselves as equals, their meta-messaging is a tinderbox with which many explosions get started.

I wont get the chance this visit to tackle my FIL on meta-messages, but I think we will have to get down to it over Christmas. But maybe he will surprise me and send me an e-mail message before then and we can discuss the topic over the Internet.

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