Saturday, February 27, 2016

Casual Acquaintance

To say that we've become more casual in every aspect of our lives is to understate the trend. It's most apparent in the clothes we wear, especially to go to the "office." Yes, you see business suits on lawyers and bankers: money and justice are both still serious businesses. However, once you step outside the domains of finance and the law, it gets pretty laid back. For many, khakis and open collared shirts are not business casual, but business normal. And in the tech world, it goes further: jeans and tee shirts are the fatigues of the work-a-day solider, augmented by dress uniforms for official occasions of black turtlenecks (thank you, Steve Jobs) or hoodies (likewise to you, Mark Zuckerberg).

But clothing is only the most visible evidence of this movement to be more chummy and relaxed. You see it in writing, whether in the abbreviations and 140 character formulations that appear on social media. You see it in business, where companies are organized and run out of not just a garage, but out of a rented cubicle on a laptop. And you see it in relationships, where people are "friended" by those who are barely acquaintances, and "endorsed" by people who have no idea of your actual competencies.

Then there's commerce, an area where there was traditionally a respectful hierarchy between peddler and buyer. That's not to say that shop owners didn't get to know their customers and their specific tastes and needs; indeed, the successful ones did exactly that. But while you might get to know you butcher, your pharmacist or your dry cleaner, you didn't generally hang out with him or her. Not that they weren't hangable-outable-with. It was just the relationship was something different, and your encounters were more likely transactionally based.

That meant that interactions often started with "How can I help you, sir?" or "Is there something I can get for you, m'aam?" And while our obsession with youth has meant that the phraseology frequently omits the final generic honorific so as not to make even the most advanced among us feel old, those formulations are still the preferred forms of approach from server to served.

So I was a little confused when I got an email structured like it came from an old friend. If you're like me, when you first log in, you quickly separate the wheat from the chafe. We all get multiple sales offers and come-ons from sellers both old and new, but they are usually identifiable in .0325 seconds, roughly the time it takes to sweep them into the delete pile.  

This one had the phrase "Checking In" in the subject line, a phrase I frequently use with friends and clients. The sender had both a first and last name, and the domain was a string of initials, followed by the ubiquitous dot com. While it was not immediately recallable, neither was it a red flag: I wish I remembered every person I correspond with by their email handle, but that's not the case. So it avoided the group sweep into the trash that I routinely do first thing in the morning.

And so I opened the email to see what was up. The first line was personal in a familiar way: "Hi there. Hope you're doing great. I just wanted to check-in and see how everything was going." Could have been from my college roommate, my sister with whom I hadn't talked for a bit, or an old associate about to swing through town and wanting to catch a drink. But alas, it was not so: "We've got some pretty fancy algorithms here at Harry's that tell me that you may be running low on razor blades. If you would like to order more, you can always do so at" It went on to offer contact info, and concluded as chummy as it started: "I look forward to keeping in touch. All the best, Katie."

Now, Katie, I'm sure you're a nice person. I actually do like your blades. It's nice of you to pretend you know me. But let me be blunt: we don't have a relationship. Of any type. Never have, never will. So stop trying to be my friend. Or to paraphrase the former Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Benson: I know a Katie. Katie is a friend of mine. And you're no Katie.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't assume everyone is his friend. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Economic Immigrant

There have been a number of countries in which I've worked around the world. In most cases, special permissions and such are not required; you just show up at the border, tell the agent to whom you hand your passport that you are there for meetings, and off you go. In a few locales you need to get a visa, but it's usually a relatively painless process as long as you give yourself enough time before you head out and are willing to write the requisite checks. But a recent project took me to Canada, and for various reasons, our client decided to pay us out of their local subsidiary. As such, all involved had to register for work permits, and play the part of economic immigrants.

You would think that the process would be a breeze, being so chummy and all with our North American neighbors. But not so fast. Canada is very protective of its people and their livelihoods, and wants to make sure that there isn't someone in country who won't be working if I come in and do their job. Which, of course, is exactly the case, and that's what the game is all about.

It started a few months ago when we all got the first set of paperwork. Our client had set us up with a Canadian lawyer who knew the drill. There were forms to fill out, plus personal data and professional credentials and qualifications. Back and forth, with more forms, more bios pumped up to show how indispensable I was, more economic profiles. We had to get formalized contracts for arrangements that had been handshake deals before, the better to offer as documents in support of applications. All in all, several scores of electronic trees were sacrificed on the altar of governmental process.

Finally, a week or so before departure, a 33-page package of officialdom arrived in my email box. It started with a letter of introduction from the lawyer, talking about the project and how it would benefit the Canadian economy. It included press clippings, charts and graphs, and quotes from various government ministers. Another letter described me and my qualifications in glowing prose, so much so I was sure they had contacted my mother and asked her to write it. There were oodles of official looking forms and stamps and receipts (a lot of receipts) showing that I had submitted and paid and been duly authorized. And a final appeal to please, pretty please, let me into the country.

When I got off the plane, I informed the border control office that I was applying for a work permit. It being after nine on a Monday night, the DMV looking office he sent me to was pretty quiet, with only one person in front of me. When it was my turn, an officer called me up. He took my papers and started looking through. He asked me what my business was, where I was working and when I would be leaving the country. And then he asked me the linchpin of the whole thing: "Why do you think you're the only one who could do your job?" I shrugged. "I guess you'd have to ask the people who hired me." He looked at me, thought about it for two beats, and then said, "OK. Sit over there." He pointed to some chairs. I waited under 5 minutes, then he yelled for me to come back up. I paid the cashier, he stamped and stapled some form into my passport, and off I went.

In talking to other coworkers, some were waved through with no questions and no fees, some had my experience, while others got shunted to a side room for a longer session. But in the end, we call came through, and entered the country without incident. And no one anywhere at any location ever asked to see our stamped and approved paperwork.

To be sure, this is nothing like what you see happening in Europe, with refugees fleeing war and devastation to get them and their families to some kind of safe haven where they can build a future. My experience just meant lawyers and paperwork and time, at no risk to me in any way. At its worse it was an inconvenience, as well as a time and money waster. But with bureaucracies, sometime you got no choice but to dance to their tune.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a travel for work or otherwise. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Inbox Zero

Some might think of it as an Inverted Jenny or a 1949 Double Eagle. Or maybe for you it's more akin to Sasquatch or Nessie. Still others might think of it as a humble Hillary or an Introspective Donald. Each is an object rumored in song and story, something only a few have ever said they have seen and whose actual existence is doubted. In case you're unsure, the first set of references was to rare stamps and coins, the second to mythical creatures and the third - wait – aren't those also mythical creatures?

No matter. I'm referring to a zone of zendom that I thought was only rumor, but which I recently entered, if only for a few moments. Still, the feeling was like one I'm told you get when you strike the perfect downward dog, or are throwing a no-hitter, or float in a weightless environment. But I am not a devotee of yoga, a professional pitcher or an astronaut, and so those moments will likely forever elude me. However, in my world, I would think this is the rough equivalent: I got my email inbox count to zero.

There are two types of people in this world. Some keep everything in their inbox, deleting only the obvious junk. The counter on the side of their screen routinely moves into 4-digit territory, but at least they know where everything is. That note about their cousin's new baby is nestled right next to that missive from the co-op board about parking spaces and adjacent to the reminder from their boss about the Cincinnati project. And with everything searchable by key word, all it takes is a few taps to isolate the needed piece of information, be it "cousin," "co-op" or "Cincinnati" (unless your cousin lives in a co-op in Cincinnati).

Then there are those who obsessively file or delete each piece of incoming correspondence, trying to make the counter click downward. Sometimes it's easy: the project notes go in the project folder, the bank statements in the statement folder, the jokes in the joke folder. Others require some creative interpretation: does the offer for a phone upgrade get saved in the "phone" folder or in the "sales" folder? And still others defy any categorization: what do I do with the email I sent myself to remember to deal with the text I was sent that I still haven't responded to? Stuff like that truly defines the expression "rabbit hole."

I fall squarely into the second camp. Every time I sit down I try and take action on everything that requires it. I send out budgets, pictures, answers to questions, whatever I can, as soon as I get the information together. I'd much rather keep the ball in another's court, waiting for them to make a new request of me, versus getting a note saying "still waiting on your response."

So a quiet start to the year enabled me to do just that. I obsessively worked my mouse, clicking and dragging and dropping. And then it happened. At some point on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday night, a night when the Republicans weren't yelling at each other, a night when Cam Newton and Peyton Manning were sitting on their couches studying their playbooks, a night when Donald Trump was getting on his plane to fly back to his penthouse in New York City from Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina, I deleted one more offer from Cabela's Hunting Supply and there it was.


My breath caught in my throat, and my head spun with possibilities. My electronic demons had been exorcised, and no one anywhere was waiting on me for anything. If there was ever truly a state of freedom, this was it. I thought about what new directions I might take with my life: cure cancer, discover a new planet, learn to play piano. With nothing but time and no encumbrances, my options were limitless.

But before I even got a chance for a second thought, my computer beeped, and 13 new messages popped up: a request for someone to friend me, a sale on socks, a request to modify the floor plan for an upcoming job. And just that quickly, I was back to where I had been. Maybe Shakespeare was right: Hell really is empty, and all the devils are there.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to keep his inbox clear. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Changing Your Mind

If you had asked me for the things about which I would never change my position, it would be a short list. There's the obvious, of course: world peace (good), love (very good), and doughnuts (unbelievable good). Beyond that, I like to think I'm open minded and willing to listen to opposing arguments about most anything. Some may see it as a sign of weakness, of squishyness. After all, can you really trust anyone who is willing to start down the slippery slope of acknowledging that other people might have a different point of view, that that view might have merit given certain circumstances, that in some situations you could agree with them? I mean, if everyone did that, we might have (gasp) compromise. Was there ever a dirtier word than that?

That's not to say that those with strongly held views are wrong. For whatever reason, be they religious or cultural or familial, people have certain touchstones that they hold dear, that they base their worldview on, that they are unwilling to change. But being intransigent in and of itself is not a vice. To me, at least, the vice is in not being able to recognize that others may have different points of view, and then damming them to hell for holding to their views as strongly as you do yours.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the politics of the day. Of all the insults or putdowns one candidate can throw at another, the worst seems to be that you have actually considered changing your mind. Dare to go through with it, regardless of whether the reason was updated information or circumstances or even just a general change of heart, and you're accused of the high crime of flip-flopping, with perhaps the most famous formulation being John Kerry's "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

But let's think about it for a moment. Do we really believe that at some point before we are able to speak, or old enough to profess a view, or become parents, or become leaders of organizations big or small, that we are inculcated with a set of beliefs and values that should never, ever, ever change under any circumstance, regardless of evidence or example or situation? Might work that way for you, but not for me.  

In that light, I for one believe that changing your mind is not always a sign of weakness, but a show of intelligence. Do we really want someone taking a position and holding fast to it in spite of evidence that there might be a better way to look at the issue? Depending on your outlook, you might have held strong positions on Iran, same-sex marriage, guns, abortion or even the French. But once you encounter a broader set of circumstances or perhaps personal experiences that run counter to what you learned in the womb, does it not make sense to at least recalibrate your outlook, even at the risk of displeasing those of like-mind? I mean, who doesn't like Paris?

That said, I think it's also important to distinguish between promises and policies. "I believe in X" and "I promise to do Y" are radically different formulations. Beliefs can change, and while you might find a person's new-found views distasteful, there's nothing inherently dishonest in them making the switch. Promises are different: if you make a commitment and then go back on it, you have to answer to the constituency that took you at your word. Or as John Dickerson wrote in Slate, "Breaking a promise is a problem of a higher order than changing a policy position. Our mothers told us not to break promises."

The Brits call it a U-Turn, the Aussies a Backflip. Margaret Thatcher famously stood her ground on her economic policies by saying "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning." But she was not so much refusing to change her position as standing steadfast to give her policies a chance to play out. As for me, I prefer an approach that is usually attributed to John Maynard Keynes, even though it turns it he didn't really say it. Still, it neatly captures my point of view: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to have an open mind on all things. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.