Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Professional Courtesy
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Last week’s post on “Surviving Someone Else’s Jealousy” went viral. I got more e-mail than I’ve ever gotten on a single Freelancer’s Guide post, and more people tweeted, blogged, or commented on various social networking sites than ever had before.
I had no idea how many of you had suffered from someone else’s toxic emotions in the pursuit of your dreams. I suggest you look at the comments on last week’s and on Professional Jealousy from the week before. Lots of good stuff there.
Mixed among the e-mails were several sympathetic e-mails—virtual hugs—for which I thank you very much. But honestly, folks, I’m okay. The examples I wrote about, while disturbing to remember, are long in the past. Yes, occasionally, I have more trouble with toxic personalities, but as I learned last week, we all have that kind of problem if we’re doing something that we love. Which is just sad—not for us, because we’re living fully—but for those jealous rage-filled people out there, who don’t understand that they need to take care of themselves first.
Posts like last week’s make me nervous when I write them because they talk about the negative sides of the business. More than one e-mail writer confessed that they had no idea how difficult things could get with friends, family, and even strangers. A few of those e-mail writers wondered if the price of freelancing—of succeeding at what you love—is worth it.
Absolutely. I don’t want to do anything else. In fact, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m saving a post for the very end of this Guide on the benefits of freelancing. (If folks have benefits they want me to mention, send me an e-mail marked “Benefits of Freelancing,” along with the benefit and permission to use your name in the Guide.) Believe me, there are a lot of benefits. One of them is the ability to do something like this Guide just because I felt the time was right, not because someone told me to or I had to or because someone thought I was the person for the job. Nope. I got the idea and did it when I felt like it, working at all hours of the day, as I could fit it in—sometimes in the early morning (bleh), sometimes late at night, and sometimes pushing up against my own personal deadline. You guys—and the recession—have gotten me to write a book I’d been thinking about for years, but had never committed to. And I’m quite happy with the interactivity because without it, I wouldn’t have nearly 120,000 words of Guide so far.
Nor would I have some of the topics I’ve covered. Like this week’s topic, Professional Courtesy. I got several letters this week, complaining about the boorish behavior of professionals. All of the professionals discussed in the e-mails were professional writers, and at first, I thought of starting a new book when this one was done, called Etiquette For Writers. (Although I’m not sure I should be the Miss Manners of the Literary Set, particularly when I emitted an involuntary “f*ck you!” at a friend this weekend in response to a comment about my age. [Granted, he is a friend, so he’s used to me. He said humbly, “Well, you know I mean it,” in the tone someone else would use to say, “Well, you know I didn’t mean it,” and we all laughed and the conversation went on from there.])
As I pondered this Etiquette For Writers idea, I got more and more e-mails about terrible behavior by professionals. (All writers.) I had experienced some awful behavior by musicians and actors, so for a while I wondered if the bad behavior belonged only to people who make their living as artists.
Then, on Dean’s (writer Dean Wesley Smith’s) blog, writers started discussing the way that agents—people they hired!—had treated them, and I made a single post about bad behavior involving cell phones among working professionals everywhere. That’s when I remembered grumping a few years back about sending gifts to friends and never receiving an acknowledgement or a thank-you. (One friend actually criticized the gift!) It took a four-year-old whose father had to dial the phone to remind me what courtesy was like; she was so thrilled with her gift that she had to tell me now, and her response pleased me to no end.
Dean teases me about being too polite (despite the occasional involuntary f*ck you), especially when dealing with people I don’t know. I’m “yessir-ing” and “no-ma’am-ing” and “please” and “thank you” and “would you mind?” and “excuse me” and smiling politely even when I want to rip someone’s head off. When I’m startled, I revert to polite.
Which is a good response, considering my potty mouth. (I was startled this weekend, but relaxed and among friends, hence the blue outburst.)
We all know we should be polite to others, particularly in a business situation. But let me share with you some of the bad behavior I’ve heard about this past week as well as some things I’ve experienced. I’ll start with writers, then move to other professions. Then we’ll talk a bit about obligations.
1. An unpublished writer bought a published novel written by a friend. The unpublished writer was excited to buy the friend’s book, complimented her on it, and had her sign it. The friend proceeded to badmouth her own book—talking about the problems she still had with it, the things she should have done, the things her editor should have done, the problems with the sales department, and more. The writer thinks of that every time she looks at the book, and probably will not buy any more books by the friend because the experience so soured her.
2. I was signing books with New York Times bestselling author. A fan, clearly excited to meet NYT author, brought in her entire collection of said author’s work. The author signed the books, but loudly demanded to know why anyone would want her books defaced like that. “What’s the point?” NYT author demanded. “Proof that you met me so you can show off to your little friends?” The author continued along those lines—not in a humorous way, but in a very mean way—and the fan left. In tears.
3. I got five e-mails—five!—in which the e-mail writers recounted stories like the ones above. Each e-mail mentioned that the fan had told the published writer how much the fan had liked the work; each time the published writer had criticized the work or the publishing company or the bookstore where the event was being held. And each e-mail letter complained that the published writer had never once said thank you. Not once.
4. My favorite bookstore pet peeve: I get to the checkout counter with my half dozen books (try to get me out of a bookstore with fewer than six—I dare you), and the employee behind the cash register—or worse!—the bookstore’s owner tells me that the books I’m buying aren’t any good. Usually the employee/owner hasn’t read the books. Often the employee/owner sniffs and says something like, “Since you’re buying so many, maybe you’d like a really good book” (in a tone that suggests my choices were substandard). This, by the way, is different from “Do you like that author? I want to try his books,” which just shows interest.
5. My second bookstore pet peeve, which used to be a general retail pet peeve until the rise of online ordering (especially for music): Being told in the same snobby tone as the examples above that “we don’t carry that product.” Now I’m okay with a place not carrying everything, but in bookstores you’ll hear this as “We don’t carry <sniff> romance or <snarf> science fiction.” I recently encountered this attitude at a pet store, when I went to buy cat food because my usual venue was closed. I was told in no uncertain terms that I do not love my cats because of the food I feed them (recommended by my vet, btw—capitalist dog that he is). I ran from that pet store, and have not entered it since. (Since this was the store’s owner who uttered that “you clearly don’t love your cats” line, I also actively discourage friends from going there as well.)
6. I was accompanying a friend as her eyes and ears while she prepared for major surgery. When she started questioning her surgeon about the procedure, he told her she wasn’t smart enough to understand everything he had to do. I stopped him, asked a few more clarifying questions, and he got angry at me for questioning him. We had other problems with this man as the days progressed. I urged her to get a second opinion—and to find another surgeon. She didn’t. She came out just fine (thank heavens). But no degree of expertise should allow anyone to treat a patient/client/customer like he treated her. (And we’ll not discuss the things he said to me while she was being anesthetized.)
I could go on and on and on. I’d like to say that this is an American problem only—and honestly, our culture has become very, very coarse in the past twenty years. But I’ve encountered rude behavior from professionals everywhere except (dare I say it?) Canada. Although come to think of it, the first rude writer I ever met was a famous Canadian literary writer (who has also been on the New York Times list) who spoke to my college creative writing class. We spent a week preparing for her visit, reading her work, and preparing questions. Then she arrived, gave a short talk, and proceeded to insult us all by saying that since none of us would ever be published, we weren’t worth her time. Since we weren’t worth her time, she wasn’t going to take questions. I haven’t bought her little books now for 30 years because of that rude and condescending afternoon.
So…am I saying be polite at all times?
No. That would be hypocritical of me. Generally speaking, I’m not polite. I’m blunt and foul-mouthed, particularly among people who know me. I don’t suffer fools very well (and certainly not gladly), and I have been known to take someone apart piece by tiny piece when I get irritated.
But I try to be polite most of the time, partly because I have been on the other side of the bad behavior. When someone tells me they like a book I’ve written, I thank them. When they have a question about my work, I try my best to answer it. When they scream at me in public (see last week’s piece), I do my best not to scream back.
Let’s talk about fans/readers/clients/patients for a moment.
Without them—oh, freelancer—you are nothing. If you do not have a readership, then you won’t last long as a professional writer. If you don’t have clients, then you won’t make it as a lawyer. If you don’t have patients, you’re not a doctor.
Granted, that surgeon I mentioned above never got his patients directly like a family practice doctor does. If you see that surgeon, you usually see him once or maybe twice, and always at the recommendation of another doctor. Believe me when I tell you that I reported that surgeon to all the doctors I know who recommended him, and all of them were shocked at his behavior. I don’t know if I had a negative impact on his recommendation rate, but I like to think I did.
Be as courteous as you can. I’ve had fans go through my books line by line, telling me what’s wrong with them, and then buy another book and have me sign it. If I had gotten defensive at those critiques (and trust me, I was feeling defensive, I just didn’t express it), the readers wouldn’t have purchased another book. Do I want fans like that? Of course I do. I’m a fan like that. I won’t tell a favorite writer why I think she went wrong in her most recent book, but I will tell another fan and we’ll discuss the problems. And then I’ll go out and buy the next book. I’ll wager a lot of you are the same way.
Most of us just wouldn’t tell the writer how much we hated one of her efforts. And that’s the only difference.
I can be very forgiving of fans, just like I can be forgiving of customers. I went out of my way as a waitress and as a retail clerk to make sure that the customers were happy, even if the customers were drunk or rude or wrong. That old adage, the customer is always right, is a good one to remember when you’re in public.
Of course, there are times to toss the adage. The customer should not be abusive or violent. Certain types of behavior should not get a pass, ever.
But mostly, what does it hurt you—the professional—to bite your lip? To be polite or just not say anything at all? Writers, say thank you when someone compliments your work. Bookstore owners, be thankful someone is buying your stock. Lawyers and doctors, expect your clients to be a bit emotional for most are seeing you at a tough time in their lives. A little empathy goes a long way.
Remember, though, that everyone has a bad day, and not everyone has social skills. I think the reason so many of my examples this week were about writers is not just because I am a writer, but because writers usually don’t need social skills. We sit in a room and make things up. We interact with ourselves, our family, our friends, and our imaginary friends. Sometimes we forget how to survive in the real world.
I think everyone should get a pass for the occasional rude remark. If the behavior is continual, though, like that surgeon’s, then don’t go to that professional again.
If you’re a person who has poor social skills, figure out how to ameliorate the problem. There are actual classes to shore up your public behavior, should you want to take them. Community colleges offer them as do regular colleges. In my small town, our chamber of commerce has a once-a-year course in public relations. Taking something like that might be worth your time.
If you’re like me—a person who can be polite some of the time, but not all of the time—figure out a way around the problem. In most instances, I’m just fine. But when I’m teaching a one- or two-week workshop, with long hours, I know I’ll relax and then my potty mouth will get the best of me. So I warn my students ahead of time, and I apologize in advance. Then I try my best to be on my best behavior.
A lot of people can’t be polite when they’re busy. Politeness is the first thing out the window. In that instance, I’d recommend hiring a receptionist, a secretary or a clerk—someone to handle the public while you’re handling the actual business. (See my posts on employees first.) And if you can’t afford the help, then take classes. Make an effort. Learn how to put your best foot forward.
Here are a few tips to help you be courteous.
1. Never take your fan/reader/client/customer for granted. Treat them with respect and maybe just a bit of awe. After all, they’ve deemed you worthy of their time, trust and/or hard-earned dollars. Honor that.
2. Say please and thank you. I know, I sound like your mother. Well, take those lessons to heart. In response to a compliment, a simple thank you means a lot more than a critique of the work at hand. Show some appreciation for the person who came into your store, ordered food off the menu you designed, or bought a book you wrote. They didn’t have to do that, you know. You’re not entitled to customers or nice comments. You have to earn them, like everyone else.
3. Dress up. This goes for anyone who interacts with the public. It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I watch American Idol, and I use it as a learning tool. One thing that continually shocks me is how many people claim that being a professional musician is their lifelong dream, yet these people show up in sloppy sweats, ratty blue jeans, and ill-fitting t-shirts. One girl this year—who was chosen from the auditions to go to Hollywood Week—was incredibly poor (I mean horribly, awfully poor). She managed to scrounge up $4 to buy a dress at the Dollar Store—and you could tell that purchase meant she went without food or gas or something else important. She worked hard to look her best. Yet people with a lot more money looked like they had just gotten out of bed. Most of these folks weren’t wearing their punk rocker costume. They just hadn’t bothered to clean up for this big opportunity.
If you work at home and don’t normally dress up, your “public” clothes will become a costume. I have my jeans and ratty sweaters for at home, and my business attire for book signings or conventions, and my black-tie outfits for banquets. When I wear the business attire or my black-tie outfits, I’m wearing something slightly unusual—and it serves as a reminder that I am out in public. My costume, if you will, helps me be just a bit more formal than I would usually be.
4. If you have trouble being polite, smile and say very little. The smile is important so that folks don’t think you’re surly. But put on your company face, and do the best you can.
5. Be respectful. I think half the writer examples I read this week wouldn’t have occurred if the writer had taken a moment to view the person they were talking to with respect. Success doesn’t give you a license to be rude.
6. Enlist a Rescuer. This may sound silly, but it’s important, especially if you have fans. You’ll need someone to grab your arm and pull you out of a crowd. I’ve done that for some famous writers back when I was editing. Dean does it for me at my signings, and I do it for him at his. Sometimes fans don’t know when to stop hogging your time. A bookstore clerk will often hustle the fan along, but at conventions, no one will do that. Your rescuer can get you out of a tight situation without insulting the well intentioned person who has backed you into a corner.
The other thing your rescuer can do is stop you from making a fool of yourself. I have a look that I get when someone has crossed over this mental line that I have that goes from “nice” to “fool.” (Usually that line gets crossed by some unforgivable [often bigoted] political remark.) I’ve had half a dozen friends save the poor person who crossed my mental line by recognizing my look and getting me away from the person quickly.
Once I was at a dinner with a famous person whose politics are—shall we say politely—the opposite of mine. We had a business relationship, that I carefully kept out of the political arena for years. But, as luck would have it, our dinner fell two days after a particularly hard-fought election. And he launched into some horrible, unbearable diatribe filled with n-words and other such things. My assistant, who was having dinner with us, grabbed my knee in the middle of that diatribe and while I thought of going for the steak knife and disemboweling this famous person, my assistant held me down and dug his fingers into my thigh until I was black-and-blue. But I didn’t destroy a lucrative business relationship with my potty mouth and my politics—only because I had a rescuer at that table. (Or rather the famous person had a rescuer. Because had we been alone at that dinner, I might be in prison now.)
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my post on surviving other people’s jealousy brought out this dark side of professionalism. I think most of you who are being rude—and believe me, some of you are reading this blog—don’t realize that you are. Figure out how to gain some self-awareness in this area. Maybe even practice the things you’ll say when you go out in public.
Remember this: Professional courtesy brings repeat business. Rudeness will often destroy the relationship. Granted, there are times when you don’t want to do business with that person ever again. But usually, you do. Be nice. Be polite. Be respectful.
Really, it’s not that hard.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Professional Courtesy” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.