Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Rules without Relationships

By Thomas Kochman - 01.25.2014

Rachel Snyder learned an important lesson from her experience as resident manager of an apartment building, which she writes about in her article, “How you doing, baby?”

As she describes it, “I was fresh out of grad school and thrilled, as a writer, to have free rent. My visible job was to clean the building, show apartments, escort workmen and circulate rent notices; the invisible part was to create community among different races, different economic scales, different cultures.

Eventually, I would hold potlucks at my apartment, plan camping trips, create a laundry-room library and plant a communal herb garden. But this was my first week on the job and one of my first calls to a tenant. All I knew was that she was twice my age and had lived in the building for more than 10 years.

“I was calling to ask her to remove several garbage bags sitting on her back deck. This was a building violation, but that mattered little to me. What did matter was that garbage attracted vermin — specifically rats, mice and possums — and I was masking my blind terror of possums in the convenient bureaucracy of ‘building rules and regulations.’ I had already had a run-in with a beady-eyed possum on a back porch one night. The possum was of that unsettling urban variety, too tough for mere humans. It casually sauntered away.

“I introduced myself over the phone. “We’ve had a problem lately,” I said, “with rats and mice, so if you don’t mind, could you keep your garbage from sitting on the back porch?” I suggested she leave it in her house until she was ready to take it to the alley Dumpsters.

“She breathed heavily on the other line. Finally she said, ‘Ain’t no little white girl gonna tell me what to do with my garbage.’ Then she hung up. I began to shake. I was just doing my job. Couldn’t she see the necessity of such a policy? And what did my race have to do with it? In that moment, the complexities and nuances of the job became clear.

“One afternoon, months after my phone call with her, I escorted the exterminator from apartment to apartment. I was nervous about entering hers; we had never met face to face. To be honest, I was trying every possible means of avoiding her. I had, by now, befriended many of my neighbors and made visible improvements around the building, but she hadn’t attended any of my events, for which I was secretly thankful.

“At her door, I knocked timidly, half hoping she wasn’t home. From inside, I heard her say: “I’m coming. Hold up.”

She swung open the door with a huge grin. “How you doing, baby?” she asked me, as if we were best friends.

I was so shocked by this greeting that I froze, until she said, “Come on in, now.” She showed the exterminator her kitchen. As she walked, I could see her limping — she was extremely overweight — and when she pointed to an area where she thought the cockroaches might enter, she held on to the counter for stability.

Her apartment was spotless: white living-room furniture covered in plastic, not a speck of dust on her coffee table. The stainless-steel kitchen sink shone like new.

It was the cleanest, tidiest apartment of any I had seen, and I understood then what an affront it must have seemed to suggest that she keep a bag of garbage inside her house for a minute longer than she had to.

“While the exterminator sprayed, she asked me how I was getting on and whether I was enjoying the job. She never mentioned our phone conversation.

She told me if I ever had any trouble, to come talk with her, that she was there for me. She told me I was on her prayer roster. The garden I planted looked pretty, she said.

“She never did take her garbage to the Dumpster. I constantly saw it there, on her back porch, beckoning possums. I thought of her bad knees, her labored breathing. I carried it down for her. From inside her apartment, occasionally, I would hear, “Thank ya, baby.”

So what happened here that could be considered indicative and representative of African American and US Mainstream culture?

A statement made by an African American woman on National Public Radio a while back captures the African American cultural perspective well. Attributing the success one policeman had working with young black males in the community to his ongoing commitment and level of personal involvement –in stark contrast to the approach of many of his peers– she added, “rules without relationships leads to rebellion”.

So why are relationships so important?

Sounds like a no-brainer unless we take into account how, in the absence of personal relationships, we otherwise see each other.

This is often strictly as members of a group rather than as individuals –especially so when racial, ethnic,  religious, gender and other differences (e.g. gay -straight) — are also present.

This is also how Snyder and the African American tenant initially saw each other.

The impersonal approach is also the problem with strictly administrative, role and rule driven behavior.

It lacks humanity and doesn’t take individual or situational differences into account.

Mainstream US public and work life  is generally governed by rules and regs (“rule by law”, “rule by rule”).

Anytime a new pattern of behavior or situation emerges within workplace a new rule gets established to deal with it.

Creating a rule also carries with it the expectation that it will be complied with, and by an large within mainstream culture that expectation holds true.

Other cultural groups are amazed at how rule-governed and rule-obedient mainstream Americans are.

Problems occur cross-culturally, as in the above example, when something else is wanted, and we use positional authority and rules almost exclusively to deal with problems that need fixing.

For mainstream people, this often occurs when, as in Snyder’s case, we are new on the job and where personal relationships have yet to be established.

Rather than meet the African American woman tenant face to face, Snyder chose the more impersonal and indirect route–the telephone, which also did not allow her to see what she later came to see and understand about the physical difficulty of the Black woman complying with her request.

She also invoked her newly held position as resident manager as authorization for making the request.

Both approaches, from the black woman’s cultural perspective, denied her what she came to see and appreciate about Snyder later, as someone personally committed to beautifying the building and its surrounds, promoting trust and good will among the tenants, and being generally supportive and helpful: qualities that she could respect, and which, given her value system, made Snyder’s age, gender and race ultimately inconsequential.





One Response so far

I laughed when I began reading this because I knew what the problem was long before I finished reading. Relationship can cover a multitude of differences while making all the difference in the world.

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