Correcting an Error

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column trying to show support for our police during some turbulent times. We have not experienced most of the problems that large city departments across the U.S. have faced recently, but our officers confront many of same risks inherent to police work. Among the dangers is the need to make split-second decisions about how to react to a potential threat.

I wrote in my column that the murder of police officers in Dallas, Texas, occurred while people were demonstrating “over the deaths of unarmed African-Americans in Minnesota and Louisiana.” My comment was based on news reports I had seen and was not intended to be any kind of judgment about whether those who died were armed or not. I think most of us understand that law enforcement officers sometimes have to use their weapons without knowing if someone is carrying a gun. The men who died in both Minnesota and Louisiana were carrying weapons, and I apologize to anyone who might have been offended by my error. The larger point I was trying to make is that we all share the burden of making our communities safe places to live, and we do little to further that cause by angrily pointing fingers at the police or anyone else.

Last week I wrote about being considerate of others, which, in my opinion, includes the need to distinguish between honest mistakes and deliberate misrepresentations. I wrote: “Thoughtful people understand that all of us make mistakes, confuse facts, and are, with distressing frequency, dead wrong. The best way to correct these mistakes is honest communication unhindered by name calling or other forms of humiliation that create barriers to understanding.” I have spent a good share of my working life trying to do my bit to make local governments work better. Even the very best people and places need to keep improving in order to stay ahead of the many forces (natural and man-made) that work to tear us down. We can’t do better if we are not willing to honestly discuss our differences of opinion and find ways to constructively resolve them.

All of this may be my long-winded way of saying that I appreciate responses to things I write that might strike a bad chord or otherwise provoke an unpleasant response. Having made the decision to express my thoughts in writing every week, I have to accept that people will sometimes find fault with what I’ve written either because of my mistakes or by virtue of a different point of view. Please feel free to let me know if that happens. I can’t guarantee that I will always agree or change my opinion. I can guarantee that I will respectfully consider whatever I’m told.

Being Considerate

I don’t know where or when the notion of political correctness entered the national dialogue, but I think it’s time we discard the term and return to the simpler concept of being considerate. Most of us were raised to be considerate people who do not go out of our way to offend others. My parents believed consideration for others was a part of basic good manners, and they communicated that belief to me in countless subtle and not so subtle ways throughout the years I was under their care.

Basic consideration for the feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and practices of others requires no apology or even any particular skill. Considerate people recognize that peacefully coexisting on an increasingly crowded planet means we probably shouldn’t blurt out whatever we might be feeling or thinking at any given moment. There is nothing dishonest about exercising a little discretion at moments when we may feel aggrieved or provoked. Consideration does demand some minimal self-control and patience–virtues that, in my opinion, have become undervalued in recent times.

While these arguments may have general applicability in the wider world, my purpose in writing about them here relates to their importance in the work place. I don’t know about anyone else, but I do not go home at night and tell my wife that I think she’s done something stupid, regardless of whether I might have an issue with anything she’s said or done. Similarly, I have enough respect for the people I work with every day to avoid comments that might offend them. Being considerate has nothing to do with being politically correct and everything to do with the basic need to maintain positive relationships with those we interact with every day. Expressing disagreement or dissatisfaction can be done with enough consideration to get the message across, while still being very clear about our own thoughts and feelings. Being considerate allows us to communicate without humiliating, provoking, or otherwise engendering feelings that undermine the purpose of whatever it is we’re saying.

Consideration extends to both sides of a conversation. There is no reason for anyone to look for reasons to be offended. Considerate listeners don’t interrupt or interpret every remark as an excuse to be incensed. Thoughtful people understand that all of us make mistakes, confuse facts, and are, with distressing frequency, dead wrong. The best way to correct these mistakes is honest communication unhindered by name calling or other forms of humiliation that create barriers to understanding.

As I approach retirement and too often confront reminders of age-related diminished capacity (i.e., recent attempt to climb a steep section of the Great Wall of China), I fear that perhaps my notions of good manners are simply another example of falling out of step with the times. I hope others will, however, humor me in my decline by treating others with the respect and consideration I believe we all deserve.

Final Thoughts from China

My wife and I learned an important lesson yesterday about riding Chinese subways. Do not board a subway train during rush hour unless you are prepared to become so close to the people around you that you literally cannot move. My wife made the mistake of being the last person aboard as people stampeded into our car, and a guy who was “managing” the crowd put his hands on her backside and crammed her aboard. Behavior that would warrant an arrest for assault in the U.S. is just part of the normal commute on Beijing’s subways.

Aside from our rough introduction to the subway system, we were able to make our way around town and visited historic sites like the Lama Temple and the Temple of Confucius plus the Beijing Zoo. We had to take pictures of live pandas or several of our grandchildren would have been very disappointed. Beijing is rapidly becoming one of the most developed capitals in the world, with a population of more than 20 million people and a seemingly endless skyscape of high-rise buildings. Managing all the new buildings and infrastructure is still a major concern that involves traffic jams, drainage issues, lack of routine maintenance, and building safety, to name a few.

The technology of the present is, in many ways, overshadowed by the accomplishments of the past in downtown Beijing. The towering structures of the Forbidden City and the many temples completed hundreds of years ago are testimony of an advanced culture that predated Western Civilization. Today’s progress emphasizes the point that China’s long tradition of accomplishment may get sidetracked on occasion, but it is unlikely to end anytime soon.

We have greatly enjoyed the people we’ve met here and none more so than my teaching assistant Yong. We had dinner with him Sunday night at the Auspicious Hotel, which has one of the nicest restaurants in the Chanping District where we are staying. Nearly everyone has been welcoming and eager to help us, whether it’s finding our way or figuring out what to eat. We have had some memorable meals, although we have mostly eaten at the University’s cafeteria. We are staying at a university-owned hotel called the International Exchange Center, located just across the street from where I was teaching.

Our last adventure before heading home will be to travel back to the center of Beijing by subway to visit Mao’s mausoleum and a large outdoor market. We are planning to leave the hotel at 5:00 a.m. to avoid rush hour. Paying for guided tours is comfortable, but expensive, while making your own way through the subways is sometimes uncomfortable, but satisfying.

I have been keeping up with events at home through the Internet and e-mail messages, so I don’t think there will be many surprises when we get back. We have missed our family and friends over the past few weeks but would not have traded the chance we’ve had to meet new friends and see first-hand what is happening in this very dynamic part of the world.

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From top: Subway station at rush hour; panda at the Beijing Zoo; awaiting a great Tibetan lunch; the world’s tallest Buddha (carved from sandalwood); and hanging out with ducks (naturally) at the Zoo.