Behind the mask

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Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

I spent Halloween like I do every other night of every other week — hiding in the basement with the lights out worrying about climate change, seal robots and new long-term care payment models.

I'm not the only one who doesn't like to answer the door on the evening of Oct. 31. A guy I work with tried to avoid this responsibility by filling a giant plastic pumpkin with candy and setting the self-serve diabetes dispenser outside on the porch. Naturally, someone stole the whole thing, pumpkin and all, within the first five minutes, but his naive trust in the basic human goodness of sugar-crazed children was adorable.

Despite a few trivial concerns about the societal wisdom and messaging of sending our progeny door-to-door begging for poison, I try not to be a total wet blanket on the annual festivities. Since I couldn't be a med aide dressed as Little Bo Peep or a rehab director administering shortwave diathermy in a shiny Paul Manafort suit covered in pond scum, I pulled out all the stops and showed up for work Halloween morning disguised as a bald Canadian. In fidelity to the role, I avoided all eye contact, so unfortunately have no idea how my efforts were received.

Though I can't remember previously learning any useful life lessons from this troubling annual assault on child health and adult sanity, this year I actually had an epiphany of sorts. As I watched people around me trying to decide what corny mask to wear to their facility costume parties, I realized how incredibly lucky I am to be free of that burden. I don't need a mask, because I already have one. It's permanently attached to my face — in fact, it is my face — and it seems to do a perfectly adequate job of regularly obscuring my identity, undermining my words and ruining my best intentions.

This has been proven to me over and over again. Recently, for instance, I was doing something in the office, I don't remember what, and said something to somebody, it doesn't matter who. But later, she appeared in my doorway. “Everything OK?” she wondered.

“Of course,” I answered. “Why, valued colleague*, do you ask?”

“You seemed annoyed with me earlier,” she responded.

I was incredulous. “Dear treasured teammate**, I'm incredulous,” I said. Because in truth, I hadn't been angry or annoyed with her at all, not one bit, and my first instinct was to feel unjustly accused and even a bit righteously indignant. How dare she not receive my words and expressions exactly as I intended them? So I protested, gently explained how wrong she was and half-heartedly apologized — and she left unconvinced.  

Supporting anecdote #2: While occupying a former life and job, I once stood in the back row for a group photo, grinning as directed. After spending 20 minutes capturing images of us in various poses, the photographer finally paused and said, “Hey, you in the back. In the blue shirt. Yes, you. Could you please smile?”

I found his command shocking, because I genuinely believed I had been smiling, broadly, the entire time. But it turns out my brain must have been operating in smile simulator mode — with the neural pathways disconnected from actual happiness muscles in my face. It was as though the beaming George Clooney mask I left the house in had secretly morphed into a scowling Richard Nixon.

It's taken me from about birth to now to realize that what I think I communicate, either verbally or non, doesn't matter much if it's not what's received and understood. In fact, in a recent study conducted by me with no scientific process or evidence, I have determined that fully 82.4% of marital and long-term care workplace misunderstandings come from making snap judgments about what we perhaps wrongly believe our spouses or co-workers are trying to say.

We take offense without even considering that they may be sending mixed verbal and non-verbal messages of which they're unaware, and it's in everyone's best interest if we give them an opportunity to clarify. As receivers of muddled communication, the old rephrase and reflect technique comes in handy at moments like this, i.e. “So Bob, what I hear you saying is that flu shots cause atheism. Do I have that right?“

Of course, the responsibility for ensuring clear communication goes both ways. My job as sender isn't over when my well-intended, perfectly crafted sentences leave my lips at facility stand-up. I should be eager to do proactive clarification right there on the front end — especially in high risk times of pressure and stress, when words and expressions are delivered with all kinds of rough edges and inadvertent meanings attached. Something like, “Please be clear, I'm NOT saying Canadians are bad people.”***

This sort of intentional communication best practice can seem forced at times, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. That's what I'm trying to say, anyway. But what did you hear? And am I smiling?

*I didn't actually say “valued colleague,” because I believe the use of sarcasm is morally wrong.

**I didn't say “treasured work-mate” either.

***I am a Canadian.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.


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Things I Think

Things I Think is written by longtime industry columnist Gary Tetz, who resides in Portland, OR. Since his debut with at the end of a previous century, he has continued to amuse, inform and sometimes befuddle long-term care readers worldwide.