Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mixed Messages

How many times have you gotten mixed signals or thought to yourself, "Did I read the signs completely wrong?"  Well, recently on a business trip, I started realizing just how many mixed messages we send in the course of a typical day.

I didn't have any real thoughts about St. Louis when I knew I'd be traveling there, I figured it would be a typical trip.  I arrived at the hotel in search of gushing hospitality and a seemingly clear vibe of St. Louis sites, culture and more.  Um, not so much.  A waiter at Mango almost single-handedly made me believe all things are possible.  His desire to make a customer happy, or to get a good tip, led to mixed vegetables at well after 11:00 at night, and gave me joy.  Wow - someone who acted like they cared about customer service.  High end food affectionately described as a hot pocket, and some new Peruvian expressions to match it, and the mixed messages post was born.  Mixed Message number one - "you are the exception and not the rule..."

For starters, the waiter shared that he had recently been asked for nachos as a guest complained that "all Mexican restaurants should have them." In not so gentle fashion he distinguished Peruvian and Mexican - but I'm convinced that it was as much a tutorial as an expose on his earlier guests.  He jokingly highlighted that women who shared characteristics to my table mate and I had really challenged his patience earlier.  Light hearted banter or a heartfelt warning?

In a few short days I've started to re-think the many messages we send on a regular basis.  This upbeat restaurant staff member shared the limits of expectations regarding those that live in and travel to St. Louis, it was a bit shocking if I'm honest.  He freely indicated that there isn't much expected from communities of color - a disturbing start to our restaurant relationship.  I had barely had the menu for a few minutes before he explained the cool reception that had become the norm during our experience.  After a conversation, he was essentially very insightful about the socio-economic dynamics of "the Lou."  When little is expected, there is little opportunity for excellence to emerge.  He said pretty bluntly working class people don't expect much from people of color here, "stereotypes are what we've gotten accustomed to."  It was pretty late to get up in arms about his opinion.  An opinion, however, explains a lot.  I kept wondering how do you take a waiter that says locally we don't think much of your kind, but I like you gals a lot.  Mixed vegetables and mixed vibes collide.

Mixed Message Clothing - Business attire and business casual have become so intertwined I find it impossible to separate the two.  I have seen a myriad of colleagues wear something between date night and board room all to the same activity or event, each time questioning where I fit within the mix.  I believe we've become a society where the gray area is much more comfortable than either the Black or White of life.  With few exceptions, it appears more comfortable for others to settle for a hybrid of everything than a stance on anything.  Are three inch heels really okay for a business meeting?  I suppose it depends on the business of the day.  I am certain, however, that a skirt that disappears when you sit down and a top that is positioned as a sling shot for launching buttons can both appear on what not to wear business edition.  Speaking first hand, wearing Fit Flops is incredibly fun - but more fit I am not.

Mixed Message Parking - Valet parking is in the same garage as the guest parking, with a $13 upcharge - plain irritating in my book.  I'd like there to be the illusion that the gentlemen are working for the $27/night charge to park my car which will sit for 5 straight days.  I just assumed that a host hotel would have parking "options", but the option is clear - walk your behind and park your car yourself, or pay for the privilege of watching the valet do the same.

Mixed Message Food - A light menu at Starbucks is really just a decision to fall off the wagon.  How light to we believe the carb assortment to be when we combine it with coffee drink number 3 of the day? You have to know, I'm a bit of coffee junkie - but I don't in the least bit believe I've done something amazing by making a light selection.  If you buy a lower sugar drink, hold the whip or skim the milk - please know that it still has more calories than if you opted for water.  Speaking of options - the light menu at most fast food restaurants should be forbidden too.  I know that the fruit is the better option as a side in the meal deal, but the fried meat on a bun could kill me without the extra help.   To then ask if you want Medium, Large or Extra Large for your light menu option - that is pure foulness.

Mixed Message Tipping - If I give you what you tell me is the mandatory tip, don't be surprised if you don't get an additional thin dime.  We have yet to corner the market on suggested dining behaviors in our culture, but the requirements go both ways.  While I understand the rationale for the mandated 18%, I believe that judging the group before they have placed their order results in many normally gracious tippers holding their purses tightly.

I have seen the hospitality industry at its best and its worst during this recent trip.  This I believe - a host hotel should have to earn that title; with verification that restaurants are fully staffed and a general belief that guests should be treated as "guests".  I assume you usually get what you give in hotel contract negotiations, but a cheaper deal isn't necessarily a better deal.  I would love to see the conference language that accounts for performance when a group of over 5,000 can't guarantee a full place for every guest.

Mixed Messages Mentoring - As a young woman I remember how irritated I was at the "Do as I say not as I do" model for operation of life.  Maybe the biggest disconnect during my travel was a contrast of past memories and current realities.  When you look up to a group of people and realize they are more like the Wizard of Oz than the people you esteemed so highly, what a disappointment.  For years I have given credit to folks for shaping that must have gotten overrated due to youth.  I now wonder if they were shaping me or shaping a legacy for themselves?

As a young woman I had idealistic thoughts about connecting to others throughout my life journey, and building these life-long relationships.  Even as a young professional I saw the mixed message about achievement, interdependence and independence.  In the past few days I've been reminded that the images that shape us as young women shift, develop and sometimes change as the years advance.  I'd rather impact a few people for a lifetime, than ultimately not live up to the example I set for the masses.  I would like to intentionally manage my personal messages to avoid a lifetime of mixed messages.  I have been reminded that in the course of a day we learn as much about what NOT to do and say - as we learn about what TO DO.    

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