Walking is Good for You

The negotiation book “Getting to Yes” urges the reader to negotiate from a position of awareness as to her alternatives, so that she doesn’t push unrealistically hard for a deal that is vastly better. That way, if the other party walks away, she’s not all that much worse off anyway. And, she knows not to accept a deal that’s worse than her best alternative.

I have recently had the opportunity to observe that, at close range.  A nice and patient (perhaps overly patient, but if you must have one vice, that’s an endearing one) friend of mine was in a business negotiation where the other party was pushing her for things that were way more than she considered reasonable.  One day, she finally walked away from the negotiating table and in effect said “no deal, there’s no ‘win’ possible for me here.” Good for her.

The other party, as it turns out, had no plan B and was pushing hard — just because. It was an interesting to me how surprised and sad the other party ended up being, and not graciously so. That last twist on the story made me an especially unsympathetic observer as to the anguish of this other party, and I was extra proud of my friend for making the decision to walk away.

Walking away is a skill that’s served me well.  I’ve read “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand many times. Its theme is “integrity.” I love how the hero in the story walks away from deals that might be tempting to those of a superficial mindset, but in a context where integrity is a prerequisite, the hero sees past the distractions and focuses on the essentials. He walks away from unacceptable offers, such as taking on a project that violates his professional integrity as an architect, even though he’s financially so broke that he ends up having to shut down his architect’s office and his next best option is to go work in a quarry, doing hard physical labor to earn a living.

Similarly, as the owner and manager of a small custom software business, I’ve been in situations where my company and I were super-broke and a client was taking an unreasonable stand. I reasoned with the client and when that failed, I walked away even though the financial consequences to my business and I were very dire.  I have yet to ever regret doing so. However, there have been times when the issue wasn’t sufficiently clear to me and I erred on the side of humoring the other party, and as time passed, I typically ended up regretting that. So, nowadays when an issue can go either way, then I’m more inclined to say “see ya.”

2015-06-04 01.11.00My “coming out” as a transsexual girl was in superficial ways a very disempowering experience. From being a generally respected and admired member of social and professional circles, I became an oddity, and although I still don’t buy into the underlying pity-party premise, I now understand what folks mean when they talk about being “disenfranchised.”

I have many years’ experience in the IT business. Until I came out as a t-girl, when I spoke up during professional meetings, the room went quiet and people listened. They tended to be glad they did. But now, as a t-girl, my life is totally different. Even junior and incompetent techs blatantly ignore my input, even when the stakes are high and the tech has a long track record of wreaking havoc in his clueless wake.  If I collected “I told you so” credits, I’d have a lot of them. Certainly I’m seeing how the world looks like to females, yes … but t-girls are often considered to be several rungs lower yet in the social hierarchy, in most folks’ estimation. When a t-girl is just coming out, then that initial period she’s especially vulnerable to being generally disrespected.

I tend to be mellow and reasonable as to t-girl issues and I’m happy to explain things to people who are struggling with the concepts. Heck, I struggled with them personally for many years. It’s hardly fair of me to expect others to fast-track their acceptance of what is a very counter-intuitive premise, that someone with male-shaped plumbing is female. Yes, it makes sense when you’ve learned enough and you have belabored the issues but until then, it’s not something that seems any more reasonable than a Renaissance astronomer announcing “guess what, folks, the earth is actually a ball.”

When I looked more male than female, or I sounded more male than female, then when a stranger guessed the wrong gender pronoun then I could not fault them for that. For all I know they were trying their best to make sense of a weird situation.  They happened to guess wrong as to whether or not I’m female, but probably these were reasonable mistakes and much as I dislike being called “Sir” or being referred to with male pronouns, I see no reasonable alternative to being gracious. I figure that if I want a greater percentage of strangers to classify me as female, I should earn that. I should be more effective at coming across as such. I can’t very well go around looking like Sylvester Stallone in drag and then get irritated when someone calls me “Sir.”

Non-strangers are more problematic if they use the wrong gender pronoun for me. In such cases, I understand that old habits are hard to break and it’s difficult to naturally refer to someone as female if for years that person was referred to as male. Still, I AM basically female and I have gone to enough trouble and have made enough progress to where I now consider it reasonable to request: folks who want to continue enjoying my company should try using female pronouns for me. And when they slip up, then I’m gracious as long as it’s being done in good faith.

Yes, I understand it’s hard to switch to female pronouns as such but there are some people whose lives were changed quite dramatically due to me announcing that fundamentally I’ve been female all along. And they even so, these nice people did a stellar job of getting their heads wrapped around the issue very well.  So, if they could do it, others can, if they choose to put forth the effort. And if creating an awkward situation for me keeps coming naturally to someone and they can’t be bothered to overcome that, then they’ll see less of me … a lot less.

In a totally different category are the people who basically know better but use male pronouns for me just to be mean, or who dismiss the issue as so unimportant to them that they’re not even interested in trying. When I’m unsure, I tend to not presume malice so I gently correct someone. Mostly that goes down well. It’s when someone is clearly resistant that I become less conversationally gentle. Typically that’s a prelude to me exiting and finding nicer people to interact with, but until I can exit the situation I also don’t plan to pretend things are fine when really they’re not.

Today, there was such a situation. It inspired this blog post.

My insurance agency is managed by a married couple of whom I’m very fond. They’ve become my close friends over the last 20+ years. They’ve known me for many years when I thought I was basically male, and it’s been hard for them to get used to my new name and (surprise!) me having been basically a girl all along. But I’m patient and they try hard. They value me as a close friend and it’s mutual.

I’m also their computer fix-it geek, who keeps their business computers operational.

And, I’m also a client of their insurance agency. Over 20 years, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on their agency. I typically have about 3 vehicles insured simultaneously.

And, as of a year and a half ago, I also rent an apartment from them.

My guess is that there are many reasons to be happy about the interaction.

2015-06-04 01.11.18And, there’s more. I live near where their office is, and I know they work so hard that they often forget to eat lunch, so I used to show up and bring them lunch. They always appreciated that. And I’d say “hello” and chat and ask how their computers are doing and whether or not they needed any help with that. It was a nice, warm and fuzzy situation.

They have an employee with whom I’ve gone out of my way to be nice too, personally and professionally. Even so, this lady seemed to always be pretty casual about the gender-pronoun thing with me even after being aware of my formal name change, and after I generally look and sound more female than not. I gently reminded her when she used male pronouns for me, which was often.  It made the situation a lot less pleasant of an environment for me. But, as long as it was all in good faith, I was patient and nice. But, a few weeks ago, when I gently reminded the employee by saying “she — female” yet again when she’d referred to me as “he” in conversation while I was standing there, she dismissively and defensively said she basically has more important things to worry about than that. To me that was a red flag. It showed me that she’s not trying, nor likely to want to. That changed everything, for me. I went to that office there less and less. I didn’t consciously plan to stay away pointedly. I just stayed away more. However, as a consequence, things changed from me being a near-daily visitor in their office to me not being seen there for weeks on end. Certainly if they had needed computer help, they could call or email me, and I would have come over, but their computers were fine and so I just … stayed away. While doing so, I came to realize how unpleasant the situation had been for me, and excising these visits made each such week a happier week, for me.

My insurance needs started accumulating and I kept postponing dealing with them. Finally, I realized how much I’ve been avoiding the place. And today was a deadline in three respects … an unpaid policy was about to cancel today, and I needed to add a new vehicle to my insurance today, and I needed to remove a car from a policy today. So, I went to their office. Normally I prefer not to deal with this employee as I’m trying to avoid an awkward social situation but the principals were both busy so I explained the situation to the employee. She seemed offensively dismissive about my concerns that the policy might cancel and that I’d then have the State of Nevada fine me for two uninsured-yet-registered vehicles, a huge fine. So aside from not having happy memories as to how dismissive she was as to gender pronouns, I also disliked her being casually dismissive about making sure this policy wouldn’t cancel.  The principal (lady owner) walked past, gave me a friendly hello and expressed friendly concern that I’d been so scarce recently. She inquired as to whether everything was fine as to my policies and the employee started explaining my situation, using male pronouns to refer to me.  I gently reminded her “she — female” and since my dress and bra today really accentuate my bustline, I reached up and squeezed my boobs pointedly and said “huge boobs, she, female” as if to cue her that a visual reminder was conveniently nearby if she needed any help remembering that I’m female. This changed her speech from using male pronouns when referring to me from maybe 100% that day to maybe 50%. And each time she used a male pronoun I’d say “she — female.” The situation was quickly becoming more and more awkward and tense.

After learning about the situation, the lady principal was adamant that indeed, this employee should call the insurance agency and make damn sure the payment would post today and that there would be no lapse in coverage for me. I appreciated that.  So, with me standing there, the employee picked up the phone, called the insurance company and explained the situation, referring to me loudly as “he.” Every time I said “she” loudly in the background.  At this point there was no way I could reconcile her actions to anything but petty malice. Anyway, the conversation with the insurance company ended up requiring me to get on the line with them personally and right before handing me the phone, the employee said “here he is” or words to that effect. What a negative start to the imminent conversation that provided!  I continued saying “she” loudly every time when she said “he” and I finally took out my driver’s license, put it down on the counter and asked the employee to take a good look at the gender classification on that official document. She responded defensively. By then it was pretty clear to the insurance company rep who was overhearing all this, what sort of debacle was happening on the other side of the phone line. Feeling awkward and self-conscious and more than a little upset, I nevertheless took the phone and in a nice and girly voice, I spoke with the rep. She was most gracious with me. And there were no male pronouns in that conversation. Better.

After the phone conversation ended, the next order of business was that I needed a proof-of-insurance card to hand to the Department of Motor Vehicles. At that point the company principal lady walked past again and asked if things were now OK. The employee started explaining my proof-of-insurance card requirements and yet again used male pronouns for me. I corrected her a few times and was ignored, and I finally told the lady principal “I need to leave; I’m getting irritated” and I walked out without another word. I went to my place, called the insurance company and they emailed me a proof-of-insurance card. I printed it, took it to the DMV, problem solved.

With the crisis over, I pondered my options. I could choose to tolerate this sort of behavior, or not. If not, then things might get ugly. I understand that the insurance agency is short-handed and they really don’t want this employee to quit so they’ll be inclined to do whatever they can to keep her around. They might need me but they need her more urgently. So, if push came to shove, was I willing to say “no, I’m not willing to put up with that sort of thing from this lady ever again”  even if it cost me the 20-year friendship and a place to stay? I weighed that decision.

This is where it helps to be aware of one’s alternatives. My credit rating happens to be in the toilet, a situation I richly deserve.  So, for me to rent a new place is much more difficult … but I specifically have looked into the options for such situations. I’d typically have to come up with two months’ worth of extra prepaid rent and then all would be well. And that’s something I could do, though my preference would be to not have to pack up and move all my stuff, any time soon. Still, I had options and I knew it. I continued thinking the issues through. What if I did have to go rent a new place? What would the pros and cons be? As it turned out, they weren’t all that bad. And so I felt confident about making a stand. It was nice to know I wouldn’t be homeless and maybe die in some alley behind a dumpster soon after. I liked having options.

After the employee had left for the day, I went back and spoke to both principals. I explained that the awkward situation with their employee had been the reason I’ve been so scarce these last few weeks, and that the situation today had made it worse yet, and I was going to be categorically absent whenever that employee was present. She’s a part-time employee so I asked which days and hours she worked. The principals told me she doesn’t work Mondays or mornings.  So if I have insurance needs or I wanna visit them, I know now that when I can show up at a time when she’s not there. They also reiterated that I’m always welcome there. I replied that I’m categorically not planning to be there when that employee is around. Even when they’re having a computer crisis on a day when that employee is around then they can send her home before I’m willing to walk in their door. And yes, I really am that adamant. When someone is being mean to me, I don’t have to take it. I can, but why would I? I simply choose not to take it.

As it turns out the issue didn’t escalate and the principals were most apologetic and nice. They explained how they’re between a rock and a hard place as to needing this employee. I sympathized. Hugs were exchanged, some tears were shed and nice things were said. The friendship ended up surviving the crisis and arguably is now stronger yet. And I don’t need to start packing up my stuff and moving out.

But it felt good to be willing to do that, if that’s what was needed to make the stand and refuse to be in an environment where someone is pointedly being snide and petty.

Ironically, later in the day, I had cause to ponder the comments of a t-girl friend who recently felt disempowered in a particular situation. That inspired me to think some more about the value that any random t-girl might be adding to be the lives of those around her.

Presumably, there are many who personally cherish her, as family or as a friend. But, let’s move things beyond the hard-to-quantify warm-and-fuzzy stuff, significant as those things nevertheless are. Let’s focus instead on some cold, hard numbers.

Let’s say the average t-girl earns $20K a year in income and that she has another 25 years left in the job market. So, that’s half a million dollars that she’ll earn.

Nobody should hire employees simply to break even. It should ideally be a significant “win” for the employer. What’s the factor? It varies. If she’s a good employee she might be adding value twice that of what she’s being paid (and no, that doesn’t mean she’s being exploited though I understand that’s a popular misconception). Assuming she’s worth double what she’s being paid, that means she’s worth a million dollars to one or more employers. That’s a very big pile of money. So, at the very least there should be one or more employers who are much better off for her being around.

If she pays rent at $500 a month, that’s $6K per year. Over 25 years, that’s $150k. That’s a lot of money too. So, one or more landlords have reason to be happy she’s around and paying rent.

Following that premise, over 25 years she might be spending $100k on groceries. LOTS of reason for local grocery stores to be glad she’s around. The same general premise applies as to places where she will be spending money for clothes, shoes, medicine, movie tickets, airplane tickets, restaurant meals, flowers, etc.

This reminds me of the quip “if you feel like nobody cares whether you’re alive or dead, go ahead and miss a couple of car payments and see what happens.” The premise is that the folks who’ve been accustomed to seeing your incoming checks (in the mail every month) are going to be quite upset if you’re no longer sending these.

So, even if you’re having a bad day emotionally: it’s good to be very self-aware as to the value you can add to those around you.  If you’re not in a situation where someone is being nice to you (or at the very least civil) then perhaps it’s time to go find a place where you will be more appreciated. It certainly beats staying put and tolerating bad behavior.
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