Friday, February 24, 2017

Are You Prejudiced? The Answer is Yes.

I attended a writers group meeting this week where I was asked to critique a writer’s work. On the second page the writer, a retired white man, had described his protagonist getting into a cab driven by “a black driver.” I asked why he had described the driver as “black”. Was the protagonist a white character in Harlem or some setting where there was a reason to describe the cab driver’s ethnicity or color? He told me there wasn’t. On the next page, the protagonist passed “a brown-skinned woman”. I asked how her skin color was important to the story. He replied it wasn’t, as we never saw this character again. Two paragraphs later, his protagonist encountered “a woman”.

Since she had no adjective preceding her, I had to ask him, “Would I be correct to infer she’s a white woman?” The writer said yes, she was. “But you didn’t put “white woman,” I said. “You simply wrote ‘woman’ because she was a normal person?” He nodded. “And the other characters weren’t normal,” I continued. I could hear the penny drop, the tiny light bulb turning on behind his eyes, as he realized where I was going with this.

“As a white writer, you don’t feel the need to tell your readers your characters are white because you’re assuming your readers are white, and white is the normal skin tone for all characters unless you want to add some ‘color’ to your story. But what you’re saying is white is the default, normal skin tone and race, and anyone else differs from the norm. Imagine how you would feel if you were not a white reader reading the story. You wouldn’t be able to put yourself in the mind of the protagonist because he views you, the reader, and every nonwhite person he encounters throughout the story as ‘other’, ‘not normal’, or ‘different’. Instead of writing something that’s inclusive for your reader, you’ve made it exclusive.”

He asked if I thought anyone would be offended. “I was,” I replied. “And I’m white. This isn’t the 1950s. We live in a multicultural society, and thanks to the Internet as authors our work is read worldwide. The more successful we are, the more our work will be read by people of all races, colors, and cultures.” I explained it’s not just the current population of potential readers, but those who will be reading our books in the decades to follow. About 50 percent of American children under age 10 are nonwhite. Think about that. Half of the potential readership for the young adult book you’re working on today is not white. By the time it’s eventually published, you’ll have excluded half your audience.

Our readership has become more ethnically diverse. In America alone, our society encompasses Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans of varying skin color. Not only should a Caucasian writer not assume the reader is white, he should not want to give that inference. Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, the protagonist should be a chameleon who can take on the characteristics of the reader.

That’s not to say race or color should never play a role in character description. For example, in my Halos & Horns fantasy series I have a character named Asabi whom I have made clear is black. Asabi is an emere: a mythological being who is able to travel between Heaven and Earth. Emeres come from the legends of the Yoruba People in Africa. It’s important that Asabi be black because his origins stem from ancient African legends. It would be insulting in my opinion (or to use the god-awful politically correct term ‘cultural appropriation’) to cast Asabi as anything other than black.

When Asabi had his first romantic relationship, with Cassiopeia, it was important to the plot that I describe her as a white woman. But most of my other characters, unless required by the plot, were never described by the color of their skin. Readers may have assumed the two main characters, Gabriel and Lucifer, were white, but they could just as easily have been black. I left that to the imagination of the reader, and perhaps white and black readers imagined them differently.

The truth is, we’re all prejudiced to some degree simply because of the insular environments in which we were raised. We’ve been brought up to think of the world as pockets of “us” (defined as those who share similarities with us) and “them” (defined by those who differ from us). I know the writer I met this week is not racist; yet he let the vestigial prejudices we all have slip into his writing. For those of us who are writers we must take extra care to make sure our words are not unintentionally exclusive. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

She's Too Important!

“The business of America is business.” So declared the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. American business is the great engine of commerce that has made the United States into a global economic powerhouse. It’s what enabled us to switch rapidly from manufacturing for a consumer economy to manufacturing for a wartime economy during World War II. And it’s what helped define the prosperity of the Eisenhower years in the 1950s, the golden era of American consumerism.

We’re no longer in the golden era for American business; to the contrary, American business now languishes in a tarnished era. This is not good for our country or our society. We must restore the business standards that enabled American business to thrive generations ago. To do this, we must first identify the problem. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my recent series of posts on the sad state of American business.

When I was growing up there was a saying that “the customer is always right.” Now obviously, no one is always right but the point of the aphorism was the recognition that the customer is the most important element of any business. If no one buys your product or service, you don’t have a business. This is the foundation of the concept of customer service. It was perhaps best embodied in an advertising campaign by the Avis car rental company; noting its competitor Hertz had been ranked Number One in the industry, Avis cleverly launched a series of ads with the tagline “We’re Number Two: We have to try harder.”

That was then; this is now. I received an incentivization letter from my car dealership inviting me to speak to them about my expiring lease so as to lease a new car. I realize they send these form letters to every customer but as it was signed by a specific individual, I called and asked to speak with her. The young salesman who took my call insisted he could help me. When I insisted on speaking to the person for whom I had asked, he told me the woman was "too important to speak to me."

Now, I’ve spoken to congressman and senators, governors, and even the president of the United States (not the current one). I've spoken to famous actors and entertainment celebrities, and to many well-known public figures. I've spoken to many individuals considered to be the most preeminent in their fields of endeavor. Yet I have never been told by them or their assistants that they were "too important" to speak with me. This is an all-time low for customer service experiences, particularly in sales. I've worked in sales and you never tell a customer that someone in your operation is too important to speak to them, or conversely, that the customer is not important enough to speak to one of your employees. Mind blown.

Well, that was an amazing phone call. This is a major automobile dealership. Where is the employee training? These employees will one day move into management positions without having learned the basics that any student would learn his or her first year in business school. This portends a major problem for American business, which will spiral into a further decline.

Ten minutes later, I received a call from the same young man telling me he had walked over to her office and "she's out sick today." How convenient. But, he added,  if I tell him what I wanted to talk to her about, he could handle it for me. (I told him she could call me when she feels better). This was an obvious lie from which I could infer two possibilities: Either the salesman never left his seat and simply called back 10 minutes later in an attempt to make a commission, or he did go to her office and was told to tell the caller she was out sick. So either he was lying on his behalf or on her behalf. Neither is an acceptable business practice.

It’s also a dumb sales move. Sales is about establishing trust between the buyer and seller. Starting off any relationship with lies, let alone offensive comments, is pure stupidity.

Yes, the customer is not always right. But establishing and accepting a business culture in which employees believe they are more important than the customers they are there to serve, and that it is acceptable to lie to customers or demean them, is further evidence of the decline of American business to the detriment of our society as a whole. Corporate executives and middle managers must become cognizant of what is happening within their own businesses further down the food chain and take corrective actions to reverse this decline.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Looking for love in All the Wrong Places

Now that everyone is connected to the Internet and it’s become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, people are shopping for everything online. Take me, for example. This week alone, I've bought shoes, toothpaste, a calendar, and a set of dining room chairs, all purchased online. But many people are taking it one step further and shopping for their significant other in cyberspace.

Dating – or at least the quest for Mr./Miss Right – (or Mr./ Miss Right Now) has moved online for the same reasons everything else has: it’s quicker, easier, and you can do it at 2 a.m. in your pajamas. Typically, dating sites feature a prospective match’s profile (Unless you’re on the prowl for Mr./ Miss Right Now, in which case, you can use the one-paragraph short form, known as Craigslist, and list the acronyms – NSA, SWF, D&DF, etc. – you’re looking for. Don’t put too much thought into this process, because it doesn't matter what you list; Craigslist readers will ignore your criteria and contact you anyway).

In addition to the profile, date seekers usually post a photo of themselves. Usually, but not always. Sometimes, they post pictures of their dogs. Depending on the breed, it may be hard to tell the date seeker from the dog. About a third of the time, the dog turns out to be the better choice. Beware of photos in which the date seeker is hiding his/her face: either not facing the camera, wearing dark glasses, or in costume, or where the thumbnail photo cuts off the head (Alfred E. Neuman lookalike) or body (Sea World reports a whale escaped) … Or where there is no photo at all. There’s a reason why he/she didn't want you to see the hidden feature.

Then there are the misleading photos. The Technically Honest One: it is a photo of the date seeker, however it was taken 10 years ago; The Best Friend: the date seeker with his/her much better looking friend, whom you’ll be disappointed to learn is already taken; The Guess Who: see if you can pick out the date seeker from a group photo shot. Finally, there’s The Glamour Shot: a stunningly beautiful photo that makes you think the date seeker should be a model – it turns out, she is a model and some scammer has used her photo on a fake profile. A word of caution: if it looks too good to be true, Google Image Search the photo.

Avoid profiles that are too short. If the date seeker is continually answering essay questions with “ask me anything you want to know” or “we can talk about that later” it shows he/she has put less thought and effort into meeting you than into writing the weekly grocery list. At the other extreme, if the date seeker has indeed written a long grocery list of specific qualities, characteristics, or other requirements a prospective match must meet, then this person is too picky and shallow to become involved with.

Peruse other date seekers’ profiles to learn what they do right, and more importantly, what they do wrong. I found three examples on one site in the first five minutes, this morning. In response to the question “What are you doing with your life?” she wrote: “Studying hard to become a charter accountant.” Obviously, she wasn't studying hard enough, because if she had been, she would've known her chosen occupation was a chartered accountant. If you’re too stupid to know what you are studying to become (or worse, so careless that you don’t check what you've written before you post it … not a good idea, by the way, for detail-oriented professions like accounting), then you’re not dating material (and I certainly don’t want you doing my taxes, either).

The second profile I saw today featured a chubby girl in a string bikini. Now, health concerns aside, there’s nothing wrong with a potential match being a bit overweight. We can’t all look like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. But when marketing yourself, you should always lead with your strongest features, not highlight your weakest attributes.

The third profile began – and ended –  by stating the woman was “Not interested in casual sex”. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being upfront about what you are, or are not, looking for in a relationship. But don’t send mixed messages by labeling the same profile with the username “Cutie2PlayWith”.

Remember, online dating is all about marketing yourself. You are the promoter, as well as the product. Prospective daters will assume whatever image your profile conveys is the image of yourself that you've carefully chosen to present. While the zombie costume may have won raves at a Halloween party, it’s not a good choice for your dating profile photo. Your rant about your ex might be justified, but is your dating profile the right place for it… is that the first thing you want a potential date to read?

Successful marketing begins with truth in advertising. Don’t lie or mislead. Be upfront about your weaknesses, but lead with your strengths. Put the time and effort into writing a profile that shows that you think finding the right relationship is important. And if all else fails, at least you can still buy shoes and toothpaste on the Internet.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Happy Valentine's Day

 A paranormal coming of age story. Brendan has a hard time fitting in as the new kid in town, especially on Valentine's Day. Although he hasn't made any friends at his new school, there is one girl he hopes will be his Valentine. But will their holiday end in newfound romance or heartbreak? A short story for young adults by Keith B. Darrell. 2,564 words.