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Friday, October 7, 2011

Put these chips between your lips! Or, sometimes what you learn isn't what they were teaching

Bullying is horrible. Adults have a responsibility to protect children from that type of damaging, cruel harassment.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about middle school anti-bullying programs - the kind my kids have been coming home and telling me about lately.

In 1982, the summer after my sophomore year of college, I got a job selling Chipwich ice cream sandwiches on the streets of Philadelphia. (Yes, this is about anti-bullying programs. Bear with me.) Before I was set loose on an unsuspecting public, I had to attend a day of training. I was given a Vendor Training Manual. Fortunately, I had the foresight to keep it all these years. (I tend to lose most stuff, but this had such enormous entertainment value that it’s traveled around with me ever since.)

The first page congratulated me for being chosen as “our newest professional Chipwich vendor.” Yep, I was a professional. A professional in a fake pith helmet with a bright orange hatband, a khaki apron, and an orange bow tie. It told me I was now an “ambassador of goodwill, wholesomeness, enthusiasm, and courtesy,” and it promised me “fun while selling lots of Chipwich.”

(Getting to the bullying programs. Really.)

Some more pearls of wisdom from the manual:

-- The cart is your office!
-- Smile
-- Make eye contact
-- Load vanilla on one side of the cart, chocolate on the other.
-- A well-groomed vendor will sell more than one who is not.
-- Success leads to success.
-- Never bring your personal problems to work.

You get the idea. But the best part? The slogans I was instructed to memorize so that I could yell them at passers-by.

-- It’s chip rich!
-- This is it!
-- Are you religious? It’s divinely delicious!
-- Want one? It’s a beauty!
-- North, east, west or south, Put Chipwich in your mouth!

And my personal favorite:
-- Put these chips between your lips!

Yes, I had to stand there during the training with all the other new hires and practice chanting these slogans. In uniform. With feeling.

It was utterly dehumanizing.

Some 15 years later, I was a manager working for an online startup that was acquired by AT&T - just in time for AT&T to announce that it was laying off 40,000 employees worldwide. Off they sent me and all the other managers to “Force Management Training” - or, as we called it, “Firing school.”

(Bullying. I haven't forgotten.)

I know I kept the highly entertaining manual from that training as well, but sadly I can’t put my hands on it at the moment. Suffice it to say that I spent the day listening to professional AT&T trainers tell me what I can and cannot say while firing someone. The obvious goal was to cover their corporate ass from lawsuits. (Don’t tell them WHY they’re fired, and especially don’t mention their age, gender, race, disability, or ethnicity.)

This authentic purpose was wrapped in a paper-thin cover of concern for people’s emotional well-being, as represented by a training film we were shown about  the four types of emotional responses we could expect. Ironically, this part of the presentation was meant to be the most benevolent and enlightened, but it was in fact the most offensive. Clearly, AT&T thought they were being hip with the diverse cast. But here’s what they ended up with: The angry employee was the black guy; the sad employee was the white woman; the hysterical employee was the Hispanic woman; and the stoic employee was the white guy.

(For the record, the actual firing turned out to be pretty painless because our division was mostly unattached 20-somethings, and the severance package kicked ass. Later, several managers, including me, complained to the mother ship (as we called AT&T HQ in Basking Ridge) about that offensive training film.)

So what do we have here?

(Bullying....almost there....)

Chipwich was a young company, just gone national, that was looking to sell a lot of product. Clearly, they took the advice of some marketing professionals straight out of Wharton who had never stood on a street corner selling overpriced junk food for a single day, and they were utterly oblivious as to the impression this training made on the people who were about to do so for real.

AT&T was a corporate behemoth with one goal in mind: profits. Specifically, not having to pay out large judgments in discrimination suits. So a bunch of personnel professionals consulted with a legal team and came up with a training program that was staggeringly oblivious to the real human toll of a gigantic layoff, both on those losing their jobs and on the managers being asked to fire colleagues and friends.

In both cases, the people on the receiving end of the program were not just underwhelmed, but downright offended at the dehumanizing bullshit we were being made to sit through. We didn’t feel the powers that be had a clue about what our day-to-day experiences were like. Their motivation was, “We’re doing this because it’s in OUR best interest, and because someone even more powerful than us says we HAVE TO.” Then they try to frame their selfish goals as being of benefit to ME, as a way of making MY job easier, when the truth is they know NOTHING of me, my job, or my life.

Which brings me back to school anti-bullying programs. (TA-DA!)

Everything I just said? When you’re in middle school, it’s ALL THAT TIMES A MILLION. The assemblies and “rap sessions” and edutainment programs with well-intentioned adults lecturing kids about the dangers of bullying? They are coming off to our kids exactly the same way.

The real question is, can it be done any better? In truth, I doubt it. Once you create an institutionalized program for the masses, you’re done for. There's something inherently dehumanizing about it - something self-help-guru-ish. It's lecturing. It treats people like children. It offers common-sense platitudes as if they were revelations from God at Sinai. And it misses the messy, complicated, disturbing realities of the real lives of real kids.

The hard work of combating bullying needs to be a personal commitment on the part of every single adult in a child’s life - whichever side of bullying that child is on - to truly see the child, listen, get involved, and intercede. Our schools are filled with people who do this well, every day. They’re also filled with those who don’t. How can we change those who don’t into those who do?  I’m guessing a training program won’t work.

Life is complicated, and I sure as hell don't have all the answers.

Why New Jersey schools are going all out with the anti-bullying programs: Bullying Law Puts New Jersey Schools on Spot

Yeah, Chipwich really made us wear that stuff.

AT&T's kinder, gentler way of firing 40,000 people.

The anti-bullying policy parents in our district were asked to read. Think anyone did?

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