January 17, 2009

Getting It Done

I care about my mail. Every week, I eagerly await my issue of The Economist magazine, not to mention the letters that get sent my way. My mail gets sent to me care of African Medical Mission. AMM mail gets sent to the Mthatha Hospital Complex where it is then sorted into our box.

After Christmas, there was a huge pile of mail (the hospital gets a lot of mail) that took them forever to sort. This was a source of aggravation for me for a couple of days because every time I went there the guy behind the desk was sitting around doing nothing (literally) but said he was too busy to sort the mail. Eventually, and without much tact or respect for cultural differences, I went through all the mail myself to find my Economist and a few other Christmas cards. I was pretty crabby with the employees and they with me.

This week our box has been notably empty and there was no big pile waiting to be sorted. After too many days of this in a row - I wanted my Economist! - I asked the guy behind the counter where the mail was. I was fairly polite this time (even though it is so tempting to be rude in situations like this). I made sure to greet him and ask how he was. “Unfortunately,” he told me, “we don’t have transport to get to the post office to pick up the mail.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll give you a ride right now.”

He didn’t think I was serious but I was so we went off to the post office and picked up the week’s worth of mail. When we got back, he helped me sort out AMM’s items, my Economist, and about four letters for me. We also had a pleasant conversation and he told me all about the trouble he has getting transport to get to the post office - every day he has to make a request to the transport department for a ride to the post office (like many people here, he can’t drive) but that is almost always ignored so he often hops a ride with the maintenance department if they are going into town. It didn’t excuse the huge pile of unsorted mail after Christmas but it did make me warm up to him. Also, he was a genuinely friendly guy.

Here’s a story that is tangentially related. Last week, I had a tough problem to solve at the TB clinic that oversees all our patients. One of our patients had lost his record of treatment, a green card all TB patients get. Even though he was ready for it, I knew the clinic wouldn’t switch him over to the next phase of the treatment if he didn’t have the card. Since we had our own records of his daily attendance, all I wanted was a blank green card that I could retroactively fill out and get him switched over. But bureaucracy reigns supreme at this clinic and I knew I’d have to pour on some serious charm, in Xhosa, to get another card.

In the event, that was exactly what I did. (I swear, those nurses at that clinic are going to adopt me as a long-lost son and fix me up with all their daughters before I leave.) The key thing was I didn’t talk at all about the green card for the first two-thirds of our conversation. I made sure to properly greet them, ask about how their holidays were, wish them a happy new year, and talk about anything except the one thing I wanted. Then when there was a brief lull, I told the story about our patient. Without even my asking for it, a nurse pulled out a blank green card and handed it to me. I asked some more mindless questions, bade them farewell, and was on my way.

Frequently, I have to remind myself of the importance of taking the time to greet a person and ask how they are. Xhosas care about that sort of thing. In the rich world, we don’t. We burst in, make our demand, and get on with business. I’ve done that here with not very successful results. But when I take the time to greet a person, it seems more likely that they will help me. (It helps that in greeting them, I can show off a little Xhosa, which, coming from a white person, always goes over well and helps lower a few defensive barriers.)

If someone were to observe these interactions, with the mail guy and the TB nurse, and measure how I used the time, a high percentage of the time would probably be devoted to non-work items, like the greeting. Some sort of efficiency consultant might suggest I was wasting time. But really, all that non-work time is just greasing the skids for the actual work and making things a lot easier.

I observed a few posts back that “what matters in this town is not what you know but who you know.” That’s still true and I hope my new relationship with the mail guy bears fruit in the future. But it’s also important to know something about the culture of the people you know so you can use your relationships with them to the greatest possible advantage.


Barbara Seiler said...

I live in Western North Carolina and have lived somewhere in the South all of my life. We also value time for a relationship. A lot of people from the North are moving in here and they often see the time spent "chewing the fat" a waste of their precious time. It is good you are learning to spend a little time building relationships--it's called "greasing the skids". If you had grown up in the South instead of Massachusetts, it would come naturally!

Michelle said...

I suspect it's not specifically geographically-located (North vs. South in the States, for example); I think much of it is cultural, but I also think that the size of the community makes the most difference. I've lived (and grown up in) small towns in the north where of course it was expected you'd greet and talk with someone for a few minutes before going about your business. And I now live in the metro NYC area where people look at me funny when I try to talk to them about anything other than what I've come in to take care of.

And I notice when I go to Ireland for my summers, a regular occurrence is my driving down the road and people on the street waving at me as I drive by.

Different expectations in different communities as much as anything.