When to Say When

“All actual life is encounter.” -Martin Buber

Boxes littering a bare parquet floor. Packing material everywhere. Empty boxes in the hallway outside the apartment door. Not fully moved in yet, only the second day of living in the building.

A neighbor down the hall knocks on the door.

Trying to decide whether or not I should confront this person now or would a better time present itself, I hesitate for just a moment.

In a nanosecond I decide I would deal with it now rather than later. I go to the door. Impatient New Yorker that she is, she’s already walking back down the hall toward her apartment. “Yes?”

She turns around. “Is somebody moving boxes in?” She says, with a straight face. Well, duh!

“Yes WE’RE moving in right now.” I say, not quite believing, or even comprehending, what I”m hearing.

“No, down the hall, there’s dirt all over the floor,” She says, pointing toward her apartment door. “Somebody should clean it.”

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” -Mahatma Gandhi

I look down that way and see no dirt. I have no way of knowing whether this is for real or if it is just a passive-aggressive attempt to complain without really complaining about MY noise and dirt and temporarily stacked boxes. I reply that I’ll get it taken care of, and she turns to walk away. The conversation is unfinished, I sense. It’s now or never.

“It’s not appropriate for you to knock on my door with such a request – not now, not ever.” I say, trying to walk that fine line between sounding at once quite definitive, yet be as charitable as possible. As though this is the final word on the subject. Sometimes ya gotta take charge and just let people know where you stand, I’m thinking.

“Well, I just…”

“No. Please don’t knock on my door just because I’m the super,” I reiterate, trying to smile at the same time to make what I’m saying somehow more palatable, less threatening, yet keep it real and meaningful.

“Indecision is like a stepchild: if he does not wash his hands, he is called dirty, if he does, he is wasting water.” -African Proverb

I’m trying to remember that “it’s not what you say – it’s how you say it,” as the old saw goes. Not certain how I’m coming across, I keep going. “That’s what the front desk is there for. They’re open twenty four hours a day. Please, feel free to do so.”

At this point I can’t stop. I’m on a roll. “It’s not ever going to be OK for you to knock on my door to get something done, and I don’t expect that it’ll ever happen again, except possibly in an emergency. Thank you.”

Did I step over that invisible line of good taste, of what’s best, or even of what’s right? Could be, but I’d like to think not. And I’ll be the first to say that this direct, upfront approach won’t be for everybody. Each individual must find his or her own way and tiptoe through the landminey rockfields that can be resident/super relationships.

There will always be people who jump at the chance to take advantage of your position, or of their proximity to you. Because you’re the new resident manager and you’re just moving in, does that mean they can take you for a chump? I certainly hope not.

In the past I would have brushed the whole incident off and not reacted at all, except to reply that the request would be taken care of. But I think more and more that this attitude is wrong, especially for so many hard-shell New Yorkers. If you give an inch, you’ll find yourself spread ‘way too thin over a hundred miles later. Down the road you will be reaping what you sow in frustration, burnout and more frustration. And did I mention the sense of frustration you will have?

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” -Henry de Bracton

I’ve taken to telling my staff in detail, on starting a new job, what are appropriate reasons to call me during my off-hours, and what’s inappropriate. If you don’t detail it to them, invariably there is one or more chuckle heads who will call you at 3AM to “advise you” of this or that, none of which is an emergency, and none of which you need to know before you come on duty next day.

Any job will provide lots of burnout opportunity for anyone. In the job of residential superintendent or resident manager, because you live where you work sometimes it’s hard to mentally remove oneself from work when one is so close physically. For this and many other reasons the job is even more of a burnout waiting to happen than most jobs. If you don’t feel in control of your life and your job, you probably aren’t, and if you don’t put up some walls of protection, some way to shut it all out at some point in your day (or night), turn it all off and truly relax, you can watch yourself slowly being eaten alive by the monster.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” -Sinclair Lewis

Don’t let it. Take control of your staff AND your residents as much as you can (and without making an obnoxious jerk out of yourself, of course). It’s your life – and your sanity – at stake.

Let them all know what is required, what is expected, and what your tolerances for stupidity are, your threshold for ignorance, and don’t allow them to walk all over you.

“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.” – Arnold Bennett

Slowly I’m learning to know when to say when. If you DON’T know (and there’s nothing wrong with that, only if you don’t attempt to find out), work at figuring it out. Talk to someone you trust. A friend in the same line of work or another close confidant, your significant other; SOMEONE. Take time to learn where you must draw that invisible line. Decide what you can tolerate for your own sanity, and where lies the milepost beyond which you will not allow yourself to be pulled. Try out your new policy. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t work, try something new.

Little is written in stone here. Let’s not be afraid to tweak or totally overhaul your new policy if the need arises. But do make a decision and try something. Doing nothing decisive is an invitation to burnout all by itself, because if you don’t live by your own rules, you’ll live by someone else’s – by default. You will be trampled over. It doesn’t feel good. Believe me, I know from experience.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself you will succumb in every battle.” -Sun-Tzu

It is your life, after all. Work at understanding yourself and learn what your limitations are. Find out what floats your boat and what gets your goat.

Learn when to say when.

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