Two steps toward a more humane world

Two posts from two very different writers on two simple ways to make the world a better, happier, more humane place for us all.

“Life is too short to deal with a horrible user interface,” John Scalzi writes.

And so, he says, he has changed his voice mail message to the following:

Hi, this is John Scalzi. I will never ever ever ever listen to the voice mail you’re about to leave, because voice mail is a pain in the ass. So if you actually want to reach me, you can either send me a text at this number, or send me e-mail at “john [at] scalzi [dot] com.” Feel free to leave a voice message if you want, but remember, I will never ever listen to it. Have a nice day!


And a hearty amen, too, to Alan Jacobs’ call for a year without meetings:

Extraverts love meetings — any possible excuse for a meeting, they’ll seize on it. They might hear others complain about meetings, but the complaints never sink in: extraverts can’t seem to imagine that the people who say they hate meetings really mean it. “Maybe they hate other meetings, but I know they’ll enjoy mine, because I make them fun! Besides, we’ll get so much done!” (Let me pause here to acknowledge that the meeting-caller is only one brand of extravert: some of the most pronouncedly outgoing people I know hate meetings as much as I do.)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Lori

    Quiet open plan is obviously far better than loud open plan, but at least for me it’s still awful. I need my little bit of at least semi-private space where people can’t see me without making an effort, and vice versa.

  • Leum

    (Also, I don’t have text messaging included with my cell phone
    account so a big chunk of my experience of text messaging is my ex
    girlfriend passive-aggressiving me out of a buck fifty in a little fit
    once every six months.  I don’t know if it’s still true, but I saw it
    reported once that text messaging was literally the most expensive form
    of communication in history, and that includes when “Write it on
    parchment and give it to a guy who then goes off on a galleon” was on
    the table)

    Weird, the two major phone providers where I live both provide unlimited texting for about $6/month.

  • SusannaFraser

    The Open Plan in our office is part of a broader suite of changes that have, on balance, made our group more productive. That said, I feel like it’s gone too far, and that we could be just as collaborative with, say, cube walls.

  • Nenya

    I can never decide if I’m an introvert or an extrovert. Mild extrovert, I think, but that point about needing set end-times is absolutely relevant. I’m getting a little better at saying “No, I have to go home now,” and using the excuse that, say, the buses will stop running in half an hour and I’d really like to sleep in my own bed (I love you, friend, but no, I don’t want to crash on your couch, I want to go home and putter online for two hours and then sleep and shower in my own space). But if I go for weeks without seeing said friends, I get antsy and weird in the head, and I’m definitely more of a people-person than my girlfriend. So I guess I switch between the two states. 

    I do feel for people who find text-messaging annoying or impossible to use, but for me it’s a delight and a relief, because it’s a completely mainstream, normal way to communicate that doesn’t make me feel weird for being almost deaf. Practically *all* my friends text, and if I only text rather than call, they don’t care. Whereas phone calls are stressful at best, and may or may not actually convey the information I need. Voice mail? EVIL, because I can’t even ask the person to repeat themselves, and probably won’t understand the name and number they leave! 
    But, then, I don’t have kids whose teachers or doctors I have to be in touch with, and I tend to email (or TTY) offices that I can’t visit in person, so some of the issues with communication between written-preference and voicemail-preference people don’t really apply to me. 

  • MaryKaye

    Flexibility is a good thing.

    We had the chance to dictate our own office space.  The blueprints showed a double row of cubicles down the middle of the room–we toured another office set up like that, and it was dark and unpleasant and had no conversational space.  So we removed two cubicles and distributed the rest around the periphery of the room in a complicated scalloped pattern (designed by my boss’ wife, who has excellent skills for this).  It was such a hit that there are now copies elsewhere in the building.  If you need privacy, there are two very private spaces.  If you are more social, there are more open cubicles as well as a table in the center of the space.  I have an office adjacent to this but I keep the door open except for phone calls, so people can come in and out (and I have the fridge, so they do).  It works pretty well.

    Our building is aggressively Open Plan except for senior people, but you can mitigate this by careful layout of what you’re given.  A word of advice:  if you are working with brand-new space try to get it laid out correctly right at the start.  Our building architects wanted to put in the two rows of cubicles and then “fix it later” but we refused.  Colleagues who didn’t refuse…had a hell of a time getting their requests met later.  And probably would have failed completely, except that one of the things that didn’t get done initially was the chair’s electron microscope room, and *that* put the issue on the radar.

    Also, architects should be forced to move their offices to the building they just built and stay there at least six months.  I think that would have stopped our architects from designing pigeon roosts on the west-facing side.  We TOLD them they were designing pigeon roosts; they brushed us off for esthetic reasons; we now spend $5000 a year removing poop from the west windows. 

  • Oh meetings. I swear, I’ve been to more meetings then any human being should ever have to partake in. As an activist, on the board of a nonprofit and being involved in city politics I have to be in meetings constantly. Some of the smaller meetings, with two or three people, have been semi productive. Larger meetings? Almost always a waste of time. And don’t get me started on “brainstorming sessions.” What usually happens? Two or three people take over the process and crowd out other ideas by tossing out an endless stream of BS and patting each other on the back for how awesome they are. I also loathed group projects in College. Several of my upper division PoliSci classes required them and I almost always ended up taking on the entire project because the other kids (and I realize I say that as someone who’s only a few years older than the average College student) didn’t know how to manage their time well.

  • P J Evans

    Most of our panels were about 4 feet high, with another foot of frosted glass. We also mostly had cubicles that were seven or eight feet square. (The people who mostly worked in the field had to share.)
    I could hear phones ring up to three or four cubes away, but they generally weren’t annoying. (When they renovated our part of the building we got new phones that were easier to use, except for having to listen to the damned phone menu.)

  • OK, I’m about to have my “IT guy” card revoked for this, but:
    Meetings don’t always suck. Yeah, they usually do, but that’s just another example of Sturgeon’s Revelation: 90% of everything is crap. If you have a team of people who are all working, and you need the group to reach a consensus, your choice is to make it a meeting that sucks half an hour out of everybody’s schedule or an email chain that gets responded to over the course of several days (because people are working, so Cy doesn’t send his brilliant insight until 8PM, and then Dave doen’t reply until 11:30PM because Civilization 5, and then Melanie doesn’t reply to Dave’s point until 9AM, and then Dave doesn’t read her response and reply until after lunch and…..). 

    Rands in Repose is a good reference for a lot of things at the intersection of IT and management, and one of his better columns is “How to Run a Meeting” (at — thank you Disqus for breaking hyperlinks to sites outside patheos)

    Meetings must exist, but meetings cannot be seen as the only solution for making progress. If you must meet, start the meeting by remembering the definition of a successful meeting is that when the meeting is done, it need never occur again.

  • rrhersh

    As has been noted by previous commenters, the problem is not extroverts per se, but the subset of extroverts who lack the wit to understand that not everyone has the same idea of fun as they do.  If such persons manage to get into positions of power, the mandatory FUN! they can impose on their victims can be excruciating. 

    Years ago I was a rack jobber.  These are guys who go into stores and stock certain sections, but who work for the distributor, not the retail store.  I went into WalMarts with books, music, and videos.  It was a much more interesting job when I started than when I left.  When I started the company’s attitude was that in many small towns WalMart is the only place for books, music, and videos, so they took pride in providing the best selection within the space constraints.  By the time I left they took pride in stocking just the fastest moving product, not wasting valuable space on slower moving titles. 

    The company had an annual all-company convention.  I’m honestly not sure why.  It clearly was a substantial expense, and I don’t know what they thought they were getting for this.  In any case, they had in the past had a problem with younger employees going out on the town drinking and getting into trouble, so they compensated by programming the entire day.  They would bus you from your hotel to the convention site in the morning and back again that night.  It was literally impossible to get eight hours of sleep on this schedule, and we were placed in noisy rooms with lots of people all day.  It was absolutely hideous.  I would literally sneak off to janitorial spaces to escape for a while.

    I am an introvert, but I am not the least bit shy.  I routinely voluntarily place myself in a position of speaking before groups of people, but only for an hour or so.  Then I can go off and recharge.  Back when I was working for this company, I didn’t know the vocabulary of introversion.  I think it would have helped, both so that I could understand my own reaction and to explain it to others.  The one time my supervisor dinged me was when I missed an event by staying in my room, because I just couldn’t face it.  He wasn’t a terrible boss.  He might have accepted the explanation, but I didn’t know how to make it.

    The last year I was with the company they had the convention in a different city.  This time the hotel was only about half mile away for the convention site.  This was much better.  I could make sure I went to every event, ensure that my boss saw me there, and also his boss, then I would walk back to the hotel and read a book.  The convention was still pointless, but at least it wasn’t hideously awful.

  • rrhersh

    On the topic of meetings in general, part of the problem is that the word “meeting” is used for several distinct activities. 

    One common kind is for information distribution.  These are almost always a complete waste.  There are some kinds of information that are best distributed by someone standing up and talking, perhaps with slides: but not many, and not many people can execute the presentation effectively.  On the other hand, communicating this information effectively in writing takes time and effort, and many people are incapable of doing it.  For them, calling a meeting is much easier and less time consuming.  In other words, such meetings exist purely for the benefit of the person calling it, while the time of the people attending it is considered of small importance.  Such meetings are quite properly loathed.

    Then there is the decision-making meeting.  These come in more than one variety.  If they are planning meetings from a more or less cold start, then they can be productive, but only in small groups and not even with all of them.  There are countless ways they can be hijacked, and the more people in the room the greater the probability of this happening. 

    Then there are decision-making meetings which serve to ratify a previous decision.  These are frequently awful experiences, but are often necessary.  By way of example, my church has a special congregational meeting coming up.  The sole item on the agenda is for the congregation to authorize the officers to take a loan.  This authorization is required under our constitution because the loan will be secured by a mortgage on real property.  This is the last in a series of conversations going back years, and really only ratifies a decision the congregation already made.  But it is necessary, both under our constitution and because the members need to buy into the process.  For a time it looked like we might have a choice between two different loans with very different terms, and with plausible arguments for and against either.  In the end, however, there is only one loan on the table, so the decision the meeting has to make is much simplified:  refuse the loan with obvious disastrous consequences, or take the loan.  If the meeting consisted of a room full of Vulcans it would take five minutes.  I will be happy if we get out in under two hours.  I am not looking forward to the experience, but it has to happen.

  • banancat

     I’m young but I’ve worked at enough jobs to see a variety of different
    styles of meeting use.  And meetings aren’t just nice and relaxing
    things that you get paid to do because you still have
    to do all your “real” work, but with less time to do it.  And if you’re
    salary you don’t get paid overtime.  Meetings don’t take away from your real work, they take away from your real life.

    I had one job recently where I was the only engineer/scientist in the whole place and I had to do tons and tons of testing to solve several major issues with products that only existed because no testing was ever done in the first place.  And I spent at least 10 hours in meetings a week, mostly going to discuss how long the testing would take (exactly as long as I said yesterday) and if we could cut testing to get the product to customers (this is what made me quit that job after only 9 months).  At one point we literally had daily meetings about a project just to rehash exactly what we had already said 100 times before.  Yeah, I got paid $55k at that job, but it wasn’t anything that I loved because the problems and work didn’t just disappear during the time I spent in meetings.

    Where I work now, we actually do a very good job of using meetings wisely.  We have them occasionally because we do need them sometimes, but company-wide there is a strong emphasis on inviting exactly who is necessary.  That means not wasting time for people who don’t need to be there and also not excluding people who really should be there.  It’s not perfect but it does make things go a lot smoother if you just call in the bigwig right away instead of spending hours trying to decide how to solve a problem that they will have the answer to in half an hour.

  • One thing I devoutly intend to do is when I am in a position to call meetings I will always make sure they take half as long as the allotted time.

  • LL

    RE voicemail: I had the VM function disabled on my cell phone entirely. I was getting spam voicemails several times a week about 6 months ago. I had to call Sprint 5 separate times and talk to 5 different people to make that happen. But since then, no voicemails. It’s awesome. 
    Scalzi is right, voicemail sucks. 

  •  > I will always make sure they take half as long as the allotted time.

    Well, that’s easy… just allot twice as long as they’ll likely take.

    Back when I managed my team, I ran weekly status meetings where we went around the virtual room, everyone summarized what they were working on, what milestones were upcoming, and what obstacles they were facing, and anyone who had useful advice/suggestions/whatever could chime in.

    Some weeks there wasn’t much going on, and it took fifteen minutes.

    Some weeks there was a lot going on, and it took an hour.

    I continue to endorse those meetings. Even the ones that took an hour.

  • I have nothing against extroverts. In fact, I used to love them — they did the necessary business of making friends with me, so I didn’t have to jump that hurdle. And they had friends I could be friends with! The problem is that their style is considered good and healthy by society, whereas my style is considered something that needs to be fixed. (It makes me long to be Japanese… until I remember Japanese culture’s own issues.)

    My father is an extrovert to an extreme level. He’s calmed down a little bit in the last decade, which means he no longer needs to have a party every goddamn week. Now he is worried about me because I don’t have a googleplex of friends, like he does. But I’m only friends with people I respect, whereas he will be friends with pretty much anyone who isn’t a violent criminal. I also neither need nor want many friends. And I had enough of parties by the time I was a teenager, thanks to those parties at my house filled with people my parents’ age every goddamn week.

    Now that I’m older myself, I do duck a bit when I see an extrovert with the big “let’s be friends!!” grin coming toward me. I just don’t want that many friends. Also, I have never been able to get really close to an extrovert. But I have nothing against them, so long as they don’t treat me like there’s something wrong with me for enjoying a life consisting of husband, cats, books, and video games. 

  • Robyrt

    The quality of a meeting depends strongly on how it is run. I am a big introvert, but I really enjoy an effective meeting. The trouble is that many managers do not know how to run a good meeting, either because they can’t summarize effectively, can’t put together a correctly sized invite list, or can’t put their foot down when someone tries to derail the meeting. When it all comes together, you can get real decisions made while getting input from the right people, and it is tremendously more effective than a long, officious, passive-aggressive chain of emails. For example, your daily status meeting should be 5 minutes long.

  • Yeah, the flaking-out isn’t an introvert thing. I think refusing to commit might be; everyone has a hard time saying no to a friend, especially an enthusiastic friend, and so “maybe” is easier than “no”. My (extremely introverted) mother invariably does this, and it drives me batty and has convinced me that whenever anyone says “maybe” they really mean “no”. 

    Antigone10, have you told your friends how hurt you are by their flaking out on you? If everyone else in your group is an introvert, they might not understand, because introverts can usually find a silver lining on being canceled on. (Unless our pants are in play.)

  • Otrame

    Vondage has a voice-to-text-to-email option, which means that I use that line for everything but personal stuff and doctors.  It works great.  I get emails with the voice mail transcribed and a file with the actual recording if needed (rarely, unless the person has a pretty thick accent).  

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’m going to add my voice to the meeting defense. Bad meetings are bad, and arguable the majority of meetings are done badly, but anyone who suggests we should therefore eliminate all meetings en masse shows an attitude I don’t want around babies in bathwater.

  • stardreamer42

     That does sound like a good solution. Unfortunately, to implement it I would have to change my e-mail address (which I’ve had for over 15 years) to something on Gmail, and it’s not worth the hassle.

  • stardreamer42

     In addition to everything you say here, we have texting DISABLED on our phones. Deliberately. Because we despise being forced to pay for junk texts.

    Now, under normal circumstances I’d just send an e-mail. But if I’m not near a computer, and I really need to get a message to someone, voicemail is what I’m going to use (because no smartphone). If Scalzi has the sort of lifestyle and social circle which allows him to get away with jettisoning his voicemail, more power to him. But not so much with the one-size-fits-all here.

  • stardreamer42

     Hmmm. I consider myself to be a “gregarious introvert” — being “on” for large groups of strangers is wearing, but I don’t mind hanging out with people I know. But sometimes, if my partner is on the road, even I get tired of being home alone all day long. When that happens, I take my book or my laptop and go out to my local bubble-tea joint, which doubles as a study hall for a lot of the local high-school kids. I don’t have to interact with them, but it provides me with enough of the illusion of socialization that I feel better afterwards. Might something like that work for you?

  • Antigone10

    Thank you, but no.  Like I said before, it isn’t “people” it’s friends.  “People” meaning the group of strangers that exist in the rest of the world drain me.  I’m not gregarious- I am not great at going up to random strangers and generating some sort of relationship.  It has to actually be someone I’m in a relationship, or else it’s null to negative energy gain.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     Open Plan is just evil.

    [phb]Yes, but it makes the employees miserable, so it MUST be good![/phb]

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    I know when I’m in a large group of people, I’m only good for an hour or two before I just want to go somewhere quiet and depressurize.  Even if it’s family, and I get along well with them.