December 30, 2015

On professional correspondence.

A colleague was inquiring with a producer about a crew position on an upcoming film production and was taken aback by the response they received.

The exchange went something like this:


I’m writing to inquire about crew positions on [Production Name]? 
My resume is attached. 
[Colleague’s Name]

The Producer’s response:

What ever happened to common courtesy when applying for positions, such as hello, hope you are having a great holiday. 
Please find my resume attached etc etc 
I don't believe I like your attitude 
Thanx anyway 
[Producer’s Name]
[Self-applied titles]
[Phone number]
[Several URLs]
There are plenty of online sources and guides regarding “business e-mail etiquette” but I’m not going to tempt anyone to click away from this commentary by actually linking to any of them.

I’ve written a fair bit of correspondence over the years, traditional and electronic, personal and professional. I’ve fired off e-mails in anger, sent obnoxious letters of complaint to companies, organizations and even a few elected officials. I have learned—the hard way—that it’s better not to write in the heat of the moment or to at least not write directly within the composition window of an e-mail client where one is so easily tempted to click the “Send” button that first time you think you’re finished.

Photo illustration by the author derived from images
courtesy of Renjith Krishnan, TwoBee and Andy Woolridge
As I’ve progressed in this life, I’ve learned to step back, to be mindful of what I’m feeling and try to understand exactly what it is that is triggering those feelings before I react/respond. This is not an easy thing to do.

When it comes to receiving and composing professional correspondence, I try my best to filter out anything that smacks of emotion.

If I receive letters or e-mails regarding professional matters—from either an established or potential colleague—they don’t usually include overtly emotional statements. When they do, I ask myself if their emotions on the topic are relevant. If they are, I’ll consider them within that context; if they’re not, I’ll privately acknowledge it but won’t usually reference it in my response. Sometimes, certain subjects strike a nerve in people, even when dealing with it professionally. This is understandable. It’s human nature. However, if I think that what I’m reading isn’t just pulling at an emotional string for the writer but is influencing and even overpowering their ability to act and communicate in a professional manner, I’ll most likely disengage. It usually isn’t worth the time and energy to interact in any way with someone who is acting out emotionally. I try my best of be empathetic but there really is no place for such behavior in professional interactions.

When writing my own professional missives, I tend to be direct, factual and unwilling to distract the intended recipient(s) with superfluous verbiage. Most of the time, my professional writing style is appreciated for being clear, cogent and on-point. My colleague’s e-mail query above can be described the same way.

However, at first glance, it would appear that a short and to-the-point inquiry wasn’t good enough for that Producer. I tried to consider what they would have preferred to receive in their e-mail inbox despite not knowing them personally. Perhaps they are of the opinion that a resume should always be accompanied by a formal cover letter. I suppose if one is submitting a resume for a specific job, a well-prepared cover letter introducing the applicant would be apropos. Not knowing what positions needed to be filled, my colleague chose to make a general query about available crew positions and attached their resume—as a genuine courtesy—hoping that the “Producer” might match my colleague’s established experience with an open crew position. At that point, a more detailed follow-up e-mail would be more than appropriate.

The Producer’s reference to my colleague’s “attitude” gave me reason to pause. I reflected on a time when I was described as being “terse” in my professional correspondence. According to the definition and origins of the word, this is accurate. The Latin root “tersus” has been translated as “cleansed,” “wiped,” “clean, neat, correct.” In the late 18th century, it meant “(relating to language) 'polished, polite,' hence 'concise and to the point’.” (emphasis added) Knowing this, I would tend to take the “terse” description as a complement but over the last couple of centuries, the term has actually come to be used in a pejorative sense. One recent definition even goes so far as to say, “…often not seeming polite or friendly.” (emphasis added)

Upon closer examination, it appeared to me that the Producer’s response to my colleague’s e-mail had nothing to do with the protocol of resume submission. It also seemed indicative of a lack of consideration on their part that the initial query e-mail may have been sent from a smartphone (which wouldn’t have been very conducive to composing a customized cover letter) or was simply one of many query e-mails being sent out to various productions—not an uncommon practice in any industry.

What was this Producer’s primary complaint? A perceived lack of “courtesy” on the part of the inquirer which they identified by the absence of “hello, hope you are having a great holiday” or some other informal—and professionally irrelevant—salutation. A simple and concise inquiry regarding the production’s crew requirements was dismissed with an “I don't believe I like your attitude” all because it was not prefaced by a greeting that the inquirer may have felt was too familiar and informal to be included in an initial message with someone they have never worked with before. The Producer’s own attitude, as divined from the content of his reply, certainly cannot be reasonably described as “professional.”

From what I read in the Producer’s e-mail, it would appear that they felt personally offended by my colleague’s (pejoratively) “terse” message. Regardless of the fact that there was nothing overtly offensive in their short and simple query but I’ve stated before that to be offended by anything is a choice and in the case of personalities that could be described as “narcissistic,” the perceived offense(s) can be real or imagined.

Obviously, I’m playing armchair psychologist here but I’m basing my interpretation of the Producer’s response on personal experience, not only as one who has dealt with narcissists—both personally and professionally—but as an admitted narcissist myself (n.b. recovering) who has burnt plenty of bridges in my past because I felt slighted by others all because I thought they were not giving me the respect, praise and admiration I thought I deserved (but deep down felt completely unworthy of).

If I may be permitted to briefly deviate from my analysis of this exchange… Narcissists can be found in all walks of life but they tend to crop up more in industries and institutions that tend to put certain participants on various pedestals (i.e. entertainment, politics, etc.). The entertainment industry in general (and the film industry in particular) is replete with narcissists at every level and trade. The most obvious reason is the supposed glamour that’s associated with the more public occupations in the field (actors, directors, producers, etc.). Not to mention how easy it is to become enamored with the idea of being a celebrity. Of course narcissists are going to gravitate to where they think they’ll be loved by the most people.

While there certainly are successful narcissists in any industry, it would be foolish to think that narcissism is an essential element to success. A successful person in any field certainly needs to be confident in their abilities and able to recognize and promote their talents but these traits are not inherently narcissistic and can be developed without abandoning a sense of humility and gratitude. Indeed, those self-absorbed egotists who do tend to make it to the higher echelons of their disciplines tend to do so despite their narcissism but have a long and sad trail of broken relationships behind them. It’s also a matter of fact that many stories of profound failure can be blamed squarely on narcissistic attitudes embodied in people with great talent and potential who sabotaged their own livelihoods with destructive behaviors and actions that alienated the very people they could have worked with to elevate their mutual careers. Such deportment is usually rooted in a deep-seated lack of self esteem contradictorily coupled with an inability to distinguish between their actual self and the ideal self they imagine themselves to be. 

I think that these detrimental characteristics can be potentially exacerbated by the fact that so many titles in the entertainment industry are self-applied and require no formal certification or license to be used to label and market oneself. Sure, one might have an IMDb profile with several credits in varying departments but there’s nothing to indicate how capable one might be at any job they’ve been credited for (especially if their resume consists mostly of independent projects that few people have seen or even heard of). If recognition for those efforts is limited and one is desirous of continued vocation in their chosen field, it makes economic sense to promote oneself in the interest of obtaining additional work. But, for the narcissist, the line between developing a marketable public image and nurturing a cult of personality (even if it consists of only a single adherent) can become pretty fuzzy. Some narcissists are legendary. Most are just legends in their own minds.

That being said, one thing that I’ve learned—again, the hard way—is that when it comes to professional interactions (regardless of the industry) one must learn not to personalize statements or actions that are based on the needs of the business they’re involved in. This does not mean being unfriendly or emotionally disconnected from one’s work, not finding—or worse, abandoning—joy and happiness that comes from a fulfilling occupation. Nor does it mean placing the success of one's business above everything else (including the well-being of individuals, communities or society in general). Establishing and maintain boundaries between one's personal and professional interactions isn’t easy because business relies on open communication and interpersonal relationships; essential elements that are often subverted by unrestrained egos.

The e-mail exchange above is demonstrative of a failure to establish personal emotional boundaries relative to a simple and altogether routine business interaction. My colleague, interested in working on an upcoming project, asked a simple question of its Producer. The professional response would have been to simply answer the question. Instead, the Producer responded with a pseudo-rhetorical question about “common courtesy” and criticism of my colleague for not opening the inquiry with an appropriate salutation. Such rhetorical criticism effectively absolves the Producer—in their own mind at least—of any responsibility for not controlling their emotions (to say nothing of their blatant lack of professionalism) and shifts all blame onto the inquirer. The Producer then dismisses my colleague, an obviously interested and experienced individual—and a potentially valuable resource for the production—with a condescending remark about their “attitude” (inferred from just two brief and communicatively benign sentences).

This whole interaction—which took place within the space of perhaps half an hour—would be amusing if the gist of the exchange wasn’t as mundane as a skilled individual asking about a job opening.

I'm willing to concede to the possibility that this was an atypical exchange. That the Producer described above does not always behave like an entitled, condescending narcissist seeking only to surround themselves with sycophantic lackeys. I’m willing to give this individual—most people, actually—the benefit of a doubt because everyone is prone to the isolated professional faux pas. I also like to remind myself that the film industry is comprised of many artists and creative types (myself included) and we tend to be led by our emotions. However, one cannot overlook the fact that this is an industry. I am not just a filmmaker, I am in the business of filmmaking and that requires me to not only be a professional but to expect professionalism from those I work with as well as those who hope to work with me. I have learned to steer clear of people who do not respect these simple facts.