Monday, January 21, 2008

On being nice to jerks, part 1

Like most people, I've known a lot of jerks in my life and in some cases I've had to deal with them on an on-going basis. There are a lot of ways to handle jerks, and I've tried most of them. And one thing I've learned is that doing something nice for a jerk never pays off. They go right on being jerks, and, in fact, because they're jerks, they never even notice that you did something nice for them. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Jerk Number 1 (JN1) was a Japanese guy who worked for a translation client when I was living in Japan. (I still worked for somebody else then, so he was the company's client, not my own.) The project we were working on was an insurance company history. (Let's call them "M Corp.") Big Japanese companies put out these little books about themselves every 10 or 20 years to celebrate the anniversaries of their foundings. Nobody ever reads them, of course, but apparently putting out these books is a matter of prestige. It's just the done thing. And this one was for M Corp's 100th anniversary, so it was a doozy. They commissioned a full-length book -- over 100,000 words -- hiring a well-known journalist to write it (in Japanese), arranging for a complete (and very expensive) English translation, using the best paper and binding, and so on.

My job on this project was editing the English version. I had to make sure that the English translation was accurate, fix any typos or grammatical errors, ensure that the style was consistent throughout, and so on. It was moderately interesting work, and something that I'm quite competent at doing. JN1, meanwhile, was the project coordinator for M Corp. He was responsible for the final product.

We worked on this project at a pace of about a chapter a month. The translator would finish a chapter and send it to a company in Boston. That company would check the translation and send it to the company where I worked. I would check it, edit it, and send it to JN1 at M Corp. Now, one might think that these three layers of work -- translation, first check/edit, second check/edit -- would be sufficient assurance of quality. While none of us was the greatest writer ever, we all did competent, professional work. But that wasn't enough for JN1. No, he was certain that, non-native English speaker though he was, he could improve on our work. So every time I sent him a finished chapter, he'd send it back a week later with "corrections."

Since almost any writing can be improved, in principle I have no problem with clients offering suggestions. And in most cases, Japanese clients have no problem recognizing the fact that as non-native speakers working with professional writers and editors, they're unlikely to be able to make major improvements. So they make their suggestions or ask questions with a certain amount of deference, I try to listen with humility, and the writing often does get improved here and there.

But JN1 was different. What made him a jerk was that he offered "corrections," not suggestions or questions, and despite the fact that over 90 percent of them were grammatically or idiomatically incorrect and would have messed up the English, he provided them with absolute certainty of their aptness and stubbornly clung to them when I rejected them out of hand.

Since everyone on the project had developed a strong commitment to its quality, this was a serious problem. JN1 had the final say, but we didn't want him to destroy the writing with his bad English. The result was that for each chapter we had to have a two- or three-hour meeting with JN1, where I had to argue him out of each bad "correction," one line at a time.

Now, my commitment was to quality work, not to winning arguments with the guy, so I did accept some of his "corrections"; maybe about 5 in 100 actually were slight improvements. And, while JN1 was by no means a demonstrative fellow, each of those 5 accepted corrections would bring a certain subtle but clear expression of smug triumph to his face, while each of the 95 rejections was met with an air of sullen skepticism. The fact that he was only right 5 out of 100 times made absolutely no difference to this dynamic.

All right, so here's the nice thing I did for him. The book had a little preface written by M Corp's president. In it, he thanked the company I worked for for coordinating the translation, and he thanked the translator by name. So I looked at JN1 a little bit, and I thought, here's a man in late middle age, a couple of years from retirement, and he's literally dedicated his life to M Corp, even though he's never risen above upper middle management. Guys in his generation basically sacrificed everything to the companies they worked for; family, self, everything came second to the company. It's not a mindset I could relate to -- I think it's kind of ridiculous, actually -- but I respected that kind of dedication.

So I thought, let's get this guy's name into the company history book. And I said, I think JN1's name should go in this little preface too. This took him completely by surprise, but once he realized what it meant -- a little recognition after all his years of work, a kind of legacy that would live on in his company well after he was gone -- I could tell he wanted it. He wanted it bad. He politely demurred, of course, but when I politely insisted, he jumped at the chance. It was something he'd never even thought of; suggesting it himself would have been considered unbelievably crass. Coming from an outsider, though, it was perfectly legitimate. He passed my suggestion up the corporate chain of command, and it was quickly approved. He got his name in the company history, personally thanked by the company president for his work on the project.

Pretty cool for him, right? But did he thank me? Did he maybe become a little more humble because I gave him that little gift, all on my own initiative? Not a chance. He was, after all, a jerk. If anything, his attitude got even worse. Maybe he even thought that he was the shiznit because his name was going into the company history. I don't know. I do know that, even though I look back at the story and laugh now, by the end of the project I was damn sorry I'd ever done anything nice for him.

I'll tell about Jerk Number 2 another time. It'll be shorter, I promise. OK, so it isn't short after all.


  1. I read only the title and thought that this entry would be about a certain person...


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