Casey and I finished our first week of work in Medellin yesterday. All in all, it has gone well. We’ve had some really good meetings with people who have offered lots of support for our project, and next week one of them will likely take us out to the rural areas with him, which should be great.
So, with that said, today I want to share the story of our last meeting of the week, which took place yesterday right at 5 p.m. We were meeting with a contact Casey has had for two years, a high-powered woman who works for the government. She’s great, but in the past she’s also put Casey in touch with one of her employees who is far less great, who I call Johnny-Steve. He’s maybe a few years older than us, and an academic who likes to criticize, as far as we can tell, everything. Also, he’s a champion at saying he’ll do something and then not following through, a tactic I’ve mentioned in a previous post. Unfortunately, halfway through yesterday’s meeting, our contact called on Johnny-Steve to join us. What’s worse, he brought a colleague along, a woman Casey later called, The Boochmonster.
So there we were, Case and I on one side of the table, with Johnny-Steve on my right. The boss sat on Casey’s left, but quickly got called away to other work. Meanwhile, Boochmonster wasn’t even willing to join us at the table, but opted for the seat at the boss’ desk, on the other side of the room. She slumped into her chair there after failing to introduce herself (and slurring her name when Casey asked what it was). And as we talked about our work, she allowed her face to portray the most bored, impolite expression. It was as if we’d just told her she had to sit with us for a reading of the dictionary, but because her boss was there, she could not protest aloud. Here’s my impression of her:
When I offered that we’d be happy to find a way to make our project useful to their work, the Booch didn’t even acknowledge. Rather, she just said she didn’t think what we’re doing would work, but offered a pretty lame explanation for why, in which she showed she didn’t even understand what it is we’d just told her we’re doing. Then she handed off to Johnny-Steve. In order to challenge Casey, he asked “Who are your authors?” He then asked her to explain in detail – and political science jargon – the methodology she was using. Meanwhile the boss walked away and checked her email, laughing at them because she didn’t understand what the hell they were talking about.
Now, I’m no academic, but even I knew that’s a snotty way to start a conversation. It reminded me of the old movies where rich kids ask poor kids what their parents do for a living. As Casey answered the question politely and professionally, I wondered how he’d managed to swallow such a long pole.
Johnny-Steve then went into a semi-lecture about defining our terms, so that we know exactly what we’re looking for when we get to the countryside. And that we should read some books Casey’s already read. And that we should ignore the newspapers we’re scouring, because of course, newspapers get their information wrong. (He didn’t mention, of course, that newspapers are what the government he works for uses for its data.) Then he said he’d email us something, which, we know from past experience, he won’t.
In the middle of all this, the Boochmonster got up and walked out of the room. She didn’t give an explanation, or excuse herself, or say goodbye. Casey called out “Nice to meet you,” as she was closing the door, but she didn’t even pause to give another glimpse of that prize-winning frown.
Today I’ve thought about the meeting a bit more. I’ve decided that since we don’t really need help from Johnny-Steve and the Booch for our project, I may push back more the next time they give us that routine. To Johnny-Steve I may say something like, “Yep, good point, but I think we’ll need to be proactive, and not just criticize, if we actually want to get something done.” And to the Booch, if she looks at me like that again when I’m talking, I may just stop myself and say, “Are you ok? Can I get you some water? You look sick today.”
ps. Casey’s perspective: Yes, Johnny Steve and The Booch are annoying, BUT their boss likes us. Also, at least no one told me that I “wasn’t a political scientist” or that my work was “ridiculous,” both of which I have been told in front of an audience in the Political Science Department at the University of Wisconsin. These peeps are small fries in the criticism department :).