Recently a friend of mine told me that I’m “hopelessly Midwestern” and he is right. In fact, I’m not only hopelessly Midwestern, I’m proudly hopelessly Midwestern. To learn more about this condition, click on the link above and enjoy The String Doctors as they explain it to you. I can, though, explain one thing it means: I like ketchup…on steak…on many foods…which I’ve observed is an affront to many Easterners among whom I now live.
Imagine my joy, then, while in Saskatoon last February, on the coldest day in 20 years (-41 degrees with wind-chill), that I ran into ketchup pushers. The ketchup pushers were the wait staff in the restaurant at my hotel. The wait staff, with bottles of Heinz ketchup in hand, asked every single person coming in for breakfast the same question in nearly the same lilting way: “Good morning. Would you like a bit of ketchup with your breakfast?” (You’ll have to add your own lilt.) At first it was a bit surrealistic as I watched and listened as they posed this question as if it were part of a perfectly typical greeting like, “Good morning. How are you doing today?” Instead they skipped the “how are you doing” part and went directly to the ketchup inquiry. I also observed that nobody else seemed to think it was an odd way to be greeted. So I quietly marveled and listened in, chalking it all up to an idiosyncratic culture clash between the United States and Canada.
However, I just could not shake the experience from my mind or memory. Here’s why: the ketchup pushers reminded me of two important lessons on how to do our work in the social sector.
Create a Warm Welcome: Though a bit quirky, the ketchup pushing was an incredible act of welcoming that not only warmed the soul but seemed to warm the body. It tended to counteract the stunning cold that was outside. It was, after all, the coldest day in 20 years in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (have I already mentioned that?). Later in the day, after it warmed up to -19, I would go outside to walk across the street to the mall. Even then, I followed the lead of a native Saskatooner, whom I had observed walking backwards against the wind, to avoid frost bite. It is a bit challenging to cross a busy street walking backwards but in that kind of cold it seems a toss-up between freezing to death and getting run over. At breakfast, though, when it was -41 outside, this wait staff warmed up the place several degrees with their joyful hospitality.
Some nonprofit front offices can be the coldest places on earth. In these frigid places people are not greeted properly, if at all. They may have complicated forms pushed on them to complete without the courtesy of a friendly greeting or the benefit of instructions. In too many cases even the forms are not in their first language. The signage in the office may not answer even the most basic questions, such as the location of a restroom that clients and visitors are welcome to use. Visible signage may, however, include prohibitions (e.g., NO public restrooms, NO cell phone use, NO media use without headphones, NO complaining about our lack of hospitality, etc.) and other lists of policies and procedures…again, not always in a visitor’s first language. Chairs in the waiting area may have originally been designed to coerce compliance in the Spanish Inquisition and are placed so closely together to all but eliminate any sense of personal space. What is it about this kind of experience that warms anything except overheat one’s sense of disrespect and indignation? We can learn from the ketchup pushers just how important it is to create a warm welcome for everyone.
Anticipation: Through their ketchup pushing the wait staff was heading off future conflict. There just are not that many conflicts over ketchup, to be sure. However, put yourself in the apron of a wait staff member. You get out of bed at 4:00 AM, walk backwards to your car to avoid frost bite, hope it will start in the horrific cold, and then arrive at work by 5:30 AM for a 6:00 AM restaurant opening. You walk into the chilly restaurant to begin your shift and realize it is so cold outside that the furnace is having a hard time warming the room. You are there to serve people who are visiting Saskatoon, maybe for the first time, who will be waking up hungry, crawling out of a nicely warm bed into a colder room, only to find there is no way they will really feel warm again all day in a strange city. The Cranky and Grouchy Customer Alert System just went to 5. What would you do? I think you and I would do exactly what the wait staff did…consider how little it would take to get on the bad side of a customer first thing on a really nasty cold morning and then anticipate even little ways to head off problems. Our first effort, therefore, becomes a lilting greeting: “Good morning! Would like a bit of ketchup with your breakfast?” (This link is for everyone who just cannot bear to think about pairing the words “anticipation” and ketchup without reference to the iconic Heinz commercial.)
Think of the ketchup pusher’s anticipation as “strategic conflict management,” if you will. Really, think about it. When you have home fries (which I did) or French fries or something else for which you want ketchup, you usually have to ask for it. Then, if the wait staff is busy, they may or may not get your ketchup to you before your food gets cold. Frosty home fries and ketchup are not a pleasant combination, mind you, and the experience of eating them cold can chill you inside and out, releasing your inner grouch. By anticipating even this small need, my ketchup pusher put me in a frame of mind that made it easy to appreciate my breakfast experience and hard to find anything to criticize.
I have been thinking a lot about strategic conflict management over the past few months as I developed and tested a new training event for nonprofit leaders, staff, and community stakeholders. Strategic conflict management seeks to forecast areas of potential conflict in order to either avoid it altogether or at least minimize its collateral damage. Many nonprofits, especially those that work on controversial social issues, never see the conflict coming until they are in the middle of it. Then there is only time to be reactive and the opposition is already two steps ahead of the nonprofit’s next move. In research I have done on the ongoing conflict over sexuality education in the United States, I have found that nonprofit leaders tend to go on “automatic pilot” when conflict erupts. As a result they tend to take a series of actions that merely escalates and entrenches the conflict long term. I debuted the strategic conflict management training in July to rave reviews and very strong, positive evaluation results. (If you’d like to learn more about it for your organization or community, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact form below).
The ketchup pushers at my hotel on that frigid February morning are one of the reasons I love Saskatoon. I have had the privilege of being there a couple of times in my life and hope to go back many more times. For me, Saskatoon exudes a sense of welcome. Before going to breakfast I watched some of the local news as I was dressing (in layers, of course) for the cold day. I heard a story about an event held the previous day (on the second coldest day in 20 years in Saskatoon) that featured the cuisine of immigrants who were being welcomed into the community. Several of the people interviewed for the story talked about the importance of creating a sense of welcome and “place” for Saskatoon’s newest residents. I now find myself wondering, as these new Saskatooners sampled the various foods, how many times they must have heard, “Would you like a bit of ketchup with that?”
Be greater, do good…every day,