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Our Culture of Conflict: Snorts and Retorts of an Untamed Brat

“Organizations that display a strong commitment to their values make good
use of this fractal creation process . . . Self similarity is achieved not through
compliance to an exhausting set of standards and rules, but from a few
simple principles that everyone is accountable for, operating in a condition
of individual freedom.”

Margaret Wheatley

I found an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago quite aggravating. In short, it was about the boorish behavior of health club members and how incidents of discourteous and downright hostile actions were increasing. ( “Were You Raised by Wolves? Or Perhaps Weightlifters? Marticia Heaner, NYT, 5 26 05, E8) She reports on the character who sees you are about to use a machine and dashes to beat you to it; the guy who refuses to wipe his sweat off when he is finished, and, of course, him who smells. At first, I couldn’t fix on why such an innocuous story would bother me so much. At best, it appeared to be little more than a cute, filler piece. On reflection, however, I think the topic is revealing, not so much in itself, but as an important microcosm within which to consider how we are encouraged think about and handle conflicts and disputes in our culture. I think there is a carry over effect: how we deal with day to day disputes like this seemingly silly stuff, sets the tone for how we handle more important conflicts in our personal lives, workplaces, schools, and in the world.

I was particularly struck by strength in the belief that more rules will make us safer and solve our problems expressed in this article. In fact, it may be just the opposite. An unintended consequence—the “revenge effect”— of more rules may be the intensification of conflict and more problems. As a culture, one of the larger and more important issues we face is our use of laws and rules, as opposed to thoughtful negotiated processes, to manage conflicts, both real and imagined. As conflict management professionals, we do well to study ourselves. So I wrote a response to Ms. Heaner’s article as follows. Reporting from my private pool of sweat, I found Marticia Heaner’s piece to be, at best, cute and good filler, but clearly failing to reflect the real dynamics of the sweat shops in which many of us toil daily. Per usual, the world is simplistically divided between the courteous and the discourteous and obnoxious. Of course, the article is salted with the obligatory expert opinions by the Doctors of Human Psychology and self help guru wanna-be’s anxious to see their names in print, in order to legitimate inane and purely speculative conclusions about people in health clubs. One psychologist wrote about “untamed brat” behavior, with which I identified. (The one that suggested that people are impolite because they are anxious about their body image in workout clothes seemed especially hair-brained.) It proves little more than you can get a PhD to confirm any silly, speculative silly notion. Unfortunately, when it is seen in print, the idea is given legitimacy whether supported by any study or not.

Most annoying, however, is the complete absence of comment on the unabashedly commercial corporate/management that is a significant factor in de-civilizing many public health club facilities in their rush to squeeze every dime out of the enterprise. I have no objection to paying for service, but the service part of the equation was lost years ago when Jack LaLane and Jane Fonda cashed in their chips. Let’s talk about the origins of conflict. The aggression starts at the front door. In walking in, I am merely seeking a comfortable, reasonably clean place to workout. My presence triggers an immediate assault by one of a bevy of sales staff who has apparently been rehearsed by the same people who train tele-marketers, who hustle me to sign a convoluted contract with so much fine print that even a self respecting used car dealer would be leery. It’s apparent that regardless of the limits of capable space or equipment available, they are trying to pack in as many members per square inch as possible. This doesn’t make for an especially relaxed atmosphere.

I will respect that these fine young sales folks trying to sell me a bill of goods are in the first stages of their budding corporate careers, if they will drop the pretense that they give a damn about my health.

Of course, the young hustlers are not entirely to blame. They are just doing their job and trying to make a buck. That’s what makes this country great. The corporate management sets the policies, procedures and rules. And there are rules for everything. I have belonged to health clubs for more than 25 years and know first hand how much club managers and staff loves a “new rule.” And, surprise! Whether in health clubs or anywhere else, when will we figure out that more rules are likely to create more conflict, not less.

You won’t convince me that club staff or managers have first attempted to make a concerted effort to use thoughtful, common sensical approaches to diffuse tense situations instead of just spouting rules. While they are given plenty of training in sales, they have little or none in basic negotiation. Ninety Nine per cent of the situations described in the article can be artfully and easily handled with even a minimum of attention, but common sense and thoughtful discussion are typically in short supply. It’s easier, so we think, to avoid difficulty and hide behind a rule.

While I appreciate that it is counter-intuitive, rules don’t solve problems or reduce tensions, they often cause more. I find it at once amusing, revealing and disheartening, as the article suggests, that many clubs “have resorted to tactics long used by school principals…,” setting rules and consequences. The comment is unfortunately accurate in noting that this is our primary approach to children and perhaps explains why so many adults continue to act like children. Hell, those tactics don’t even work particularly well with kids in grade school, let alone with grown-ups. None of us appreciate that insipid, self-righteous, patronizing tone of voice that accompanies the imposition of a punishment: “We’re sorry, we must ask you to leave because …you smell, you were rude, you failed to wipe the sweat from the machine you were using.” When do we figure out there is almost always two sides to the story, and deciding who’s right or wrong is confused at best. I had a kindergarten teacher who used to say, “if you don’t put on your listening ears, play nice and follow the rules, we’ll have to send you home.” In retrospect, I have more insight as to why I kicked her.

I dare someone approach me in that condescending, disrespectful manner, it will be all I can do not to respond as any self respecting brat might. (You, the gentle reader, can fill in your own special retort to being so addressed.) It is really quite simple, if you treat people disrespectfully, they will act that way. I don’t know where they found “consultant” Brenda Abdilla, but whatever she is paid for her advice is too much.

So let’s talk nitty gritty stuff. In most of the health clubs I’ve frequented in the United States, the place appears to have been cleaned once a day, regardless of the traffic, whether it needs it or not. Even if I wanted to clean up a mess, there is no means available; Kleenex or paper towels are seldom provided. (You could use the toilet paper if it was not so cheap and flimsy.) If you forget your towel, you’re gouged for a fee to use one of theirs. Staff feels entitled to change the television channel without asking anyone in proximity if they are watching. “Personal trainers” (a whole other topic deserving of a good rant), feel privileged to co-opt equipment for their lessons, leaving lowly members to wait. And, we haven’t even begun to discuss locker room arrangements that require people to do dance steps so close to each other that they could easily be confused for the Tango—only in the locker room, you’re naked. The list is not exhausted, but I am. Of course, when suggestions are made, the staff response is often the same: “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do, its policy;” or We don’t make the rules

In my health club experience, I have had no more difficulties with other members than one would expect in any crowded place where time pressure and daily stress are factors. I have, however, been less than impressed with the health club management, whom I have frequently found to be dehumanized, disingenuous and unresponsive. Admittedly, health club management is no worse than that of the airlines, telephone companies, government agencies and other mega-corps in this day and age, but that’s not saying much.

I do object, however, to the implication of Ms. Heaner’s article that the problem is directly traceable and wholly attributable to an increase in ill-mannered, discourteous members so as to justify more rules. There are really only two rules in health clubs: pay your fees and the management is not responsible. Not surprisingly, I noted that the sidebar-boxed hints omitted any suggestions for a change in approach to difficulties by health club managers and staff. The behavior of the health club management may not justify, but does make it difficult for me to rein in my “snippy” behavior, and brings out my inner brat.

Ironically, on occasion, brat behavior, used strategically and selectively, is not only justified, it can be a quite useful and constructive negotiation tactic. Sometimes an attitude or a sharp tone of voice garners the attention required to be taken seriously where being cooperative leads to the situation being minimized or ignored. In many instances, in and out of health clubs, one needs a full repertoire of negotiation skills and the ability to shift from pleasant and discreet to firm, with an edge, and back again when attention is obtained. At this point, I have no intention of being “tamed.” I don’t condone or excuse physical aggression, but neither does a rule mean the discussion is over. It may be where the negotiation needs to begin.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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