Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Litany

For some reason, there's a persistent subset of people – both faculty and staff – who can't raise one issue without referencing ten more. Worse, they aren't raised in the spirit of “this connects to that,” but in a spirit of “and ANOTHER thing...” I call it the litany.

In my early, naïve days of administration, I used to attempt point-by-point refutations of the litany. I discovered quickly, though, that this just feeds the fire. If you're accused of ten things and only shoot down eight of them, some will assume that you've admitted to the other two. If you aren't careful, the emails start to snowball quickly, with responses to responses to responses, each farther removed from the actual issue at hand. And any infelicity of phrase will just make things worse.

Back then, I lived in fear of being accused of 'stonewalling.' Anything put out there, I thought, had to be responded to.

Over the years, though, I've found that it's often better just to ignore the litany, and either respond only to the single key issue, or to nothing at all. The distinction in my mind between that and stonewalling has to do with whether the actual issue at hand gets a response. Anything can be on the table, but not all at once. All the stuff that comes after “in the context of...” should either get its own discussion or not, but it shouldn't hijack the conversation at hand.

Worse, if you actually bore down beneath the layers of litany, it often boils down to “I'm still nursing a decade-old grudge, so leave me alone.” That's why responses that only address the current issue can seem so anticlimactic, yet still be oddly effective. (I've thus far resisted the temptation to end some of those with “happy now?,” but sometime before I retire...)

I've tried to figure out the mindset behind the litany, especially when it happens over and over again. I've come up with a few theories, but this is not meant to be comprehensive.

1.Perceived lack of opportunity. If I'm confident that I'll be heard over and over again, I can postpone discussion of one idea in favor of another. If I don't know when/if I'll get heard again, I'd better shoot my entire load now.

2.Inability to prioritize. If everything is important, then leaving anything out is unconscionable. Better cover every base, just to be safe.

3.Deep unhappiness. It's more of a cri de coeur than a serious attempt at problem-solving.

4.Arrogance/narcissism. My worldview is so all-encompassing that to share only a part of it wouldn't be right.

5.Showboating/Rallying the Troops/Waving the Bloody Shirt. The clue to this is when the email is cc'ed to half the known universe.

6.Attempting to Look Informed. 'nuff said.

I'm sure there are more. But whatever the thought process behind the litany, it's distracting and tiresome, and it prevents real conversation.

Wise and worldly readers – have you had experience with the litany? Have you found a reasonable explanation for it, or, even better, a really effective way of cutting it off?