From the Assistant’s Chair: Communication Breakdown

Here is a chronicling of my life in terms of communication skills: I was born in 1984, George Orwell was incorrect about the future, and I had little to no communication skills aside from crying a lot to get what I wanted. Elementary school in the early 1990s came next. I was good at expressing myself, perhaps too good. I would often get bored with mundane activities and verbally tell the teacher so. Let’s just say that I would often explain to my parents that my poor grades were because “my teacher hates me!” (something I still stand firm behind today). Later in summer camp, probably about 1992 at the age of 8, Ashley Vinanek would tell me she likes me, and while her friends held me down in the ball pit of a Discovery Zone, she kissed me. I very loudly yelled “GROSS!” because of some insane childhood disgust with girls (i.e. cooties), and she hated me for it and didn’t talk to me the final 2 weeks of the summer. Perhaps brutal honesty and poor communication were at play, or just a lack of knowledge that having girls hold me down and kiss me wouldn’t be common in the near future, needless to say it could have been handled better.

In junior high I started to restrain myself, and developed a general lack of enthusiasm for school. I became known as the “quiet kid” to anyone who wasn’t my friend. Once high school rolled around, I just stopped caring. Communication was at an all time low. I didn’t believe in anything, and my parents were freaking out. My teachers would ask me why I didn’t care about doing my math homework, I would respond with a shrug, followed by an eye roll, followed by detention, followed by another shrug. I had developed a complete lack of respect for authority, and no longer had any ability to talk reasonably with anyone over the age of 25.

Then college came around. All of the sudden girls were cornering me again, and doing more than kissing (though not in a Discovery Zone ball pit), and I had regained many of my communication skills in such a positive environment. The problem was though, that the awesomeness of freshman year would eventually end, and I crawled away from sunlight to live in crappy one-room apartments for the next 3 years. Watching free VHS rentals of rare French noir films from the library during the day, and only lurking out of my dwelling at night to party with the rest of the animals, didn’t help me develop into a model citizen. By the time I got out of college I was a pale, sickly hermit of a man who could only speak in Lord of the Rings references. To exemplify my point, here is a depiction of what I was like at the time:

So that gets us to the start of my first editing job, which is also my current editing job. I had come into this job with sort of a very, very unpolished professional attitude. I don’t mean that in a way that I spit on the ground and sleep on the job, I mean more that the only experience I had talking with people up to the point that I first started working here was immature conversations with people my age. Discussing why Back to the Future 3 is better than Back to the Future 2, stupid stuff like that. Now I was subjected to not only having to talk to people who didn’t grow up on the glory days of Nickelodeon, but the people I’d be talking to were clients, and saying the wrong thing could potentially put me out on the street!

I only had two jobs before I became an editor. When I was 16 years old my friend got me a job at Chicago Hot Dog at the local mall. The main perk of that job was that I really didn’t care if I got fired. So my relationship with the customers was absolutely horrid. I wouldn’t have put up with the crap I was giving to the customers. Maybe that’s why it closed down a few months after I quit (without two weeks notice), they kept hiring high school kids like me! Man, I was a terrible employee, but hey, I was 16 and making $6 an hour.

That was the same situation with my second job, which was a janitor after I graduated college. I was told I was going to be painting fences by the swimming pool when I filled out the application, but on my first day I was driving to multiple smelly park bathrooms, restocking toilet paper! The only communication skills I had to use were explaining to women why I was in the ladies room (“I’M CLEANING IT! I WORK FOR THE PARK DISTRICT! HERE’S MY ID BADGE! STOP FREAKING OUT!”). So as you can see my professionalism never really got off to a good start, which was a drastic change in my life when I entered the world of post-production.

Not to go into yet another back story of my life, but in film school, I was a one-man filming operation and I did all aspects of the production. Of all those aspects of production, I found the most enjoyment in the editing process. But editing my own projects in film school is a lot different than client based professional editing. In college, I would get home from class, eat dinner, sleep from 7 PM to midnight, then go to the edit lab in the basement of the communications building and edit in the dark, in absolute solitude, until maybe 5 or 6 in the morning. That was my perception of editing at the age of 21. I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do, or how to do it, so it was a completely different sport when I came here.

The first adjustment I made upon starting here, which probably happened out of fear more than anything and I still have trouble shaking it to this day, is that I have the overwhelming anxiety of saying the wrong thing. Or moreso, the offensive thing. I like to think that it is literally impossible to offend me, as I try and find humor in anything, but lord knows how many people I’ve met in my life who got offended by me somehow, without me trying very hard. So for the first long period of my working here, I just kind of shut down.

Even at risk of sounding egotistical, I think I’m somewhat witty, but that is a game of impulses, and in the work environment I’ve definitely tried to resist impulses. I think in the long run, I’m doing the right thing by not saying everything I think of that I think is funny. Because I find weird things funny, and I know there have been situations where if I pointed that out to a client, or even my co-workers, they would have looked at me like I was completely abnormal, and in the clients case, probably offensive. So restraint is a huge part of my day, but it has almost become an obsessive compulsive act, as now I find it hard to shake.

Another area of communication I had to deal with was responding to compliments. That was a very surprising one that I wouldn’t have initially thought would be a problem. I’m going to say that most compliments throughout my life have been back-handed, but I take pride in my work here in the creative realm, and every now and then I’ll get a real compliment. Right to my face. The last thing in the world that I want to do is start patting myself on the back in front of people, so I just get flustered trying to think of what to do next. I probably look like an mumbling idiot while doing so.

So I’ve tried complimenting the complimenter to mixed results, it kinda just puts them in the same position I was just in, and I don’t want to make people uncomfortable for trying to be nice to me. I think I’d rather take the humble approach and just coyly say “no problem” and smile, than show even the slightest bit of arrogance for doing my job correctly. There is an amazing and hilarious documentary called Overnight, about the guy who made the film The Boondock Saints, and I recommend it to anybody who wants to see just how costly arrogance can really be.

There is a lot of jibber jabber going on inside my head at most times, so when someone asks me a question out of the blue, especially a technical question, I sort of have to push aside the nonsense and consolidate a valid answer. The problem is, that while this is occurring, the visual of it is either me stammering around trying to get out the correct answer, or I will just stare blankly for a few moments while my mind gets to it. It probably confuses who ever asked me the question. I can only assume that most people (not just at work) find me moderately-to-significantly confusing. (Ask one of my ex-girlfriends about that…) So very often I’ve found the technique that works best is to repeat myself a lot. This also works because when people are explaining things to me, I find it easiest to listen and comprehend what their saying by not looking at them.

I’m terrible at eye contact, so when someone is talking to me, it probably appears as if I’m not paying attention, as I’m staring at the candy jar two feet to the left of them. This kind of sucks, because it makes me look like a jerk, but I’m in fact actually doing my best to comprehend what their saying! So I will often try to repeat back every step of what they just said (not verbatim of course) just to let them know that I heard what they said. It’s annoying, but it’s what I have to do, otherwise I look like I don’t care.

Despite any techniques I have, there are always screwballs. Even screwballs of the morbid kind. Not too long ago I came in for a weekend “side-job”, that was a memorial video for a nice fellow that had just died. I thought that the job would entail someone dropping off the materials and giving me 10 minutes of instruction, and I would spend all of Sunday editing by myself, college style. But it turned out that two of the family members would be sitting with me all day (which turned out to be a 14 hour edit [including scanning over a hundred photos]).

But I don’t know how to deal with grieving people, I don’t have much experience in that, and that’s compiled on the fact that I also have to communicate with them from a client-editor standpoint. Funeral directors go to school for learning how to communicate with grieving people! It wasn’t funny at all, like an episode of Dead Like Me… It was actually an incredibly stressful edit, as I was trying to get input from the guy who was literally writing the eulogy for the memorial service the following day, right there in the edit suite! I just took the approach of being as nice as possible to them, while focusing even more on giving them the best video I possibly could. That’s an approach I often take, make my work good enough to compensate for any lack of communication skills I have.

The SuiteTake:

I’ve been in a professional editing environment for 2 and 1/2 years now (not long by most standards I’m sure), but I get the feeling like while I still have a ways to go from a technical editing standpoint, I have an even further way to go in the client relations department. At the very least I try and be as nice as possible to clients so they don’t dislike me, but I realize greatly that I will probably never be as good an editor as I could be until I break the many bad habits I’ve developed in my life in terms of communication.

Most of my life I’ve just never been that much of a people person, but I’d LIKE to be, and I’m trying my best to change that. And I promise to never punch another client in the face for looking at me cockeyed. I realize now that it’s bad for business.

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