I wish I could be cynical about things right now. Cynical would be a step up from where I’m at emotionally at the moment. I’m working toward cynicism.
If I could pick one tarot card to describe my current life situation it would be the 9 of Swords, Lord of Cruelty card. It’s not because I’m being cruel but because I’m feeling the effects of other people’s cruelty. But let me explain. When I say “cruelty”, I’m talking about what humans do to each other every day. The Little Things. I’m talking about how the average person, when given charge over a cash register will skim approximately 15% of the profits if left unattended. It is so rare to find a person who does not do this behavior that businesses have implemented all kinds of protocols to try to prevent it from happening. These protocols are called “Loss Prevention”. Does Loss Prevention work? No. Because if people can’t steal 15% in funds, they’ll steal time or they’ll steal stuff.
I don’t like thinking about Behavioral Economics and things like Loss Prevention because it makes me depressed. So usually, I try to ignore these things. But there are times, places, and situations when I’m forced to look at the 15% rule head on.
Now is one of those times. We’re nearing the end of this gigantic 7-apartment-complex-construction-project and we can see it: people trying to bleed us. They know the end is near and so things are “costing more”. Our workers know our patterns of behavior. They know that if we come up and check on them that it will be at least 30 minutes (usually) before we go back up to check on them again. So there’s time to slack. There’s time to go get an enchilada at Felipa’s little comedor next door.
India is a place where you can’t escape from Behavioral Economics. Every time you turn around, someone is trying to rip you off in some “major” way (in rupees, which is not usually “major” for Americans, but emotionally it feels the same and in India, little things become big because the chaos and insanity is so extreme). Lots of people who spend time in India come back battle-scarred from the experience of being ripped off daily over and over and over again. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t go to India, but rather just that it’s a fact of life there and you have to look at it objectively or get angry. Anger can definitely ruin the trip. The objective view is definitely better.
Vulnerability puts people in a position where they have to bend to the 15% rule. In other words, if you’re in a vulnerable or needy position, people will skim off the top of your life and you’ll have to let them. I’ve never liked being in that position. Vulnerability and neediness can make a person totally lose faith in humanity. A vulnerable person can 1) get depressed and turn into a leech—then they have to find donors of which there are many 2) get a gun and fight back against the world or 3) learn everything they can so that they can do what they need to do for themselves, thereby becoming less needy. Most of the time, John and I have gone the latter route. We’re sort of feudalists in that respect. Sometimes the learning curve on the survival skills are steep. And sometimes the situations are dire. Mostly, knowing how to do stuff doesn’t prevent me from being scammed, but it does make me feel more empowered and that keeps me from going to war or turning into a lush. So I guess, mostly I just don’t want to be a lush or a mass murderer. So John and I learn how to do things instead.
You Can’t Get Blood from a Turnip
Getting ripped off sucks. I mean, if someone scams me, I end up with the short end of the stick. That’s the whole idea behind a scam. But what I really hate about getting ripped off is how it feels. There is no word to precisely describe this feeling, but I’ve noticed that it doesn’t really matter whether I suffer a big or a small loss. The feeling is roughly the same (though it might vary somewhat in magnitude). I mean, if we’re talking about tiny little sticks—like kindling or something—and someone gives me the small end of a branch off a baby tree, my losses are tiny. But still, I feel bad that the other guy didn’t deal with me fairly. I’d like to say it pisses me off, but if I were going to be honest, I’d say that it’s a much deeper feeling than that. It’s like the hurt you feel when your best friend steals your stuffed teddy bear on a sleepover. As a kid, you’d cry about something like that. Your parents would be appalled. They might call your friend’s parents. The thing would be a Sesame-Street kind of teachable experience about sharing, cooperation, and friendliness. You know, the Basics of Goodwill. As an adult, people hire lawyers and go to war. I suppose the idea is that if an adult scams you, they probably didn’t learn the Sesame Street lessons and there’s not much hope for them.
It’s ironic, in my opinion, that most of the time, when people squeeze each other for more, the person being squeezed literally has nothing more to give. The vast majority of the world’s population has nothing more to give in terms of things and money than what they’ve already given. But that’s not the ironic part. The irony comes in when you consider how people working together toward a common goal exponentially increases the odds that something amazing and worthwhile will come out of the endeavor. When people give willingly, unexpected things happen for the good of all. When people squeeze each other, the money and the things just get passed around. Nothing grows. Nothing gets better.
I’m speaking from my own hands-on experience. For over ten years, we organized a big Halloween event. Originally, we ran the event using volunteers. Then, in our 4th year, we tried paying our workers. It was the worst business decision I ever made, but not for the reasons you might think (namely that I lost profits by paying my employees). When I offered to pay people for their work, an entirely different group of people showed up to work and believe me, they weren’t interested in doing their jobs. They were interested in getting paid and working as little as possible in exchange for their pay. Volunteers, in contrast, tended to work much harder and they enjoyed what they were doing.
Unfortunately, after I offered to pay people, the whole business suffered. The tenor of things changed. Indeed, after we took some time off and changed the location of the event, we had a whole new philosophy about people and employees. The work we were asking people to do was fun: scaring people and acting/theatrics. We gave gifts to volunteers instead of giving payment for the work that they did for us. We paid attention to them and their work. Some of the volunteers were lazy, it’s true, but some of them were amazing. And the event was amazing. At the beginning of every night, I never knew who would come or how many volunteers we would have but I would say, “The right people will show up tonight.” This was my mantra and they did. Some of them met and got married. Some became life-long friends. It was always the right group of people. And every year that we did it, it made me think carefully about money and greed and humanity. The event was not just about money. It was about people. But it was hard to keep it out of that Greed Zone.
Building a house in Mexico has challenged my view of humanity in a similar way. At times, I’ve looked up at the upper floors in awe at this group of men lifting huge beams with nothing but a rope, a pulley, and sheer manpower. At times, I’ve felt a lot of gratitude for these men. At times I’ve felt like firing them all. John and I have bought them chicken dinners a number of times after they’ve completed major milestones on this project. But right now, I feel like being less generous. I feel like I’m being scammed. And I don’t like it.
Recently, a woman came to visit me here in Guanajuato to see our property because she was planning to build in Mexico and she wanted to learn a bit about what to expect. Our place was a horrible mess. There was nothing I could do about it because, what can I say? The place has been in a state of total chaos for months. She seemed very confident that her construction journey was going to be smooth. She skimmed the house and clearly, she was uncomfortable.
“If my workers don’t like a woman managing them then they can just leave.” She told me. And I nodded on cue, stunned by the idea. The statement hit me as almost hilarious, but I held myself back from laughing. I needed to think about her words. Could a woman manage a team of Mexican albañiles?
She didn’t ask me a lot of questions. More or less, I think she wanted me to give her a boost of encouragement, but I didn’t have it in me at the time. Our lives have been kind of like that scene in What Dreams May Come where the main character, the mother, has committed suicide and cast herself into hell. The father, Robin Williams, goes to try to get her to recognize him but she can’t. Her hell is so real. So anyway, this woman visitor, an American (of course), didn’t ask me questions, and I don’t like to force a lot of information on people when they don’t ask for information. This is especially true of Americans since Americans are known for their tendency not to ask questions and to act like they already know everything. So I listened and I thought about what she was saying. I imagined myself trying to manage this team of workers we have here right now. I’ve managed large groups of adolescents and adults many times in the states. I’ve worn the bitch-face. I’ve fired people. I’ve hired people. I’ve chastised. I’ve rejected. I’ve praised. But I’d have to do all of these things in Spanish with these workers. At this point, almost 2 years later, I can say things that they understand beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt. But they speak Spanish slang most of the time. So I can’t understand much of it. And that’s a potential problem for any manager, man or woman.
John studies the texts that Felipe sends him each day. They’re filled with “words” that are mis-spelled or abbreviated. They’re filled with grammatical problems that neither Google nor the most sophisticated Urban Dictionaries can sort out. We all work on the texts together, trying to piece together what they say and what Felipe needs. John’s Spanish has leveled up considerably through this process. He makes jokes. The men like him. Often, though, as he searches for a word, they’ll interrupt him and I can only imagine how often they would interrupt me. John has gotten firmer with time and now he puts up a finger and says, “No.” But would a group of stocky men take that sort of scolding from a woman?
I seriously doubt it. They would quit just to save face. And then I’d have to find new men. I suppose on a small enough project, an English-speaking woman as a manager could work. But it would be harrowing and stressful. The workers’ wives might not like it.
I even have advantages in terms of management of a group of workers like this. I’ve built lots of things. BIG things. I built a fake, life-sized village of 15 tiny houses by myself in 2007. John did the electrical, lighting, and sound effects for the houses while I constructed them out of 4×8 ply and 2×4’s. Later, in 2008, we bought the old school building in Brule, NE and I did all the construction, except the heaviest stuff like stairs, myself. I’ve worked with drywall, wood, metal, and cement. Mostly I’ve worked with wood though, but I know how to build big things and delegate complex projects using volunteers primarily. This is a huge advantage and I know it, especially for a woman. It’s unusual enough that most Americans don’t really understand it. But could I manage a team of Mexican workers as a woman, in Spanish?
No. I mean…I wouldn’t want to.
John and I have always worked together in management. John is definitely better at day-to-day management than I am because he’s more straightforward than I am. I tend to be more receptive. I let people fire themselves, for example. Often, they leave crying, but not because I’ve said anything or done anything to hurt their feelings. I have some special psychology-tricks that I’ve used over the years to accomplish certain management goals. But John and I don’t invoke those tactics until we reach the end of the road with someone. John hates firing people. He’s better at hiring people though. I look at firing as an opportunity for the fired-person to experience growth and catharsis. But I’ll be honest. I hate it too. Firing people feels a lot like being electrocuted. It takes several days for the powerful emotions to wear off.
But still, though John is managing this crew of workers right now, I still play a role. It’s a distinctively Womanly Role. My job is to be a bitch. Yesterday I told Felipe that I am a bitch and I know it. I told him that if I go up to 4th floor and I feel like I would get the work done by myself faster than 15 men would, they can all walk. Then, I softened what I was saying and told him that John is currently sleeping about 4 hours a night trying to do his other work along with babysitting all of them and I’m going to take care of him first. This was the “softening”. Lately, my job has been to wear the bitch-face and give very discreet, but powerful sideways glances at people and their work. It’s an up-and-down eye movement that indicates “judgment”. The men here are pretty sensitive to it. For the past 8 months, I’ve been very prolific with my “thank you’s” so this sudden change in behavior is more powerful. The men are worried.
What is The Woman thinking?
At the same time, John regularly goes upstairs and talks about me as though I were a hard-ass. We’ll probably be doing a lot of Good Cop/Bad Cop on this final stretch. Sometimes we switch roles depending on the situation, just to keep people on their feet. John will pretend to be angry in front of everyone and then I’ll “calm him down”. I’ll remind him of all the worker’s virtuous qualities. People will think that I’m the good guy. It’s hard to keep things in the Strategic Zone though. Often, we take the workers’ behaviors personally. This is always a mistake. It isn’t personal.
There are all kinds of things a person or people could do to manage Mexican construction workers, I suppose. As a woman working solo, though, it could be really hard to keep things moving in a positive direction. The people here talk. And construction workers in Mexico take pride in their masculinity. It’s one of the perks of being a construction worker. If a woman “castrates” them by managing with an iron fist, things could go sour pretty quickly.
Behavior Economics is the study of people’s economic behaviors: why people buy what they buy, how people perceive things like “free”, why people steal, how people perceive price-points and other stuff like that. For example, it’s best to price a piece of real estate as $109,999 than $110,000. And when you give something away for free, it activates people’s sense of reciprocation. If you pay people too much, sometimes they believe their value to be much higher than it really is in a business. Then, they slack. If you pay them too little, they leave because they can’t survive. You can lose good employees if you pay them too little, but some businesses have figured out that they can tie people down by offering employees living expenses (they pay for things like insurance, rent, or they give workers a company car, etc.). That makes people feel “taken care of” like when they were kids. You can pay a person too little to survive if you make them believe that while they’re barely able to afford to heat a room or buy underwear that they’re “taken care of”. Behavioral economics has taught me that generosity has its place, but that sometimes generosity actually damages the person you’re being generous towards. Generosity is not a well-defined thing. And it’s taught me that being scammed is a common, unavoidable experience that usually isn’t personal.
But still, despite all this knowledge, John and I are hobbling through this last leg of this project. Nothing is going as planned. In fact, today we decided that we aren’t really “planning” things anymore. We’re “studying the possibilities” which are laid out like a complex flow chart that branches first outward, like a big bushy tree. Our goal is to get to the very topmost leaf of that tree…somehow. We study the possibilities and each day, we move forward on the flow-chart, but not in a straight or predictable path. There is no straight line to the top. We want to keep moving forward or at least sideways. The goal is not to move backwards.
But now it’s raining. And when it rains, it tends to flood. John just came into the room and leaned his ear against the wall. He pointed and said, “Ya…I hear water.” But he isn’t worried…yet. Not until I say,
“Did they ever build that tope in front of the door?”
John runs toward the foyer.
“Nope…” he says, “There’s water.”
But it’s brief. The workers come down in the rain and lay out a tope of cement in front of the door. I’m relieved to have it there right now. Thank you, Workers. Thank you, Tope. A mop and a bucket take care of things after the tope goes into place. Tomorrow I’ll curse the tope when I trip over it and fall on my face in the street.
Are we being scammed? I feel scammed. When the water pours in under a door we just put in, I feel like I’ve been ripped off. When the workers come down the stairs in the rain with a big bucket of cement to save us from the deluge, I wonder if maybe I’m delusional. Maybe I’m just losing it. Maybe I’m coming apart at the seams.
This is Construction in Mexico.