Saturday, February 17, 2007

When Common Sense Is Forbidden

NOTE: Please be sure to read the Update at the end of the following blog post after reading the post itself.

The term "common sense" can be presumptuous and misleading. The use of the term suggests that there are certain things which everyone just knows intuitively.

The problem is that there's always an exception to the rule when it comes to common sense. It might seem like common sense to you and me that one does not step out into a busy street without looking both ways to make sure there aren't any cars speeding in our direction. But it isn't common sense to a two-year-old. That's why the guidance of parents is such a necessity.

An adult who had been raised in a really primitive society in the middle of the rain forests of South America, and who was more familiar with jaguars and piranha fish than with automobiles, might likewise be lacking in an awareness of the need to look both ways before crossing the street. Such things usually have to be taught at some point, or else they have to be learned through painful experience or observation.

We tend to think of certain things as "common sense", not because they are universally known and understood by every single person on the planet, but because they are almost always known and understood by the people within our own circles of family, friends and acquaintances. When we meet those who don't know and understand those things, we sometimes find their lack of knowledge and understanding to be shocking and hard to understand.

There is another type of common sense, which has less to do with knowledge of facts than with reasoning abilities.

Most people seem to know and understand that two things which are mutually exclusive cannot both be true at the same time. We generally tend to assume that everyone understands that simple principle of logic. Unfortunately, that assumption is not necessarily true.

For example, let's say that a political pollster calls your house and asks the following question:

How likely are you to tell your friends to vote for the incumbent politician during the upcoming election? Would you say that you are extremely likely, somewhat likely, neither likely nor unlikely, somewhat unlikely or not at all likely to tell your friends to vote for that politician?

Now, let's say that you answer the question as follows: "I will tell all of my friends NOT to vote for the incumbent politician."

How would you feel if the pollster then proceeded to say, "So, does that mean that you are extremely likely, somewhat likely, neither likely nor unlikely, somewhat unlikely or not at all likely to tell your friends to vote for that politician?"

If you're like most people, I suspect that you would begin to wonder to yourself if the pollster was a complete and total idiot! After all, you've just finished telling the pollster, in clear and unambiguous language, that you will actively tell all your friends not to vote for that politician. It therefore logically follows that you are not at all likely to tell those same friends to vote for that politician! Repeating the question and forcing you to answer with one of the five available multiple choice answers written by the polling organization suggests strongly that the pollster is not listening to you very closely, if at all.

It ought to be clear to anyone whose reasoning abilities have not become impaired --- in other words, to anyone with common sense --- that the answer of "not at all likely" comes closest to your actual answer to the question.

But not everyone has common sense these days when it comes to such matters. In January, I lost my job as a telephone surveyor, because of a very comparable situation.

The survey I was conducting at that time was related to a private business, not a political candidate, but in every other respect, the situation was parallel to the scenario I just described in the preceding paragraphs.

Throughout the entire survey, the woman I spoke with had been saying, "Just give it the lowest possible rating." Over and over and over again, that's what she told me. So when we got to the survey question which ended up getting me into trouble, there was no question in my mind that she wanted me to give the lowest possible rating to that question as well --- not because I assumed that that would be the case before even hearing her answer, but because of the specific manner in which she actually answered the question.

In fact, if one paid attention to the manner in which she answered the question, it should have been clear that she really would have preferred to give a rating which was lower than any of the five multiple choice answers which I offered to her. If I had asked her to rate the company on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best possible rating and 1 being the worst, there is no doubt in my mind that she would have asked me to give the company a negative 1 (or lower), because none of the 5 available answers I'd offered to her sufficiently expressed her dislike for the company. Saying that one will actively tell one's friends NOT to use a company's products or services is stronger and more adamant than saying that one is not at all likely to recommend the company's products or services.

When the company fired me over the manner in which I recorded the customer's answer (by entering "not at all likely" as her answer, without actually hearing those exact words from the customer's mouth), they accused me of failing to clarify a "vague" answer.

Apparently, they define the term "vague" in a manner which is much different from the way in which the dictionary defines the term. I felt then, and I feel now, that there was nothing even remotely vague about the customer's answer. She made her feelings about the company known to me, in no uncertain terms.

But let's assume, for the sake of the discussion, that their characterization of the woman's answer as "vague" was accurate. And let's hypothesize that a surveyor from that same company called me after I was fired and asked me the following question:

"How likely are you to characterize the reason given to you for your dismissal as a good and fair reason? Would you say that you are extremely likely, somewhat likely, neither likely nor unlikely, somewhat unlikely or not at all likely to describe that reason as good and fair?"

Let's say that I then responded by saying, "As long as I live, I plan to tell everyone in my circle of acquaintances that the reason given to me for firing me was incredibly unjust and incredibly irrational."

According to their own criteria, their surveyor would then have to repeat the question in order to "clarify" my ostensibly "vague" answer.

How absurd!

It's bad enough to lose one's job over such a ridiculous situation. What makes it even worse is that my right to collect unemployment insurance is now being challenged, based on the company's argument to the effect that I failed to clarify the woman's supposedly "vague" answer.

In my view, I was fired because I used my common sense, rather than annoying the woman (who was clearly already angry at my employer's client) by pressing her to give me an answer which was already abundantly clear to me.

Now I am in jeopardy of being evicted from my modest room at the Lawson House YMCA, because my right to receive the unemployment insurance benefits I desperately need in order to get caught up on my rent is being challenged for the same lame reason.

Even if one could argue that I should have ignored common sense and provoked the woman by compelling her to give me an answer which conformed to one of the five available multiple choice answers written by the client company, the most that one could truthfully claim was that I was fired on a technicality.

My job was to represent the customer's answers truthfully. I did that to the best of my ability. I did not deliberately violate company policies. I didn't press for clarification of the woman's answers for the simple reason that I didn't believe that the customer's answer was vague or that clarification was necessary.

So I have a final survey question for you. If I am denied my unemployment insurance benefits and put at risk of homelessness for the reasons mentioned in this article, how likely do you think I am to take such a defeat lying down?

Now don't be vague!


UPDATE: Fortunately, after a delay which caused me to experience some financial hardships, the Illinois Department of Employment Security chose to grant unemployment insurance benefits to me. My former employer filed an appeal in an attempt to try to prevent me from receiving those benefits. They lost and I won. I thought, and still think, that my victory over my former employer amounted to vindication with regard to my point of view about the matter.

Unfortunately, many prospective employers don't really care about the circumstances connected with a person's involuntary loss of employment. No matter how unfair those circumstances might have been, they have a tendency to just assume that the employer was in the right and the employee was in the wrong.

Of course, I could lie and claim that I quit the job, instead of acknowledging that I was fired. But there's just one problem with such a strategy, where I'm concerned, and that's the fact that I have a conscience. I won't claim that I've never told a lie in my entire life, but I've generally tried to be a person of honesty and integrity. Consequently, even if I wanted to lie about why I lost my job (and I really don't), I'm not sure that I could pull it off successfully. Practiced liars tend to do it well. Those who lie rarely tend to lie poorly.

The irony is that my honesty --- which ought to be seen as an admirable quality by potential employers --- has been a real handicap when seeking a new job. That helps to explain why I am still trying to find a new job, as of February 2008. It was great to get unemployment insurance benefits, but unfortunately, those ran out quite a while back. I've been struggling ever since.

I did figure out, after a long period of frustration, that there was nothing compelling me to volunteer information which could be held against me. But it's a rare job interview indeed in which one is not asked, at some point, why one lost one's previous job. I'm not going to lie when asked such a question. So I am handicapped, to some extent, every time I go to a job interview.

Having to deal with the entire situation for many months on end has been very discouraging. What makes it even more discouraging is that there are those, including some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, who have incorrectly assumed that the mere fact that I've gone this long without finding a job is proof that I'm not making a conscientious effort to find a job.

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