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business etiquette

There's a guy. A nice guy, I think I'd enjoy socializing with him. I've been dealing with him about a freelance gig. This involves phone conversations and emails. Every time I call him (or, more infrequently, he calls me), he asks how I'm doing. Seems to want to know. Asks leading questions. So we chit-chat, shoot the breeze. And all the while, I'm sitting there in my desk chair, looking out across the driveway to the grassy slope beyond, and thinking, "When are we going to get down to business?" Far as I'm concerned, the chit-chat is white noise. I'm impatient. I called about something specific and I want to deal with that, not chat about our kids or the weather or my transition to New Jersey.

This, by the way, is not a slam on him. Or his style of doing business, which is very friendly. Companionable. Warm. It's simply not mine. If you're going to chit-chat, save it for the end, when we've gotten the tricky stuff out of the way.

I got an email last week from a friend of a friend of a friend. Her son is on the autistic spectrum. She wanted to pick my brain. This happens a lot. Because of my web presence and a certain number of years (and level of success) with this, people sometimes email me asking for guidance, information or just a sounding board. I try to respond as best I can. I know what it's like to be scared and lost and trying to help your beloved child. But this email was, well, brusque. "I want to know about X." Not "Hi, I appreciate your taking the time, my kid is thus and such and I'm feeling this way about it and I hear your kid is this other way and that's so great and here's what I was wondering…" but "I want X, what do you know?"

I felt taken aback. To the point where I almost didn't respond. I am not an institution, I am not an encyclopedia of autism, I am a person with a life and feelings and I do this, not for money, but because I care. So care about me. Or at least be polite enough to go through the motions.

Maybe I was reading into her note something she didn't intend. Or maybe she's just so focused on her own panic, she forgot to be nice. I can understand that. I don't have to like it.

Do my reactions seem contradictory? In one case, I want the guy to cut to the chase. In the other, I want the chitchat, the warm-up. Which is it?

Somewhere in between, I think. I believe the level of desultory small talk that feels natural to you at the beginning of an interaction depends partly on where you grew up, the social constructs you accept as a given but that aren't in fact universal. Part of the reason I liked coming back to the New York area, in fact, was about this. There's usually less chit-chat here to mask the fact that it's really business. On the other hand, if it was just raw business, that would feel strange to me too. I think this is more about tone and content than about the length of the preamble.

I got a business-related email from someone yesterday. Very short, to the point. But her language was friendly and personable and even though she certainly didn't inquire into the wellbeing of my cats and my son, it felt like a comfortable communication. That’s the middle ground. That's what I prefer. It can sometimes be tricky to find, but I know it when I see it.


Isn't it ironic that autism has precisely to do with reading social cues and determining what an appropriate response would be!

I would like to add there should be perfect balance, perfect harmony between your personal and professional life.

Both should mingle with each other not contradict.

Amen, and how relative it is.