A Circle Of Disempowerment

I am a big fan of disempowerment.

There should be quote marks around that 25-cent word, because I am not a proponent of literally stripping people of power and leaving them feeling weak, helpless, and crushed by the system.  Instead, my use of the word refers to a conversation that I had with a partner at the firm some years ago.  When I mentioned that I liked to treat associates to lunch to show my appreciation for their hard work, she earnestly told me that I should be careful about doing that, because taking associates to lunch and then paying for their meal could be viewed as personally disempowering them.

I thought about the concept, and in particular considered my own reaction to being taken to lunch when I was an associate.  I was always glad to get a freebie and happy to be included — because sometimes there is, indeed, such as thing as a free lunch.

However, my partner friend was far more sensitive to the kind of personal dynamics that might reflect a feeling of disempowerment than I am.  It was quite possible — maybe even probable — that I was disempowering people right and left but simply was too brutish to realize it.  So, ever since that our conversation, before I take an associate or summer clerk out to lunch I ask if they mind being disempowered, and then explain the circumstances.

So far, no one has ever declined being disempowered.  In fact, I’ve had associate friends come up and ask me when they can be disempowered again.  Indeed, I’ve had people I have disempowered in the past looking for opportunities to disempower me come lunch time, which means we’ve established a kind of circle of disempowerment.  And yesterday I had one of our partners call me and apologize for disempowering me because she preemptively took a summer clerk to lunch at a restaurant where I traditionally host summer clerk lunches.

It wasn’t quite a correct use of “disempowerment,” but I appreciated the sentiment.

The Inoculatory Pre-Golf Personal Information Exchange

If you are a married man, you’ve probably experienced this scenario.  You and your wife are friends with a couple.  You innocently mention to your lovely bride that you are going to have lunch, or a beer, or play golf with the male member of the couple.  When you return home afterward, your spouse bombards you with questions.  How is Mike’s mother adjusting to the new iron lung?  Has little Elroy accepted the riflery scholarship to Duke?  How is the family dealing with the mysterious, apparently voodoo-related death of the family cat?

You sheepishly admit that you didn’t talk about any of that stuff — or anything else of significance, besides.  And your wife, arms crossed, fixes you with a withering glare of disbelief — causing you to shrivel inwardly with intense embarrassment, realize for the first time the full and tragic extent of your brutish insensitivity, and vow that you will finally become a decent, nurturing member of human society.

Well, we all know the last part doesn’t really happen.  After your wife gives you her amazed reaction, you actually think:  why would I want to talk about any of that stuff that when I’m playing golf?  Still, the encounter with your wife was somewhat unpleasant, and it would be best to avoid similar occasions in the future.  But how?

Here’s a suggestion.  The next time, spend the first five minutes exchanging high-level family information with your friend.  Nessie has been named citizen of the week at the juvenile detention facility!  Sally’s aunt has developed a powerful rash of unknown origin!  The Jones family had a grand time at their bullfighting camp!  Seize on those drab nuggets of personal information and lock them away in the recesses of your brain, because they will be your lifeline when you get home.  Then, turn to more interesting conversational areas — like sports and which episode of Seinfeld was definitive.

At home that night, when your wife asks the inevitable questions, you can retrieve and the casually throw out the stored personal information, perhaps with a little embellishment.  Sure, your wife will have countless detailed follow-up questions that you can’t possibly answer.  Don’t even try.  Just shrug and say that Ken said he didn’t know — and then add, with a hint of sadness, that you sensed that he really didn’t want to talk about it, and you didn’t want to intrude into what might be an area of intense personal concern for him.  Who knows?  Your wife might actually conclude that you are making progress as a human being and now possess more sensitivity than a gnat.