If there is a human trait that rubs me raw it’s officiousness, and its close cousins, piousness and righteousness.  A most unholy alliance.

Due to my Scottish ancestry, I’m naturally a dark brunette, or at least I was for the first chunk of my life.  Now I owe my dusky locks to the excellence of Aveda products and the exertions of Elizabeth, my hairdresser in Canada.  I’ve been in Cape Cod longer than usual this summer, and reluctance to sport the Cruella de Vil look required me to seek local assistance in returning to my naturally brunette state, so I made an appointment at a salon on the Cape that shall remain nameless.

The appointment got off on the wrong foot from the get go.  I failed to account for the extra traffic from “summer people” as the full-timers like to call us, so I was 15 minutes late, for which I apologized profusely. Apparently my tardiness was irrelevant, as the individual scheduled to do my hair had in turn failed to appear for work that day.  The other stylists were “helping out” I was told, with heavy emphasis, with the clear implication that they were significantly put out by this additional effort and I was lucky to be served at all.

So I waited, and waited, and waited.  And eventually was seen and attended to.  When the time came for washing out the colour, I was placed in a chair and urged into a contorted position causing my neck to be stretched into a hinged, elevated metal sink contraption, behind which the hairdresser stood with a spray hose.  Extreme discomfort was the least of its features.  I was unable to watch how the thing actually operated, but was in an excellent position to take the full brunt of a surplus of water cascading over my shoulders, down my neck, and into my lap. Gasping with shock as the first wave hit me, I hastily pushed up the water-soaked cape in which I was draped, in a futile attempt to hold the cascade of water away from my body. When I protested, I was told by the wielder of the hose that I just needed to sit still. She would attend to the excess water in a minute, right now she was rinsing my hair.  She kept up a steady stream of chatter, mostly around how this was just the way this thing works, that people never really got that wet, and she was doing her best.   Noticing my silence as I continued to hold the soaked cape aloft, she said, “You can put that down.”

“No I can’t, I retorted. It’s soaked through and dripping.”

“Are you mad at me?” she inquired “Because you’ve got no reason to be. It’s not my fault.  It’s just the way this thing works.”

Fuming, I waited for the deluge to finish and then struggled out of the chair, soaked to the skin.  She handed me a few towels with an exasperated sigh and lead me to her station where she proceeded to blow-dry my hair with an injured air.

On the way home I reflected on the incident, and particularly the condescending, blame-avoiding manner of the hairdresser.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding people – bosses, colleagues and support staff.  The team with whom I worked closely just prior to my retirement from the investment business was the pinnacle of quality. They were the finest and most fun group of people I’d had the privilege to work with in my 30-year career.   What made them so special, and so different from the hairdresser with the soaker hose?  Simply put, it was their:

  • Commitment to excellence, tempered with flexibility
  • Readiness to admit their own mistakes and forgive those of others
  • Eagerness to pitch in – a real sense of camaraderie
  • Self-awareness
  • Keen sense of the effect of their actions on others
  • Sense of humour

If I had to sum up the polar opposite, it would be condescension, or officiousness.  People afflicted with that condition:

  • Can never be wrong
  • Are intolerant of others’ mistakes, and are always on the lookout for them
  • Carry the rule book in their back pocket, or have it burned in their memory
  • Are sublimely unaware of their effect on others
  • Have no sense of humour
  • Are completely inflexible – black and white thinking abounds
  • Have an air of superiority; they’re convinced of their own correctness

Their saving grace is they are usually extremely competent at their jobs, unlike Soaker Hose.  They often seek out positions of authority, but due to their toxic manner, rarely make it to the upper echelons, and instead languish in mid-level bureaucratic positions like the customs official who featured in my blog “Life Is A Stage, Or Rather, Our Brains Are.”

My partner Gordon suggests that the trait stems from an overzealous commitment to purpose, coupled with extreme attention to detail, perseverance and industry.  Character strengths do tend to cluster together.  Officious people often have a strong preference for analytical and structured thinking.  In summary, it results from a combination of strengths all operating in the Red Zone – too much of a good thing.

Using David Rock’s SCARF model, I believe that in their determination to achieve Certainty, they violate others’ sense of Status, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness, all at once.  A quadruple header of offense.   That’s quite a punch.  No wonder I felt more than hosed.

Tomorrow, I think I’ll give Elizabeth a call and book my next appointment.  When I go, I’ll make sure to take flowers and a warm thank you.  No time like the present to express some appreciation.


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