January 30

Can I stir your potatoes?

By Jeff Kirsch

We have expectations of how we want to be treated by others, but do we ask ourselves how other people perceive our actions and behaviors?  Can the most well-meaning actions lead to awkward situations?Mashed Potato

Recently my wife and I went to dinner to celebrate our anniversary. With the kids tucked in (and baby-sitter briefed), we headed to a local steakhouse for a quiet dinner and conversation. Our quiet conversation was interrupted with a sudden, “Hello Mr. Kirsch.” The manner of the greeting made me think the person behind me was someone I knew. Yet it turned out to be our waitress.

“I thought she was someone who knew me, I guess they give their wait staff our names from the reservation” I noted to my wife. “You should have seen your face, the brief panic” she responded back. Little did I know this was only the beginning.

While enjoying our appetizer, a pitcher of water came over my right shoulder, without warning, to fill my glass. I suffer a bit of paranoia in public places, so this sudden movement out of the corner of my eye set my senses on high alert, and made my wife laugh again. Her intentions were excellent, yet her focus on customer service left me rattled.

Nerves settling back in place, we welcomed our steaks. At this restaurant, the side dishes are served “family style,” each is on a separate serving dish. After taking our servings, we began our main course. When our friendly waitress stopped in to check on us, imagine our shock when she reached over and, in mid-conversation, began mixing the potatoes left on the side plate. It took everything I had to keep my jaw from dropping to the table. If it had been when the potatoes first arrived, it would have been perfectly normal. However, at this stage of the meal, it was awkward and just plain weird.

The rest of our meal had other interesting “experiences” that lead to some great conversations, including what we can learn from events like this.

How do we help?

In the absence of effective communication, people make assumptions based on past experience. Either the restaurant or our waitress assumed that the customer wants to be addressed by their formal name, leading to the awkward initial contact. Another assumption made was when maintaining the customer’s water glass, it is more important to be seen and not heard. In this case, a simple “pardon my reach” or “excuse me” could have prevented an unnerving situation. Finally, an assumption was made that since there was a passage of time, the formality of our positions could be relaxed and actions did not need to follow normal conventions.

It is clear that we either hid our reactions like professional poker players, or our waitress was not paying attention to us. She had an opinion of expert service and delivered it to her liking. In this case, what worked for her did not work for us. It did not ruin our dinner, but definitely left an impression.

Hopefully most people do not go around stirring someone else’s potatoes. But how often are the best of intentions misconstrued?

In the end we have to ask ourselves a few simple questions. Do we base our dealings with family, friends, co-workers, or clients on assumptions or through communication? 

If you find that you rely more on assumptions, you should rethink your approach. Open a conversation to gain an understanding of the expectations of the relationship. With this information you can begin, but don’t allow yourself to lapse back to assumption with the passage of time. Communication is a continuous process, not a point in time event.

Allowing the natural communication process to take place can instill a strong trust relationship between those involved and in the end leads to a more valuable outcome for all involved. Just ask yourself how you would feel if someone you didn’t know unexpectedly stirred your potatoes.


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  1. Good story and thought-provoking points.
    What can Security Professionals learn from this?
    Are we stirring others “potatoes” and causing them discomfort?

    Lately, I’ve been telling my people to over communicate. You know what happens when you assume…

  2. I will take a risk and assume you are not an alien (you grok?), you have not been raised in a cave or by wolves (one can only hope).

    As InfoSec professionals, we should remember we are entering into the world of business professionals, who may have a different world view than we do. Just as Jeff was a stranger in strange land (actually eating at a resturant – wow first time for everything) so to may we be strangers entering a board room discussing security issues with accountants.

    Did you (do we as security professionals) consider the social context you entered when you left your world and entered theirs? What you assume to be conventional and normal behavior may not be the norm in their social microcosm. Does superimposing your world view on theirs make yours more correct? If they would have stirred your potaoes in in your house, I would agree that you have a problem, but you entered their world, expecting them to implicitly understand and comply with your folkways. From an InfoSec perspective, is it our role to impose our world security view on the culture we are working within? or are we to bend to the culture foregoing all we know to be generally accepted security principles?

    It seems to me we need to communicate, as Jeff pointed out, but furthermore to come to the table with our eyes open, ears open and minds open to the reality that there is more than one world view, and we are part from it.

    lastly, Jeff’s writing should inspire us all to read Robert Heinlen’s “Stranger In a Strange Land” which will answer Jeff’s question and so many more – grok?

  3. John – No pieces of flair, but I do believe she had my stapler.

    Gia – She used the serving fork that came with the potatoes. I keep telling you, there is no spoon.

    Ron W – I think no matter what position you are in, it is important to communicate about expectations. What do you mean by over communicate? I think finding the right balance of communications and action is probably the biggest challenge. There comes a point where you have enough information to perform effectively and going beyond that could lead to a lack of respect or confidence.

    Valentine – I think the most important thing to remember is we each have a job to do, a point to convey. Trying to force ourselves into another role causes us to lose focus on what we each do best. Start a conversation to find common ground, a common language, and move forward with the understanding that it is a working process. Be open to finding a way to communicate with people who don’t “grok” what you do, but need to hear what you have to say in order to make their decision.

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