Today’s topic is one of my favorites, mostly because it allows me to ramble more than usual: communication.

Background: The Hillbilly is on the board for his condo association. At least until the next elections (in 127 days) when I can step down. Really should resign but my daughter has been making waves of quitting one or two of her activities because they’re “too hard” and I don’t want to be too hypocritical when I say she has to finish out the year.

There is one resident who loves and lives to “communicate”. When an e-mail discussion reaches a certain length, inevitably he will be affronted enough to send a lengthy e-mail along these lines:

Coding Hillbilly as far as I am aware I have always been civil in this matter . Lord knows I have been tempted to inject the odd profanity here and there . Do not confuse my civility with some perceived right on your part to protection from criticism . You presume to tell me what your job does not consist of so allow me to enlighten you as to what it does entail . As a Trailer Park Heights board member you owe me a fiduciary duty of care to act in the best interests of the association in accordance with the covenants and the articles . For your edification the association consists of its members so that includes "me" !  I have every right to hold you to account and demand that you carry out your duty . I am not playing games as you suggest Hillbilly , I am deadly serious . Unfortunately I don't feel that you or the board are at all serious . I don't think you understand the covenants and clearly you do not understand your role as a director at Trailer Park Heights . All I have asked you to do is enforce the covenants I get the distinct impression that you have interpreted my request as little more than an annoying pretext orchestrated by me to wage a perceived vendetta against Arbuckle ; nothing could be further from the truth . As a result you continue to fail in the discharge your duty of care owed to me and to the members generally . I think the board's handling of this matter is as poor and naive as your recent choice of Arbuckle as Chairman In fact I think this board has done a pretty poor job all around and continues to be leaderless .  Basically no-one has done much of anything and the most readily apparent evidence of this is the appalling state of the landscaping . 

You have volunteered to work for the members ! Part of your job is to make sure that the covenants are complied with . If you find this to be too onerous then you should resign . What I find ironic is that I am not the person who has precipitated this conflict ; that person would be your erstwhile chairman . Arbuckle used his position as chairman to conduct his cloak and dagger renovations and was untruthful when confronted with past board resolutions and the covenants . The neglect and apathy which allowed Arbuckle to halfway complete his renovations before anyone had a clue what he was doing has forced me to have to constantly needle you into reluctant action . This is not the way it's supposed to work and the result leaves much to be desired .

In response to my email of the 25th you state that Arbuckle has provided the board with all of the requested documentation namely architectural drawings , engineering sign off and an indemnity from the insurance company (Arbuckle) . So let's examine the documents which you consider bring closure to this matter .

Perhaps we should start with the so called architectural drawings . Hillbilly you've got to be kidding me ; not even you can possibly believe that what you sent me are architectural drawings of Arbuckles renovations ?!! This is a drawing provided by the manufacturer of the sky light showing product and model specifications ! I find this representation by you to be disingenuous to say the least .

I am pleased to see that you do actually have a letter from an engineer in Tulsa dated 3rd November 2009 . Having said that , the engineer refers in his letter to some "drawings". He states that the "renovations/remedial works are constructed in accordance with our drawings #2009042 and site instructions which is structurally safe for its intended use" . It is interesting that the engineer signed off on plans which you have never seen and almost a months worth of construction has now taken place since the engineers letter was written . In other words Hilbilly you have absolutely no way of verifying that Arbuckle's finished product is what the engineer signed off on four weeks ago . I hesitate to point out that Arbuckle's engineer is not an independent professional hired by the board at Arbuckle's expense as specified in the covenants .

The document that you consider to be an indemnity is unsigned . Whilst I am reluctant to state the obvious I suppose we all realise that the indemnity is not worth the paper it is written on as long as it remains unsigned and unrecorded . In my business we like to get things signed first and ask questions later . I hope that when you get around to asking Arbuckle to sign whatever it is that you end up with he is still minded to do so . I also hope that you are going to have a "real live lawyer" look at it on behalf of the association The draftsmanship of the current document has a distinctly amateur ring to it . Three guesses who the draftsman was ?

So one out of three Hillbilly . I'd say that is consistent with your general performance . Needless to say I have found your last response equally unsatisfactory .

Hope this clarifies things for you .

No prizes for guessing his profession.

Background to the story: Another resident did renovations and the person who sent this e-mail (who I will call Socio for convenience) wanted to see the documentation he provided to us, the board. There had already been some Melrose Place-like drama so our position was for him to take it up with the owner directly. He has unresolved issues with the other owner and refused. The response that led to this appealed for some civility and said, and I’m *not* paraphrasing, “Our job as a board isn’t to act as a go-between for residents who want to play, ‘Can you tell X I’m not speaking to him?’”. Yes, I goaded him but I needed a sample for this post and didn’t feel like reliving any of his other Greatest Hits.

Here’s where the communication lesson comes in. E-mails sent in this tone of voice have led me to apply a complex formula to determine whether or not I need to respond. The simplified version is thus:

  • Remove all statements related to pompousness or peacocking. A big indicator for this is a lack of contractions. I blame Star Trek for this.
  • Remove statements intended to show off the writer’s self-presumed mastery of vocabulary. Examples: precipitated, fiduciary duty, and erstwhile. As a general rule, I often discount any e-mail that contains the word “edification” as it is a clear signal the writer is trying too hard.
  • Remove lecturing statement and statements that sound like a parent admonishing his child for getting his shoesies all dirty
  • Remove snarky attempts at digs and sarcastic closing statements (and generally speaking, any statement that begins “hope this”)
  • Remove misdirections and misinterpretations (e.g. that lack of profanity == civility)

After pruning, divide the remaining content but the total content. If the result is less than 20%, the entire e-mail can be safely ignored.

Now to be clear, I have been known to be somewhat verbose from time to time on this blog. But that’s where the crux of the communication lesson comes in: know when and, especially, how to ramble. By and large, I violate these rules for entertainment purposes. It’s part of the overall feel I’m going for with my online persona. I throw big words into my posts once in a while usually because I think it’s funny. (Notice I didn’t say “invariably” there.)

But something like this is meant to be taken seriously. And as I read it over, I can’t help thinking it’s borderline masturbatory. Like it’s some sort of closing argument for a trial. Given that the original request was for documentation to see if he wanted to take further action, I can’t see anything actionable in it. I can’t quite figure out how he wants us as a board to react to this. He’s voiced his displeasure but using such a condescending tone that it’s easier just to dismiss him as someone who is never going to be pleased.

What’s worse is that on the odd occasion an e-mail like this does contain a valid point, it’s going to get lost in the language. To Socio’s credit, he has indeed brought up a valid concern about the landscaping recently. And further to his credit, he has historically been extremely valuable to the community for his past work in managing the landscaping on the property. But it’s too easy to dismiss this past work and any other valid concerns because of the means by which he delivers the message. Call it the Michael Moore Syndrome.

To me, a much more reasonable response would have been about a third the length and gotten right to the point. Something along the lines of “I don’t believe this documentation is sufficient to protect the board’s interest and here are the reasons why” followed by, and this is important, pointed suggestions on what you want to happen. Unless you’re practicing to run for public office, posturing like this for six or seven paragraphs serves no purpose except to set yourself up as a pariah that is “fighting against an unjust bureaucracy.”

The medium is also at fault. Certain people take their written communication very seriously, especially when they think they are better at it than most people. I was very guilty of this in my 20s when I liked to send potshot-laden e-mails to companies that had wronged me. Even now, it’s still my first reaction and I have to write a couple of drafts before I’m happy that I’m not going to make things worse.

Knowing your audience is also key. The board members are volunteers, working as a group for the benefit of all residents to the best of their ability. (At least, that’s what I assume. I get the impression that some people think people join for some ulterior motive, though I can’t figure out what ulterior motive there could possibly be. There’s little personal satisfaction in it.) If we were paid, perhaps there would be some cause for indignation like this. But since we’re all pretty much on equal footing, my first reaction if I had a concern would be to try to work with the board to resolve it, rather than set up a confrontational stance.

This probably isn’t a good time to mention that my condo is for sale…

Kyle the Communicable