In his Eyes is so beautifully crafted, it feels almost too fragile to read
Larry Benjamin’s What Binds Us, his award-winning time piece once inspired one of my novels. I was curious to read In his Eyes, particularly as I’d seen some reviews online which were puzzling. Larry calls himself a wordsmith, and I have no reason to doubt his assessment. Yet somehow, I wonder if the word is accurate. When I picture a -smith of anything, I see fire, I see an anvil, hammers and coarse tools. Larry’s tools most certainly include the fire of this passion for writing, but his writing reminds me more of calligraphy than forging a tool. Not sure that makes sense.
The cover of Larry Benjamin’s In your Eyes.
In his Eyes is the story of four young men who meet in college many years ago. I tried early to set the stage in terms of timing and I guess it begins in the seventies and ends in 2005. Four men who meet, form two couples, break up, meet others, yet through the years, their lives’ paths keep crossing, again and again. No spoilers. The way the novel is constructed is like a collage of little vignettes, small portraits, glimpses into the lives of the four protagonists and the people they meet. We have a narrator, but we also often get to see things from the individual points of view. In a way, the novel feels like a puzzle, where you as reader are challenged to add the various pieces to each other, to get to the final end result. What that result turns out as, I believe, is entirely up to each and everyone of us.
It’s taken me days to read this story. Larry’s writing is carefully crafted, and not as fluent as someone who writes more subconsciously. Which makes reading an effort, and in order to really enjoy and enjoy it, one needs to pace oneself. You need to take it slow, be shielded from outside interruptions or disruptions. I tried to read on my way to town or as my family was watching TV, but failed. Finally, last night, with my husband focused on his work, I was able to read in peace and quiet. It’s like listening to a piece of classical music. You have to focus, but you’ll be rewarded for your attention.
Our word smith, or calligrapher, Larry Benjamin
I can’t say I “liked” the plot of the story, because it is dark and belongs to a time I hope remains in the past, most certainly for us in the West. I know that for large parts of the world, this may still look like a bright future… It highlights not only the plight of black gay men in the United States, interracial relationships and their challenges, re “snow queen”, but also the darkness of our existence in a society from pre-AIDS where being gay was still largely frowned upon. Larry is the storyteller of that era, and he does it amazing justice. I usually try to avoid those times, because they are, by and large, quite depressing for our people, with so much misery and sadness. Larry showcases not only that misery, that loneliness, even when in company with others, society’s brutal judgement, but also the small progress, intimacy and how love can take so many different shapes. In Larry, that time is brought to light, and even though I hope we may never have to see such days again, it is still valuable to have that time period accurately reflected and brought to light, as undoubtedly many of our young who grow up under more hopeful circumstances may not even be aware of our recent history. For those of us who witnessed it, it’s slightly different, painful reminders of a recent past, of things we have lived through and endured ourselves.
In his Eyes is a beautiful story. Not an easy read, but a true work of art. If you like to read meticulously crafted books, and you have the time to really let go and focus on a slow read, I highly recommend you to take a journey into the past and re-live (or experience for the first time) what things were like for gay men in the past four or five decades. Well done, Larry, very well done.
In his Eyes is published by Beaten Track Publishing and is available on Amazon and other fine online retailers as e-book and as paperback. You can learn more about Larry and his craft on his website.
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful weekend.
Hans M Hirschi
This is how I’ll be consciously protesting the Nazi march through the streets of Gothenburg tomorrow
In our lives, it’s often difficult to discern good from evil. Life isn’t black and white, it’s mostly shades of gray. We all know that. However, there are some notable exceptions, and Nazis are one of them. You needn’t be a historian to understand that the genocide of more than six million Jews, Gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses & mentally disabled people was a defining moment for humanity, unparalleled in its industrial approach, its cold-hearted planning and faithful execution by the German Army and the various police forces of the era. It’s evil, pure and simple. The hatred against minorities, be it religious (e.g. Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses), ethnicity (Roma, Africans, Asians) or otherwise (disability, sexuality) is nothing new, and most certainly not a German problem. And the simple method of scapegoating is perpetrated again and again, in every country challenged by today’s complex world.
Gothenburg, my home town. Photo: Daniel Sjöström, CC
Sweden is, sadly, no exception. We’ve long prided ourselves for our open and welcoming society, and in recent decades, much like America has been in times past, we’ve welcomed immigrants to fill the jobs our own refused to do: clean toilets, look after the sick and elderly, janitorial services etc. On the other hand, our educational system is failing, after countless attempts by far too many politicians hellbent to leave a mark and fix a system that was geared toward graduating everyone “because they tried”.
We’ve had three (!) completely different grade systems in the 25 years I’ve lived in this country. Young Swedish males (they are primarily male) who fail school, don’t have much of a life to look forward to, they’ll find it difficult to find partners if they live in rural areas (because young women are more likely to get educated and more likely to move to university cities), jobs, and they often look to explanations outside of themselves. Racism (be it the socialist version we call Nazis or the conservative version that is fascism) provides all the easy answers. If only we didn’t have them, we‘d have plenty of jobs… If only they‘d assimilate, we wouldn’t have to rape to get women… Their sense of reality as warped as it can be.
This Saturday, the most active Nazi group in Sweden, The Nordic Resistance Movement, is going to conduct a march through the streets of Gothenburg, do demonstrate while the Gothenburg Book Fair, Sweden’s largest annual cultural event, takes place. Loads of international media on site, Yom Kippur on Saturday as icing on the cake, and thus plenty of opportunity for great press (according to the motto: “all press is good press!”) They’ve already conducted an impromptu march a couple of weeks ago, taking everybody by surprise, as they hadn’t sought approval for a march. According to Swedish law, you can demonstrate any time, anywhere in public, as long as you don’t disturb the peace. To seek approval only gives you first dibs to a specific time and place. The route of the demonstration is still disputed in courts, and the Nazis have claimed to ignore any official ruling. The Police have built make-shift lock-ups for hundreds of people underneath police HQ, and the extreme left have vouched to bus people to our fair city to stop the Nazis from marching. Violence begging for violence.
Gothenburg, an open, inviting and international city, built by immigrants for free global trade, from day one. Photo: Rob Sinclair, CC
Gothenburg is a vibrant city. Sweden’s second largest was built on clay soil and swamps by primarily Dutch, Scottish and German engineers after King Gustav II Adolf decided he needed a fortified city on the west coast to protect the nation against attacks from primarily neighboring rival Denmark in 1632 (we are now very close to our Danish neighbors, just saying.)
Today, greater Gothenburg is home to some 1.5 million people from over one hundred cultures. Our weather isn’t the fairest, but we have a vibrant cultural scene and my city, which was already once plagued by Nazis in the nineties (see my book Last Winter’s Snow), when even I was once attacked by VAM, raised itself above it all, and will host EuroPride 2018 together with Stockholm. It’s a diverse city, for sure, home to some very large global companies like Volvo Cars, AB Volvo, SKF, SCA, Essity, Mölnlycke Healthcare, AstraZeneca and many others, companies who all rely on experts from around the world, companies who are home in almost every corner of the world.
For weeks, I was determined to stand alongside the march, draped in a Swedish and a Rainbow flag, the symbol of universal love, to show those monsters that there is another story of Sweden, a story of Sweden where color plays no role, where love is universal. I was determined to not sit idly by when the symbol of our nation (our flag) is hijacked by a group of thugs and criminals (the majority of the leaders of NMR are convicted felons according to research by local newspaper GP.) They don’t scare me as an individual group, but I am of course concerned with the wider implications of the rise of “white power” across Europe and the United States. Have we already forgotten the sacrifices of our grandparents?
There are several demonstrations planned against the Nazi march, some by individuals on the extreme left who are just as unpalatable, re “only a dead bourgeois is a good bourgeois…”, “kill those capitalist swines!” No, I would never join any of those groups, but I was looking forward to my silent protest, as scared as I was that it might provoke the Nazis to physically attack me. Despite the largest police contingency planned since the fateful 2001 EU summit, it doesn’t take much to hurt someone. But, as you can see from my use of time, I was going to protest on site. But an article in today’s Metro changed my mind. The authors of that article are spot on: the Nazis want attention, they’re first class attention whores, which is why they’re doing this now, while the world is gathered here for the Book Fair. Instead, the authors propose that we actively turn our backs, not physically in situ, but by staying away from the streets they’ll be marching on. Remember the 1980s peace movement mantra: “what if there was a war but no one showed up?” Kind of the same thing. We should instead actively protest their idiocy by spending time with our families, our children, our friends, do loving things, and suck the oxygen away from those thugs. The city of Gothenburg has also begun to fly the rainbow flag across town, as a strong symbol for love and our city’s diversity. When I dropped off a guest in front of the fair grounds and saw it fly I almost cried. It is a potent symbol for love, universal love.
My grandparents. I miss them very much, and I am proud of their stance and accomplishments during the WWII Nazi plague. Photo: private
Allow me to share an anecdote from my own family. I have German ancestry. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side emigrated from Imperial Germany to Switzerland, where my grandpa was born in 1907. My grandpa was my childhood hero. He was the operator at one of my hometown’s theaters. I loved him and grandma to pieces, spending every childhood summer at their place in St.Gallen. Grandpa was no saint, far from it, but he did one thing right: he refused to join the Wehrmacht (Germany’s army) in 1938 when he was drafted. He and his entire family subsequently lost their citizenship and my mother was born stateless in 1941. My grandpa spent the entire war in camps, as free labor on Swiss farms, far away from his family who suffered enormously of famine and lack of pretty much everything. His brothers all joined the war effort. None returned alive, and there was considerable dissonance between my grandpa and his sisters because of his choice. Personally, I think it’s amazing that my grandpa had the balls to stand up to Hitler and give him the finger. Whether he did if because he was a coward (as some in the family have claimed) is irrelevant today. I have many German friends who live with the stigma of having a grandfather who served in that war and who may have participated in crimes against humanity. How do you deal with that?
He and his entire family subsequently lost their citizenship and my mother was born stateless in 1941. My grandpa spent the entire war in internment camps, providing free labor to Swiss farmers, far away from his family who suffered enormously from famine and lack of pretty much everything. His brothers all joined the war effort. None returned alive, and there was considerable dissonance between my grandpa and his sisters because of his choice. Personally, I think it’s amazing that my grandpa had the balls to stand up to Hitler and give him the finger. Whether he did if because he was a coward (as some in our family have claimed) is irrelevant today. I have many German friends who live with the stigma of having a grandfather who served in that war and who may have (willingly) participated in crimes against humanity. How do you deal with that?
The author of this post in Central Park, NYC. May 1, 2017. Photo: Alina Oswald.
I have to honor my grandpa for his choice, I have to honor my grandmother who worked tirelessly to shelter, clothe and feed her four children born during the war without any help from her husband, I have to honor my uncle and my aunts who suffered from the long-term effects of malnutrition their entire lives. The tragedy of WWII, and the horrors bestowed upon us by the Nazis linger.
I have a four-year old son. I have a responsibility to make sure that his friends at his international school, Nigerians, Somalis, Iranians, Indians, English etc. all have the same shot at a happy life, regardless of the color of their skin, their creed or who they might eventually end up falling in love with.
This Saturday, Gothenburg has a choice to make when the Nazi march through our city takes place. We let them, because it’s part of our system of free speech and freedom of assembly, but we don’t have to let them do so without showing how pitiful, small and insignificant they are. There are no two sides to this! Will you be with me? Will you stay away from the Nazi march through town, not ogle them, not demonstrate against them, most certainly not use violence against them, but spend time with your loved ones, and demonstrate (as in showing) that Gothenburg and indeed the world, can be a kind place, a loving place, a place where infinite diversity can peacefully co-exist in infinite combinations (to lightly adapt a Vulcan proverb).
Thank you and have a wonderful weekend. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
Hans M Hirschi
author, husband & very proud father
Hans, tell me, why do you write gay literature?
Actually, I don’t. I write stories (whether they qualify as literature is for others to judge). I write stories about life, stories to depict the human condition, showcase our humanity, the challenges we face, the struggles, the ups and downs of our lives. A long time ago, I had this discussion with my father about why I chose to write about gay characters (which isn’t the same as gay literature) rather than commercially more viable het characters. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with every time I write a new book, for five years straight.
I’ve always said that I write about gay characters because there aren’t enough stories for us, stories where my people are depicted, not as villains, clowns or freaks, but as human beings, just like everyone else. Here’s how my latest character, Hunter, a journalist, views is. An excerpt from Disease:
Disease, my new novel, about a father in his “best years”, who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
However, since I’m apparently not a “normal” parent, according to Connor, I have no clue how “normal” parents travel with their kids. I decide to call Emily. She’s “normal”—married to lovely Keith, a pleasant enough forty- something guy with a fully developed dad-bod, and they have two kids just a couple of years older than Amy. Emily is our sports editor. She travels, too. I’m sure she knows what it’s like when “normal” people travel.
“Sports desk. Emily speaking.”
“Hey, Em. It’s me, Hunter.”
“Hunter, hey. How are you doing? What can I do for you?” “It’s the assignment on travel Connor has me working on.
He wants me to write this piece on gay travel with kids. He seems to think we’re special somehow. And since I can’t figure out how, I thought I’d call you. You’re sort of normal, aren’t you?”
“He said what? That man is such a homophobic jerk. Shoot, what’s on your mind?”
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how straight, sorry, normal people travel. I mean, I always travel gay—on gay airlines, in gay economy seats, eat gay snacks, drink gay soda and gay beer. What does a heterosexual meal taste like? Are your heterosexual hotel rooms any different than ours?”
“Testy today, aren’t we?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to get caught in the middle of this. It’s just that it’s such a moronic assignment. How am I different as a father than Keith? Do you know?”
Yeah, not easy, is it. The story is about Alzheimer’s, and Alzheimer’s doesn’t make a difference between gay patients or het patients, it doesn’t distinguish between Asians or Africans, Mexicans or Germans. It affects us all. It’s a human disease, and it’s growing, as the global population ages. However, society, and the way we are treated as we get sick, that’s different. Here’s how Ethan, Hunter’s partner, writes to us at some point in the story:
Just imagine, we could have finally gotten married. You have no idea what I would have given to turn Hunter’s fantasy wedding in Amalfi into a reality—to fly our family and friends out to Italy to wed the man of my dreams, the love of my life.
Just imagine Hunter finally being able to adopt his daughter, Amy, finally being able to say that his girl was truly his in every sense of the word, even legally.
Alas, it was not meant to be. The day when the Supreme Court handed down their landmark ruling that marriage equality was indeed the law of the land, and the entire land—Michigan included—was forced to start handing out marriage licenses to LGBT couples.
On the day itself, Hunter had a really bad day. I think that somewhere, deep within him, he instinctively felt that for us, this day would be of no consequence, as we would not be allowed to get married, anyway, as Hunter was no longer “of sound mind”— a prerequisite to enter the sacred state of matrimony. To ignore the day, to retreat into his own mind, was a coping mechanism of sorts.
No, I never envisioned writing “gay literature”, but I think I just had no choice. Our lives, our existence, to this very day, is so different from the rest that when a character is LGBT, so much around us changes, radically. And while my story doesn’t show a worst case scenario by a long shot, it could’ve been worse, as some U.S. states allow doctors to refuse LGBT patients care, or that simply being LGBT is lethal or illegal still, to this very day, in many countries across the world, and even in our protected “west”, there are political parties, groups and religious organizations who wish us ill.
No, I never wanted to write gay literature. I have a responsibility to highlight the ongoing discrimination against my people, my family. I am privileged. I have freedom of speech, I have the ability to put my thoughts in writing, and therefore the responsibility to speak up. It is, after all, still, to this very day, a matter of life and death.
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful weekend.
PS: Tomorrow is Bi-visibility day. My publisher has a great sale going on with all their books with prominent bi-characters. There’s also a great giveaway. Check it out, right here.
Individualism and society: is there a balance that allows us to combine the two?
We (in the west) live in societies where the “I” or the “me, me, me” is more important than ever. Call it entitlement, “human rights”, “civil rights” or whatever you find fitting for the situation (and I do NOT equate the terms). We are extremely individualistic societies, where each individual’s drive to maximize their own dreams and hopes are at the core. So far so good. However, sometimes, our drive to maximize our own “gain” or freedom clashes with what is best for society, that which all of us share together. Question is: is there a way to combine the two?
Allow me to exemplify: when I grew up, society and societal pressure was everywhere. It kept our societies relatively homogenous, individualism was frowned upon. Our freedom to express ourselves was limited. I recall the first wave of fashion with torn jeans, way back in the 1980s. I had just purchased my first pair when a lady on a bus glared at me and asked if I “couldn’t afford a whole pair of jeans?” I never wore them again. When two girls joined us at the central station of Zurich to depart on a four week language adventure in St. Malo back in 1983, both cried, having just been chewed out by their parents for having colored a lock (!) of hair, one in pink, the other in blue. A lock of hair! Not the entire head, mind you, just a lock. They were barely allowed to board the train. Over a colored lock. Today, nobody would bat an eyelash, for either things. Men color their hair, and even people my age still get to wear torn jeans. Nobody cares.
However, when it comes to other things, our liberal societies still find themselves in crosshairs. When two men or two women want to get married, the Christian right suddenly believes their own existence to be threatened. So there seems to be an aspect of individual liberty that affects others, or does it? I’ve followed the marriage equality debate in twenty-four countries, and the arguments are always the same. We are a threat to the very fabric of society, yet oddly, in the twenty-four countries who have marriage equality, nothing’s changed, no marriage has been adversely affected. The world is still spinning. The same will be true if and when Australia joins the civilized world as the twenty-fifth country, unless beaten to the punch by Chile…
On the other hand, there are things that disrupt society, and oddly they are often small things, such as parents not looking after their children in public, allowing them to behave pretty much any way they like, vandalism, feet on chairs on public transport etc. The English tried to make this illegal during the final Blairite years, and went too far (outlawing hoodies in public, duh!), but they were on to something important: have we, as societies, sacrificed our duties toward each other, the common good, for our individual, egotistical reasons? Because it’s too uncomfortable to tell a teen to take their feet off a chair on a bus, or to make sure our children don’t vandalize, or to make sure that we go to work, even if we don’t feel like it?
What do you think? I offer no solutions, but this is certainly something I think about a lot. Yesterday, we were picking mushrooms in a forest, and I saw this dump of old VHS tapes and DVDs, in the middle of the forest, some 50 ft from the nearest dirt road. Why? Why dump in the middle of nowhere? The poison released into the ground is just… #facepalm
Ross is bisexual, and most certainly a handyman I warmly recommend to anyone! 50% off this week as part of the #bivisibility week…
How can we draw the line between the “common good” and individual rights? Has the pendulum swung too far toward individualism? Curious to hear what you think…
BUT, on to another topic, before I let you go for the week. My publisher is highlighting #bivisibility this week, in literature, with a great discount on all books with bisexual characters. Have a look: http://www.beatentrackpublishing.com/?ref=bivisibility
BUT, on to another topic, before I let you go for the week. My publisher is highlighting #bivisibility day on September 23, with a great discount on all books with bisexual characters. Have a look: http://www.beatentrackpublishing.com/?ref=bivisibility
There’s also a great Rafflecopter giveaway you may want to enter to win some great books:
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Great offer, eh? Take advantage and find amazing reads. I know several of the authors and I can vouch for the quality! So what are you waiting for? 😉 If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful week.
Facial Recognition, right or wrong?
I was one of many who watched the Apple keynote on Tuesday. It’s become a bit of a family tradition for us, and needless to say, ten years after the initial iPhone launch, we were more than curious to see what they’d come up with. Ten years ago, I was still 100% based in PC land, with an Ericsson phone (yeah, right? Seems forever ago…) in my pocket. But the iPhone, when I first saw one live in early 2008, had me convinced, and my husband and I bought the 3G version. We’ve upgraded every two years since. The iPhone X with facial recognition instead of fingerprint ID looks amazing, and as Apple fans, we’re excited. However, that same week, we’d read articles in the news about a Stanford study of an algorithm with an uncanny “gaydar”, with up to 81% chance of identifying gay men from a picture.
Countless people have suffered badly from the pseudoscience called phrenology. Including the Sami people of Scandinavia, as I’ve described in Last Winter’s Snow. Does this mean that Facial Recognition is going to be as bad? Photo credit: From People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883) and Wikimedia Commons.
This morning, I read an article which draws parallels between facial recognition software and nazi-time phrenology, where people’s abilities were supposedly determined by the shape of their skull. Debunked fake science, for sure, but even I was taken aback by the Standford study. Do we have reason to worry? First of all, let me just say that I’m surprised that this hasn’t been in the news before since Samsung and many android powered phones have been using facial recognition for some time. I guess this shows just how powerful Apple still is perceived to this day with their decisions to adopt a technology or not. Maybe it’s true that they are better than the rest. With regards to the use by Apple and the iPhone, it’s a matter of trust. Do you trust that your face measurements stay within the phone and aren’t transmitted to Apple servers? I can only answer that question for myself, and my trust in Apple is greater than my trust in say Google, whose entire business idea is based on extracting money from “data collection”…
But what about Facial Recognition per se? Well, I see it primarily as a tool, and just as any tool, it can be used to do good (protect my data, make my purchases more secure, allow me entry to another country etc.) or evil (the Stanford algorithm in the hands of evangelicals or Putin for instance). in the U.S. questions have been raised about forcing people to look at their phones by law enforcement to unlock their phones. Well, yes, that is obviously a threat, and legally, this isn’t resolved. Not there, not anywhere really. The technology is too new. However, law enforcement, if they have probable cause, can already search our devices, and the San Bernardino case shows that it is possible to even hack a relatively secure iPhone to get the data they want, even if the supplier (in that case Apple) doesn’t co-operate with the authorities for reasons of principle (which again goes to the whole trust issue).
Retina scans, facial recognition and other biometric features in e.g. passports have been in use for years. We don’t even flinch when we have our picture taken and our fingerprints scanned for our new passports, and when you use a kiosk to e.g. enter the U.S. or the EU, that data is scanned from live pictures and compared to the data stored in your passport, making it less likely that a passport is used by the wrong person. As the Stanford study shows, algorithms are better at comparing data than humans are. Changes in facial hair, hairdo, glasses etc. all have an impact on how we visually appear to an immigrations officer. Algorithms are less gullible.
As bad as nuclear weapons are, this is a photo of the planet’s first nuclear explosion, we also use nuclear power to power our Teslas… Just saying. Photo credit: Jack W. Aeby, July 16, 1945, Civilian worker at Los Alamos laboratory, working under the aegis of the Manhattan Project.
But as easily as algorithms can be used for good, so is their potential for use for nefarious purposes. The Manhattan Project is just one example for that. As a member of the LGBT community, I worry, of course, that countries, where we are persecuted, are going to use such technology against us. Ethics should always be discussed. However, using facial recognition in a phone won’t change that, either way. We don’t stop using knives to cut our food even though that same tool can be used to cause terrible harm to others. It’s illegal, period.
The problem with facial recognition or the Stanford algorithm isn’t the algorithm (which quite to the contrary actually proves that the gaydar is a real thing…) per se, it’s the fact that homosexuality and members of the LGBT community are still illegal and persecuted. It’s the legislation that is problematic, not a tool to identify us. Throughout history, nefarious groups have always found ways to “identify” us, even without technology, through e.g. infiltration etc., while we’ve found ways to try and hide, e.g. through marriage.
I welcome the advent of facial recognition and the applications it offers to us. Immigration kiosks shave valuable time off my entry to other countries, and the new iPhone technology will allow me to pay in stores, log into my bank account and other secure applications much more easily and securely (according to Apple, facial recognition is 20 times less likely to be fooled than a fingerprint). It makes my life easier and simpler. I welcome that. As for the threats, and I don’t deny their existence, they haven’t become any worse because of Apple’s adoption of the technology. We need to call out bigotry, homophobia, transphobia etc. wherever we see it.
What is your take? Curse or blessing?
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.
Feedback: stay clear of false compliments, white lies, and set phrases
I’ve been on the hunt for a day job for some time now. With my disqualifications (age, immigrant, gay), not an easy task in a country as obsessed with young blonde people as Sweden. There’s a fear (so HR professionals have told me repeatedly) that immigrants just don’t blend into the Swedish “fika paus” (coffee break morning and afternoon) because they don’t understand the culture or the language. The fact that the “fika” is almost gone from Swedish workplaces is beside the point. Sadly the attitude survives. As a gay man, it’s almost impossible to know if you’re discriminated against because people these days know better than to say discriminatory things openly, but some employers are still disturbed by it, and as a married man with son, it’s hard to hide, lest I lie, and I just don’t lie. I once had a manager ask me (on our first business trip after his third beer) if it wasn’t disgusting “to take it up the ass”… Today I’d probably fire off a witty retort, but back then (twenty-one years ago) I just wanted to disappear into a hole in the ground, blushing all shades of crimson. But alas, not the topic of this post…
Age is a bigger problem. Sweden is extremely ageist. You can read job ads seeking managers with ten years experience from managing and still expect the candidate to hold an MBA and be between twenty-five to thirty years old. How that computes is above me, but it’s what you read, again and again. Not to mention that us old geezers are often considered too expensive. Why hire us when you can get a young moldable mind for less? There’s a certain logic to it. And there’s a reason we are more expensive. Experience is also a form of competence… What remains is this weird feeling that you miss out on great opportunities for all the wrong reasons, but you can’t prove it.
Anyway. I recently received feedback from a company where I had applied for a position, and it reminded me of what you shouldn’t write in a feedback message. Having worked in this field for some time, I’m still surprised to see senior managers make such colossal mistakes, lying through their teeth. Here’s a key paragraph from their message, and my interpretation what they “really” tried to say…
You have a super CV and a very broad experience. We need someone who can be very hands-on [apparently, in their view, I’m not] right out of the gates, understand the advanced technology [am I considered slow? dumb?] and work with “ordinary” tasks [ouch!] before we grow further. We believe that you are too “academically advanced” [this is just so wrong in so many ways, I don’t even know what to say…] for this position.
First of all, you should always, always provide feedback to applicants, whether they are called to an interview or not. Kudos for that. So many employers do not afford applicants this basic courtesy. It doesn’t make them more attractive, quite the contrary. Employer Branding is 99% about walking the talk and 1% about advertising the talk…
When it comes to actual feedback, personally, I believe that oral is better than written. That way you can avoid quotation marks… I mean, really? I remember the interview very well, and I know it wasn’t one of my best. Both my dad (skin cancer) and my MIL (blood clot) were admitted to the hospital that day, and I was preoccupied, worried. Things went downhill when I looked at my watch after one of the interviewers had been yawning for some time (it was a Friday afternoon) and I mistakenly thought it to be 4:45 pm rather than the actual 3:45. New watch and I wasn’t accustomed to the face yet. I rushed the interview and didn’t realize my mistake until I was in my car in the parking lot at 4:20, not 5:20 pm like I thought… Yeah, that happened. Needless to say, I immediately apologized, without mentioning the half-asleep manager stressing me. Decorum! 😉
About ten minutes into the interview I learned that both managers interviewing me had come from the same company, and it was the tell-tale sign that they were looking for someone with a background like their own. When a high tech company hires its staff from the same high tech company, they’re likely “set” in their views on what the most important competencies are: engineering, and here in Gothenburg, Chalmers. Don’t fit that profile, go on, look elsewhere. I knew my chances were minimal. When it took three months to finally get feedback, I had long ago realized I’d lost. I’ve been in this game long enough…
BUT, while I realize that, you don’t have to insult people’s intelligence with quotation marks and thinly veiled insults. Clearly, that paragraph was just intended to let me down gently. And it makes me wonder how they view engineers. Aren’t they academically advanced? LOL Last I recall, they study as long as everyone else to get their master degrees.
Here are some recommendations if you respond to applicants:
- Do it, do it as soon as you possibly can. To let people wait two to three months is rude. Not to respond at all is a disaster
- Be courteous
- Don’t lie. If you feel that what you want to say is “sensitive”, don’t say it.
- While I appreciate the attempt to provide feedback, if that feedback is not in any way helpful or constructive, don’t. I would have omitted the entire paragraph above and just left it at “you have a very impressive CV, but ultimately we decided that another candidate was a better fit given where our organization is currently at” and then move on to the blah, blah about keeping them in mind and yada, yada. After all, these aren’t unintelligent people. It would’ve said the same without the hollow compliments and white lies.
I’m always amazed how organizations don’t consider the wider impact of their messaging. How do they think I will talk about their company to friends? My engineering friends (I don’t live in an author bubble 24×7)? Suppliers? Customers? You never know who people know…
What is your take on this? HR professionals? Let’s hear it! How do you coach your managers in how to write feedback letters? I don’t often write about my coaching/consulting career, but I still have it. LOL To learn more, head on over to my company site for further information. Feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good week.