I’m going to tell a little story as a Public Service. It’s a true story, but I am virtually 100% sure that the other people involved remember it differently (if they remember it at all), and I should say up front that these are all – to the best of my knowledge – good people.
For over thirty years now I’ve been a member of a parents organization that founded some local elementary schools. The schools ultimately became part of the regular public school system, but we continue to support them and be involved in their guidance. Throughout, we have had more than our share of disputes with the authorities – the Education Ministry and two local councils. The story recounts a meeting about one such dispute. The fact is, I don’t even remember what the dispute was, but it had raised the hackles of a lot of parents.
So here we are, me and another representative of the parents at a large conference table with the deputy mayor, head of the local education department and about half-a-dozen other functionaries, waiting for the mayor, who walks in, throws a printout down on the table and demands an explanation. It seems that some of the parents had broadcast an angry email accusing the council, and the mayor, of being indifferent to the problems that their children were facing. The mayor said that had he known such a letter was being sent out he would have canceled this meeting, and he stood there looking at me expectantly.
I looked straight at him and said, “Can we talk about something serious?” (What can I say, I’m the hero of the story.)
I think he was more shocked than angry, but he gave it another try. “You don’t think this is serious?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I want to know who’s responsible for this.”
“I am,” – I had no idea who sent the email and in fact this is the first I’d heard of it, but if I said it wasn’t me, he could just say that if I don’t represent the parents, why is he meeting with me? Plus, it would imply I could be cowed were I “guilty” of the email. So, I took “ministerial responsibility” for anything done by our parents – “now can we move on?”
At this point he just sat down and we had our meeting, which, if memory serves, was productive.
Now I am not, in fact, gifted with extraordinary sangfroid. Quite the opposite. I was able to muster it on this occasion because of years of meetings during which officials would use their wounded feelings to put citizens on the defensive. I don’t believe that they do this as a conscious tactic; I think they fall into the habit because it works. My attitude had always been, “We don’t need you to like us, we just need you to do your job,” but until that meeting I had been unable to translate that attitude into action. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
This was all years ago, but I recently heard of a friend’s encounter with an official in which he ended up being railroaded by the official’s huffiness, so I decided that others might benefit from the realization that this is often a bluff that can be called.
It won’t always work. Sometimes the official will dig his heels in. Early on we had to file a complaint against the Minister of Education and the mayors in the Hight Court of Justice. Still, ignoring their putative hurt feelings is better for everyone in the long run.