Mistake No. 19: “Oh $&#£ off!”

A couple of months ago I read a BMJ editorial by Rhona Flin, Professor of Applied Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, in which she argued that experiencing or witnessing rudeness at work makes you more likely to make mistakes.

This would seem to be common sense, although it’s not something to which I’d previously given any thought. Rudeness can get to you, and make you uptight and distracted. It takes up head space that needs to be devoted to whatever it is you’re working on, which is bound to suffer as a consequence.

I’ve been working in the publishing and journalism business for well over a decade now and I’ve come across a fair amount of rudeness in that time. I remember when I was a writer at a publication whose designer was the most persistantly unpleasant and rude individual I’ve ever worked with, and I’m sure the quality of my work, and that of other members of the team, suffered as a result. We dreaded going to the office. It drove us to drink. It made us bitter and angry. Hardly conducive to creativity.

But that individual was rude by nature. Most people in the industry are anything but. But most of us – the odd saint or angel excepted – can be vulnerable to the occasional flash of rudeness. And for the purposes of this post, I’m interested not only in the consequences of rudeness on witnesses or recipients – but also on its perpetrators. Here are two anecdotes.

A couple of years ago, I bumped into an editor of mine at a health show and we fell into a conversation about freelancers. In passing, he casually let slip that he no longer commissions a long-standing acquaintance of mine who had been rude in a phone call to him concerning an overdue invoice. “It just isn’t worth it,” he told me. “I’m not responsible for payments, and sometimes our accounts team just pay a bit late. I know we should be punctual but I’m too busy to be hassled when money is only a few days overdue.”

About three years ago, when working at another magazine, I was forwarded an email exchange which was ‘doing the rounds’ among the women’s health and lifestyle sector’s editorial staff. A freelance writer had sent a features editor some ideas, not received a reply, and sent a follow-up asking that a response would be nice “if you can be bothered to find the time”. Not unreasonably, the features editor (politely) rejected the ideas, and this triggered an outpouring of indignant fury. It was eye-watering stuff from the writer, accusing the features editor of having an inflated sense of self-importance and being cavalier with the careers of freelancers. “I’m glad you rejected my ideas, as now I can take them to a professional editor who values me and them,” she flounced. I’ve never forgotten this individual’s name, and I doubt others who saw her emails have either. How much work she may have lost because of this can only be guessed. The tragedy of it was that she was “a pretty good writer”, as my deputy editor told me at the time.

The point I’m trying to make is – whatever happens – do your utmost not to be rude in your everyday dealings with editorial staff. It affects them; it affects others; it affects you – and your career. You see, you will get short thrift in this game. You will get ignored. You will get rejected. You will get rejected again. Even the nicest writers – which you all are because you read my blog – will have their patiences tested by the writing business. Swear at editors by all means – but only once you’ve put the phone down. Tell them to roll up their magazine and to stick it where the sun has never shone – but don’t go clicking ‘Send’ once you’ve done so. The publishing world is incestuous and gossipy. News spreads. Names are remembered. Try to bite your tongue and keep smiling and count to ten.

It would be hypocritical of me not to recount my own indiscretion at this point. I’d contacted an editor via email, introducing myself, with some ideas and clippings. I received a polite email back, thanking me, expressing interest in my work and proposals, and stating that the publication’s fee was £20 per 1,000 words. I in turn sent a polite email in return, thanking her for her time, but explaining that this amount was lower than my minimum rate (which was putting it mildly), and that I wouldn’t be able to accept any commissions.

“I must say I find your attitude disappointing,” she retorted. “In thirteen years as editor, I have never had a freelance writer decline to work for me because of money. All of my contributors write for the satisfaction of communicating essential information to people in need, and not for mercenary motivations.”

With what I felt to be nothing to lose, my response was swift and pungent, it didn’t half feel good, and I’ve never for a second regretted it.

Mostly it’s wrong to give in to the temptation to be rude. But perhaps sometimes it’s essential.

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