Mean Behind The Screen

I was an amateur ballerina for eight years. I did not have a bright future as a dancer, but I did know the rules of the classroom. At the beginnings and ends of lessons, we had to acknowledge our teacher with a curtsy. Why an open-legged squat is a sign of respect remains a mystery to me. The rule, however, makes sense: in every interaction, we must begin and end with respect.

Outside of the mirrored walls of the ballet class, we see a handful of ways we show courtesy for one another in our communication even before we start: handshakes at meetings, warm greetings to start conversations, using formal prefixes for people we are just meeting. These symbols of courtesy have evolved alongside our communication and are practically intrinsic in any exchange- unless we are speaking through screens.

Chatting changed with the advent of e-mail, followed quickly by messaging, texting, then posting. We are less formal, we are more expedient. “You” becomes “u”, we omit punctuation entirely, we abbreviate “in my opinion” to IMO. We want to hurry-up and say our piece. Our fast-tracked communication has lost more than just grammar, spelling and full words. Somewhere along the line, we dropped basic courtesy.

Courtesy, at its plainest, is defined as behaviour marked by respect for others. In our community, it is on regular display outside.  A grocery line is not complete without a routine battle of the “sorries” between kind customers (“Were you here? I’m sorry, you go ahead” “No I’m sorry, you first, please”). Even a brief conversation downtown starts with a quick inquiry about our health (“How’re ya now?”) These exchanges, like a curtsey or a handshake, show our general respect for each other that transcends whatever the eventual conversation subject may be.

When we move behind our screens, our small-town familiarity and mutual respect is lost. Instead of assuming the best of people, we can assume the worst. Instead of looking out for one another, we can fall into the trap of throwing each other under the bus. Whether it be a garbage debate, the firefighter debate, or even a Tim Hortons debate, online conversations about “hot topics” can divide even the tightest of little communities.

In recent community discussions on several social media pages, a “thread” (group of typed posts) begins with one neighbour’s take on a hot topic. People respond by posting their own hot takes on the topic: usually brief, rarely without typos. In too many cases, the conversation devolves into mockery, name-calling, blocking and sometimes even aggression. On both sides of the battle: upstanding and kind members of our community.

How can we be so kind on the streets but so mean behind a screen?

On the streets in Deep River, we are not anonymous: we are recognizable, we are public. When we are behind a screen, it gives us the illusion of anonymity and privacy. We can say things we otherwise would not say. We behave as though our online personalities exist in a bubble. We have forgotten that we are still accountable for the things we say from the privacy of our smartphones. We ignore that the people receiving our words are our neighbours, colleagues and friends.

The benefits of aggressive posting cannot outweigh its problems. It is foolish to think that a single post or reply to a post will drastically change a complex issue on its own. It is very unlikely that a post can even change one person’s mind. However, an aggressive threat or mean-spirited joke can certainly have a detrimental effect on the typist’s own reputation, on the recipient’s sense of well-being, and on the general feeling of inclusivity and respect in a community.

In a community where we thrive on our mutual support, our reputations for kindness, and our heightened respect for one another, we must keep courtesy at the forefront of every interaction we have. The upside to the internet is that we have a moment at the end of a typed rant to reflect before we click “post” or “send”. We can choose to edit and amend to ensure we have shown respect to one another throughout the post. Online communication may not have a shortcut to show respect, it does not mean that we should forget about courtesy altogether.

In Deep River, our community members are too nice on the streets to be mean behind the screen. We need to hold our online communication to the same kindness standards we have in public exchanges.  Whether it be a ballet class, a Town Hall meeting, or an online exchange, we must begin and end with courtesy.

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A Costly Cup of Tim’$

Early in the morning this summer, I enjoyed a sweet workday start: sitting in my office chair, drinking what’s left of my Tim Horton’s coffee, and browsing Deep River Discussions. One post warmed my heart: “Huge shout out to Cody (not sure of his last name) from Deep River Tim Hortons”, it read, “…some of the friendliest service I’ve ever had.” The post blew-up with Likes, Comments and Shares: locals agreed.

I looked down at my coffee and remembered the smiling face and cheery greeting of the young man that served me. I DID enjoy my experience there. I SHOULD go back tomorrow. No sooner did the thought cross my mind that I realized that Cody from Deep River probably makes Tim Hortons an extra chunk of change, and that my Large Regular would not profit Cody at all.

Apart from our drive-thru run-ins, I have never spoken with Cody. I am willing to bet, however, that he makes little more than minimum wage. Having worked at that same Tim Hortons years ago, I have a small idea of what his workday looks like. He arrives work-ready in his work-mandated uniform at least 15 minutes before the start of his shift. He puts his phone away.

Cody’s work day is packed: he has regular chores that need to be finished before shift’s end, he has additional chores to do if he finishes the mandatory chores (if you can lean, you can clean), he focuses on each person’s experience while simultaneously meeting the corporate time requirements for maximum customer flow, and yet he still probably gets publicly criticized by one customer or co-worker once or twice in the day. His day is strictly regulated with conversation time being limited to 1-2 breaks of 15 minutes, during which he can eat by himself in a small back room. Cody earns every penny he is paid. The smile and cheery attitude is a bonus he throws-in for us.

Minimum wage jobs are extremely difficult. Personally, I have worked in over 20 different workplaces through high school, university, and law school. With the possible exception of articling, I have never found work as draining as when I worked minimum wage jobs – particularly, in the fast service industry.  The pace, the lack of recognition, the monotony of forced routine, the high number of tasks and lack of any real control in your day requires massive amounts of energy and leaves the worker with little to nothing left at the end of a shift. This is not to say that people who work at Tim Hortons do not like their jobs, nor that minimum wage jobs are devoid of reward. This is to say that they are damn tough.

As a capitalist society, we endorse reaping what you sow. The harder you work, the more you stand to profit, right? Not so for minimum-wage employees: they hit the glass ceiling hard, regardless of profit creation or capability. Cody is rocking it from the drive-thru window making even us locals want to buy into the Tim Hortons’ overpriced drip coffee enterprise. Cody realizes almost none of the additional profit he makes for his store. When the minimum wage was $11.25, the average Tim Horton’s employee earned $11.50. That average accounts for seniority! What about Cody’s boss? The Executive Chair of Tim Hortons, Paul D. House (even with credit for working double-double hours), makes approximately $945/hour. Is Paul D. House working 80 times harder than Cody per hour? No way, Housée.

Tim Hortons Corporation is structured so that, after franchise royalties, mandatory costs, mandatory expenses, etc., even our local franchisee will only see a small fraction of any profit Cody makes. Our Deep River Tim’s money is not local. It gets funnelled straight to the Big “Paul D. House” on the top: the CEO and all the coffee bean counters.

The Liberals have made a small change to the minimum wage that impacts us in a big way in Deep River. The minimum wage increased to $14 this January (annual salary of $29K before taxes). Prior to this, those making minimum wage lived on a wage sitting directly atop the poverty line at $22K (below the poverty line if they had even one kid). Since most minimum wage workers live locally and spend most of their time in the area, nearly 100% of their paycheques are funnelled back into Deep River: into town-run community services, local establishments, landlords and taxes. $14 per hour does not land anyone into the lap of luxury, however, it may mean that someone working at Tim Hortons can live (frugally) on one job alone. Minimum wage hike: good news for Cody, good news for Deep River.

Local franchises and businesses, however, may not see the minimum wage increase as all sunshine and ice caps. Minimum wages hit franchisees and small business owners hard: they expose the thin profit margin that differentiates local business persons from Paul D. Houses. The natural inclination is to look at minimum wage workers and blame them for the squeeze. This anger is righteous – but misdirected.

The $14 that goes into a skilled, minimum wage worker is money well-spent: it pays for a loyal employee, working hard under direct supervision, promoting the business locally, being taxed locally and spending their money locally. The tight squeeze in profitability is likely not from Cody’s extra $3 an hour, but rather in the exceptionally high costs of globalization, franchises, and large corporate retailers who inflate the bottom line expenses of Maw and Paw shops.

With the minimum wage hike, Deep River Discussions has seen some angry posts. The brewing rage focuses on how over-paid minimum wage workers are. Some rants directly blame those minimum wage workers for their own unemployment. The out-of-town corporations who regularly price us out of small businesses and franchises somehow avoid all blame.  This logic is backward. The local minimum wage workers are not driving the franchise royalties and mandatory costs. The local minimum wage workers are not relying on out-of-country production and services to drive down their costs and price local vendors out of business. The local minimum wage workers want local businesses to succeed and have a vested interest in their success.

As a small community that relies on local business, on local support, and on a thriving population, we must be thankful. An increase allows our neighbours, who work for the least amount of money, to receive a fraction closer to what they have earned through hard and dedicated work. We need to focus our frustration not on the Codys, but on the Paul D. Houses, Galen G. Westons, and Stephen G. Wetmores. The middle-initial corporate barons not only hold our extra spending money on their Tim’s Card, PC Card, or Canadian Tire Cards, but also the key to the profit handcuffs on our local businesses, and the rightful earned wages of our community members.