April 5, 2012

The Importance of Having Standards

Me and cô Cúc before she fired me.

My Vietnamese teacher fired me.

I was late to our thrice weekly appointment one time too many.  Angry that she was waiting 20 minutes and I still hadn’t shown up, cô Cúc stormed out of the office.  I ran downstairs but just missed her.  “She looked mad!” said Phuong, the receptionist.  Uh oh.

I tried calling.  No answer.

I tried texting.  “Sorry cô Cúc!  Please come back.”

Her reply came 30 minutes later.  “You should find another teacher.”

“Troi oi Chris,” I thought.  “You’ve done it this time.”

Cô Cúc and I had been meeting for about 3 years.  She is funny, smart and always remembers words I’m supposed to learn.  And she’s ALWAYS on time.  Not only is she a wonderful teacher, but she’s become a good friend.  I really enjoy our meetings together.

I was in trouble.  And the worst part was I knew she had every right to be angry with me.

I had appointments with cô Cúc from 3-4pm every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Although it wasn’t a habit, I had a lateness problem.  I sometimes was late 5, 10 or even 15 minutes.  And it had been getting worse.

This time I was 20 minutes late.  Cô Cúc decided she had had enough.

She fired me.

Cô Cúc was the best Vietnamese teacher I’ve ever had.  I wanted her back.  I knew she was super angry with me so I let her cool down for a few days.  Then I visited her office with a card, small gift and a sea of humility.

It worked.  Cô Cúc agreed to be my teacher again.  I am (almost) always on time now, even early.  In fact, it became a joke in the office how I feared the wrath of my Vietnamese teacher.

Cô Cúc had standards.  And I had violated her standards.  Repeatedly.

I could have been on time to every appointment if I had really wanted to.  I could have cut meetings short, or set an expectation at the beginning of the meeting that I would have to leave at 3pm sharp.  But the reality was that I was lazy.  I made excuses.  Deep down I knew it was impolite, but I rationalized it in my mind as being ok since I always paid cô Cúc for a full hour.

But this wasn’t about money.  It was about respect.  It was about being considerate.  It was about living up to my commitments.

And I hadn’t been living up to my commitments.  I wasn’t respecting cô Cúc or her time.

By firing me cô Cúc taught me two very important lessons: 1) Have standards, and  2) Demand that others live up to those standards.

If others don’t live up to your standards then it’s up to you to create consequences.  Stop associating with those people, withdraw support, whatever — but create consequences.  Standards without consequences are meaningless.  Only consequences change behavior.  Cô Cúc taught me that.

What are your standards?  Are others in your life living up to them?

If not it may be time to fire someone.

  • Pedro

    I am lucky enough to live in Vietnam but one of the downsides has meant compromise in standards, principles and values that I have chosen for myself after a life in the West. 

    Living and working here has taught me it is unrealistic to expect people to live up to my expectations, because largely they seem unable or unwilling to achieve what I expect from them. 

    I resent this.

    I do not believe my standards are particularly high. 

    I expect consideration and courtesy.

    I expect truthfulness and honesty.

    I expect professionalism and integrity. 

    By with my disappointment and resentment has come a lesson.  Rather than expect people to reach certain standards, I have learned to encourage and support people to to raise themselves up, rather than bring me down. 

    This has given me a satisfaction I didn’t have before, and I am grateful for this. 

    But like Cô Cúc I detest lateness, for the disrespect it shows to others.  And there are consequences…

    Don’t be late, I wont wait. 

    • Thanks Pedro for your thoughtful comment.

      My experience in Vietnam is that there are cultural differences which lead to behaviors Westerners have a hard time accepting. 

      One example is that Vietnamese people hate to give bad news or appear disloyal.  So when they accept a job with a competing company they never say so.  Instead they say “I’m helping in the family business” or “I’m starting a new business.”  This inability to talk straight used to bother me a lot.  But I’ve learned to accept it.  You just have to read between the lines to know the truth.

      A very important part of holding others to standards is communicating your expectations clearly and being clear about the consequences.  Do this in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental way.  Cô Cúc had been clear that my lateness was not acceptable, so when she fired me I understood. 

      You can’t hold people to standards unless they understand the standards.

      • Thuytienng67

        Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness. When one desires to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being, then generosity – in action, word, and thought – is this desire put into practice. It is important to recognize the “generosity” here refers not just to giving in a material sense, but to generosity of the heart.

  • Hi Chris, @vietnam720:disqus  brought me here.  Thanks for a good story!
    I have the same problem, procrastination is my talent :D (not so proud of it)
    Your lesson with cô Cúc somehow made me proud (as what I’ve known, Westerners seem to be very punctual.. no offense:)
    Now I strongly believe that I can make change and do things better with high standards to meet others’ expectation respectfully.
    I should learn to enjoy showing up 5 minutes earlier, indeed.

    “Time doesn’t wait!” my post-it note says ;-)

    •  Ha, no offense at all An Do. 

      I’m usually pretty punctual as well.  In this case I was taking co Cuc for granted.  That wasn’t ok, and she let me know it. 

      It was a valuable lesson.

  • Evelyn Nguyen

    Well, that’s precious story. I myself dropped my students when I was a tutor just because they didn’t realize my support and enthusiasm..

    •  Good on ya, em.  People deserve a chance.  But if they continue to be disrespectful after a fair warning, drop away!

  • The Northener

    ” What are your standards?  Are others in your life living up to them?
    If not it may be time to fire someone.”

    Hah, this is definitely applicable for every single side of life, even romance life that is challenging me a lot, haha.

    I’m sorry if my comment is improper :)

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