x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

An insult will become a teaching moment, if you let it

Heart to heart, sharing, honest interaction – these are red flag words for me, and that¿s the best reason for maintaining an almost unflappable mental attitude, a shiny outer shell at the workplace.

Once, during production on a television series, I got a call from an executive who wanted to give me a compliment, which is something that I almost always like getting, even when it's patently untrue. I'm not a stickler for these kinds of things - if you tell me you think I've lost weight when I've quite obviously gained it, you won't hear me complaining.

When a television series is in production, each time the script is rewritten - which is about once a day - the new version of the script ripples out to the various stakeholders in the production. The studio executives get a copy. The network executives get a copy. And then they all read them in the morning, and by noon my phone is ringing with "suggestions" and "thoughts" and "concerns" from the constellation of people whose job it is to watch me do my job.

When this executive called me, though, I was on the line with another executive, so he left a message: he loved the rewritten script, and would love to tell me himself.

So, as I said, I knew a compliment was on its way. "Great rewrite," said the executive. "Really. We all love it here. And what's really amazing is, you changed stuff we didn't even give you notes on."

Now that, for the record, is supposed to be a compliment. And it is, kind of. But it's also not a compliment, in that it implies that the only reason to change something or rewrite a joke or redo a scene is because you were addressing a note given by an executive. So it's a compliment wrapped around an insult.

Maybe the executive was unlucky and chose the wrong moment to make the call, maybe it was a bad day, maybe I was tired - I don't remember the exact circumstances - but for some bloody-minded reason I chose to focus on the insult and not the compliment. He called to say "great job", but I heard "Great Job You Feckless Order-taker."

I don't remember the exact words I used in response. But they were unpleasant, which for me is uncharacteristic. I'm usually a very polite kind of person. But that day, during that "complimentary" call, I reacted badly. I guess it was sort of like when you're expecting something to taste a certain way - sweet, for instance - and instead it tastes all salty in your mouth and you freak out a little bit.

So for the next few minutes I sort of unloaded on this poor executive who had just called to say something nice, which I had (sort of) chosen to take the wrong way. I talked about how, hey, this is my job. That's what I do - I rewrite material until it's right. And how the notes I get from the executives on the project aren't a big priority to me. What's important is how I felt about the rehearsal or the draft, what I think didn't work, what I think needs to be addressed. That it's actually what I get paid for, what the definition of the gig is.

I didn't say it exactly like that. It was a lot louder when I said it back then. And probably with saltier language, too. If you slip in the Anglo-Saxon expletive for the reproductive act every few words or so, you'll get a more accurate transcript of my remarks.

All of which meant that in the end I felt terrible and wrote an apologetic email and then had to endure the truly awful, shuddering experience of having a personal conversation with this person. That's the problem with crossing the line of politeness: you have to make up later.

In my apology call, I shared my frustration with the notes process, and the executive in turn shared his frustration with the kind of writer who just executes the notes and calls it a day, and we both shared our frustration with everyone else, and we ended up closer, and more friendly, than before, which is exactly the kind of thing I usually try to avoid.

We had, as they say, a moment. Which are things I hate to write, let alone live out in three dimensions.

Heart to heart, sharing, honest interaction - these are red flag words for me, and that's the best reason for maintaining an almost unflappable mental attitude, a shiny outer shell at the workplace. But it also highlights the dangers of listening too closely to anyone in your life - at work, at home, in the car, in the bedroom - or at least listening too closely to their compliments.

Great rewrite. You've lost weight. Love the new haircut. You smell good. This is your best work yet. If you're ever tempted to say those things to me, I promise you I will listen politely - and move right along.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood. On Twitter @rbcl