Consider This | A miasma of mediocrity
“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” — Arthur Conan Doyle
Author’s note: This article was first published on July 20, 2015. The second part of “Stupid is dangerous”, which was published last week, will be continued next week.
At almost every turn in our daily lives and generally in our society, we are deluged by a miasma of mediocrity. Our society, on so many fronts, appears to be intractably inundated by an attitude that reflects that there really is no need to excel in our undertakings and that, if we just perform satisfactorily, everyone should be happy.
The truth is that we are generally not happy, pleased or satisfied with the performance of those whose responsibility it is to provide service, which encompasses a wide cross-section of our society – from the politician and preacher, to the technician and teacher. Therefore, this week we would like to Consider this… Why do we seem to be so ensconced in a miasma of mediocrity, and can we extricate ourselves from this quagmire?
Miasma is defined as “an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt”. The word is rooted in Greek mythology, where miasma reflected “a contagious power” that assumed an independent and harmful life of its own.
The Greek myth is told of Atreus, who invited his brother Thyestes to a delicious stew containing the bodies of his sons. A miasma contaminated Atreus’ family, where one violent crime led to another.
In modern times, miasma has assumed the description of a poisonous vapor or mist filled with particles from decomposed matter (miasmata) that caused illnesses. The perception developed that diseases were the product of environmental factors such as contaminated water, foul air and poor hygienic conditions. Disease was not transferred between individuals but affected individuals living within a locale who were infected by malodorous vapors and identifiable by its foul odor.
There is something that seems to be comforting about mediocrity. It is like those worn-out, old slippers or that threadbare bathrobe or sweatshirt that we just cannot bear to throw away.
Mediocre things just seem to fit our imperfections so well, not demanding or rubbing in unpleasant ways. However, as everyone knows, those who wear these comfy old clothes or shoes are regarded in a negative way, and the best is not expected of someone who cannot even trouble themselves to update their wardrobe.
So, too, does mediocre behavior shape our image in the eyes of those who would consider doing business with us. When you choose a company to patronize, do you choose the place where the workers go out of their way to please you, not settling for just giving you what you want, but exceeding your expectations at all times? Or do you choose the place where doing business is akin to watching frozen molasses run uphill in the cold of January?
From the moment we ascend from our slumber, throughout the entire day and until we retire to rest, rejuvenate and recalibrate from the day’s activities, we are constantly accosted by instances of mediocrity.
Our patience and perseverance are often tested throughout the day, from the broadcast of the news, where names and words are unabashedly mispronounced or butchered, to our orders that are inaccurately filled by food vendors.
We are frequently confronted by “artificial persons” on the other end of the telephone who, by the time they have listed the array of options from which one can choose for the desired service, make us forget which option we should select. This experience is exacerbated for customers who often wait in seemingly inexhaustible queues, only to have the privilege of repeating the frustrating exercise because the telephone calls are frequently dropped in the middle of the conversation.
Many customers often experience extremely long waits in government offices for service, only to be told that they have to go elsewhere to complete the task for which they came in the first place. This news is often reluctantly provided only after patiently waiting for the receptionist to finish her conference with a friend on the other end of the phone about the latest “breaking news” on the GNN, that is, the Gossip News Network.
We know all too well of instances where persons apply to government offices for services which should be routinely resolved, but we frequently never receive even an acknowledgement of a letter, not to mention a satisfactory response to a simple request.
There are many instances where Bahamians have applied for Crown Land, only to experience inordinate delays before any substantive attention is given to the matter, and then often the response is negative.
There are constant complaints by Bahamians who encounter frustratingly protracted delays at the Accident and Emergency Department at Princess Margaret Hospital.
The swirling miasma of mediocrity is also present in the domestic banking system where banks often post charges from customers’ bank accounts without any valid explanation to the customer.
Our educational system is replete with many instances of mediocrity, notwithstanding the efforts of well-intentioned teachers, who are not provided with the essential tools to teach their students. Is there any wonder why the national grade average hovers at such a deplorably low level?
One of the most pervasive examples of mediocrity is the unacceptable level of debate in Parliament. Instead of actually engaging in bona fide debates, too many Parliamentarians are satisfied to read prepared speeches that are written for them. This practice violates the rule that dictates that contributions, with the exception of those during the budget debate, are not to be written speeches, read verbatim, but extemporaneous addresses using notes. Because it is easier to read a speech than to actually think on your feet, this represents the mediocre performance we now accept from those to whom we look for examples of exceptional, not mediocre, actions.
Bahamians have also developed a deliberate disrespect for punctuality, often waiting from 30 minutes to an hour beyond the scheduled time for meetings and appointments. This art has been perfected by some professionals who believe that it is totally acceptable to keep their patients or clients waiting excessively long periods before keeping the scheduled meeting time, supposedly to confirm their complaint of being extremely busy.
We find ourselves enmeshed in the miasma of mediocrity because we do not confront it when it arises. The most effective response to mediocrity is the frontal approach. A good example is the 15 percent gratuity that is added to the cost of a meal served in our restaurants. There are times when the gratuity should be withheld because of poor service and other occasions where the service provider should be compensated by a greater gratuity if the service was superlative. Challenging the automatic tip and refusing to pay for poor service, while a tedious and often contentious confrontation, will, in the long run, make the point that mediocrity, even on such a minor level, is unacceptable and does not deserve a reward.
Unless we are prepared to respectfully but critically challenge mediocre service, we will forever be ensnared in this miasma which will continue to negatively impact our community.
The only way that we are going to extricate ourselves from the miasma of mediocrity is to prepare ourselves from the early years to appreciate the long-term benefits of delivering quality service that is designed to exceed our customers’ expectations.
We hasten to criticize foreigners taking jobs that Bahamians can fill in our community, but the fact of the matter is that, in many instances, we are not committed to providing the service that exceeds our customers’ expectation, whereas others are ready to do so.
Consistent quality service requires critically honest self-assessment, continuous improvement and constant vigilance. Until we stop condoning this comfortable – and destructive – mediocrity, we will constantly be confronted with it. Until we recognize the potentially devastating impact of the destructive influence of mediocrity, we will continue to meander in the morass of mediocrity. Until we extricate ourselves from this suffocating cloud of unexceptional, commonplace behavior, in the eyes of those who possess a discerning global frame of reference regarding quality service, we will be viewed as a third-world banana republic that does not deserve to emerge into first world excellence.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to email@example.com.