Monday, September 11, 2017

How To Make Irritating Students Less Irritating

I keep receiving reports that students seem more irritated,less patient, quicker to anger and less tolerant these days. That makes it tougher to
work with them and help them. Though we may all realize that a student’s anger and even insults are not personal, they sure feel it. This is especially so since students keep pointedly using that second person pronoun “you” as if it were a weapon since they believe you are the school when they speak or even may curse at you.

They see you as the representative of that cold, impersonal money-grubbing abstract “the college” that has caused some disaster in their otherwise imperfect life. They have not learned how to separate the particulars from the universal. And when they are talking to you, you are a true representative of the college. As such, you equal the entire collection of bricks, mortar, people, rules and offices that is the university. So, at that moment, in that encounter, the student believes you are responsible for any wrong done; especially is the wrong may have been committed by the office that underpays you.

Thus when he or she is snide, nasty or even shouts and curses at you, that action is not really at you but as you as a symbol of the college - unless you have done something to call for it. Yes it is irrational and even misplaced but it is real because the student is feeling some hurt or harm.

(The following is excerpted from The Power of Retention
Social critics and we in higher education have found the general lack of civility in our culture also exists on our campuses. This should be no surprise. The people who live in our Happy Bunny “It’s all about me” culture are our students and even some of our employees. They are our faculty, administrators and lo and behold, they are also us.
As Walt Kelly had his cartoon character Pogo put it so well back in the 60’s We have met the enemy and they are us. The people who attend and work at our schools are the exact same people in the exact same culture we think we have left behind when we enter the retreat for intellectual and academic pursuit we know as a college campus. But what we find is that what attitudes apply in the so-called real world outside of academia also apply on a college campus.

This reality can also explain differences in the ways we perceive and act toward one another. Our students come from a cultural group that has been immersed in a cynical, smart mouth me first attitude which has eliminated most of what older America grew up knowing as social civilities and courtesies. The Captain Kangaroo/Mister Rogers world of please, thank you and general polite regard for one another has been replaced by a hip-hop attitude that revels and condones a general rude incivility toward one another. Radio shock jocks use language and casually discuss topics on the radio some of our generation may well be taken aback by and even find anti-intellectual or uncivil. Language that might have been thought of as anti-social and rebellious is now everyday colloquial use in casual discussion even in classrooms and offices. Attitudes that would have been unacceptable and considered rude such as taking a phone call in class or napping during lectures have become the norm according to many faculty members.
Our parents and their parents and theirs all the way back to Young Socrates in the Platonic dialogues had difficulty understanding and accepting the current younger generation’s music, hair, language, attitudes, mores, actions. Each generation knew the student group was more out of control than the last.

Or as Paul Lind sang about it in Bye Bye Birdy

I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!
Who can understand anything they say?
They are so ridiculous and immature!
I don’t see why anybody wants ‘em!... Kids! They are just impossible to control!.... Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way way? Oh,what’s the matter with kids today?

Actually, there is a difference in kids today. More than in the past perhaps and that is causing some service clashes on campus. We, the boomer and yuppie generations taught them too well. We encouraged them to take the next step in being more rebellious, more anti-authority, discourteous, disrespectful and become self-centered, demanding.

In a large sense, we created the college students we encounter. Our generations rebelled against authority and carried that forward by replacing much of the processes of etiquette with a sense of privilege for the next generations. They were taught that they are as good as anyone else. You can be anything they wish to be. Don’t let anyone tell you no. Age is not necessarily an indicator that a person warrants politeness or respect. On the one hand, students were inculcated with a media and marketing liturgy of their importance in the quest for class-free equality. The motto of “don’t trust anyone over thirty” has continued though the age threshold has dropped to anyone older than oneself. We also turned them into cultural and consumer cynics as we taught them not to trust advertising, marketing or promotional media. Unfortunately for colleges that cynicism does extend to the marketing they do. As a result, we created the consumer mentality we not find so offensive when a student tells us “hey, I’m paying for your salary.”

Additionally, technology has allowed the members of the current college student generation to isolate themselves from the larger community thereby greatly reducing the many social and face-to-face interactions one needs to learn social and cultural mores, codes and folkways. The Educause Center for Applied Research reported in 2008 that 80.3 percent of college students report using social networking sites regularly, up from 72.3% in 2006. The social networking sites are also the most used of all sites on the web attracting the largest amount of the average 16 hours of web browsing and usage per week. The social networks of YouTube, My Space, Hi5, Facebook, Friendster, chat rooms, download pirating networks like The Pirate Bay and Mininova allow students to be in a community without any need to ever be with someone physically. These communities have different mores, traditions, codes as well as greater tolerance for negative or boorish behavior than the analog world of higher education found on the campuses of colleges, universities or even career colleges where behavioral codes can be a bit more lenient. Emails also permit the student generation to communicate with others without ever having to deal with in live, face-to-face interaction.

As a result, they learn social codes that can tolerate anti-social behavior such as flaming. Wikipedia defines flaming as
…the hostile and insulting interaction between Internet users. Flaming usually occurs in the social context of a discussion boardInternet Relay Chat (IRC) or even through e-mail. An Internet user typically generates a flame response to other posts or users posting on a site, and such a response is usually not constructive, does not clarify a discussion, and does not persuade others. Sometimes, flamers attempt to assert their authority, or establish a position of superiority over other users. Other times, a flamer is simply an individual who believes he or she carries the only valid opinion. This leads him or her to personally attack those who disagree.
Flaming is not always tolerated on all websites or networks but it is common enough to be found on most interactive or participatory sites. Moreover, people can feel quite at ease with full freedom to flame without concern for retaliation since they can hide behind a user name or the oft used moniker anonymous that does not directly identify them in analog life. As a result of this anonymity flaming, bullying and an assertive nastiness that would not be well tolerated in a real face-to-face social interaction can be common. Furthermore, a communication problem can arise for student communicators when after either participating in or reading enough flaming messages the aggressive and mostly anonymous communication behavior transfers into real life interactions. Students do not necessarily learn or acquire the socialization needed to learn in person inter-personal skills. This lack of social communication skill development certainly limits them with the normative variations in successful inter-generational interactions. This can account for some of the clashes found in working with uneducated communicators and even trying to assist them on campus. Students with weak communication skills just may not know how to communicate appropriately with campus community members of a different age and role.

Technology is only one contributing factor that has blurred the distinctions between what the sociologist Erving Goffman described so well as front and backstage performances in his classic book Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. (1967) Goffman describes the social world of communication events as happening as if they were on a performance stage of a society. He divides the stage into its two major locations of front stage and back stage. As in a play, front stage is where the actors perform their formal roles. They are aware they are being observed and judged by the audience so they play the proscribed part. In society, front stage performers are aware they are being observed and thus perform using socially and culturally proscribed roles and language acceptable to the role they are playing and to the audience listening to it. For example, when a faculty member steps before a class to lecture, he or she does so using tone, language, gestures and the such that would be far different than when he or she is explaining how the day went to a spouse. He or she would use a very different tone, language and performance values when telling a child the same information just told to the spouse. The performance would be appropriate to the role and audience.

Backstage communications occur when the actors are off stage, behind the curtains so they cannot be seen by the audience. They can be more of their so-called natural selves as opposed to playing a specific part in the play. Their language does not have to be that used in front of the audience for example. Granted they are as Goffman notes, playing the role of a person in a play but not on stage at the moment. As a result, they are under less pressure to perform in a particular approved manner or speak specific lines appropriate to their formal performance role. Behind the curtains, they can be more relaxed and speak and act in a more relaxed manner if they wish.

Front stage social roles place pressure on the people involved to perform their roles appropriate to the interaction of the situation, the audience and social norms. If a young person is talking with a priest for example, there are normally restraints placed on the use of language, tone and attitude. If the actors realize they are involved in a front stage performance. The interaction is one that most academics have come to believe should be similar to that of a student interacting with them. But if a person does not realize that he or she is in a front stage performance or has not learned normative social interaction behaviors called upon for the role, there will be a resultant clash between the expected and the actual.

For many students today, the separation between front and backstage has eroded. Students have not been taught the front stage social roles that many academics desire and expect. Whereas academics expect some level of respect for their positions and/or titles, students do not show much deference to either. For instance, just because someone has the designation of Doctor attached to the front of his or her name does not impress students much. Being a PhD does not place much front stage pressure to conform to behavioral models including an automatic show of respect for our educational labels. This is a learned indifference that we have some responsibility for by the way.

When educational attire went from suits, shirts and ties for men and dresses for female teachers, this shift in costume signaled a change in the way students were top address educators. The formal attire was a sign that the teachers were playing a formal role. It stated that we are dressed this way to signal to you that we are in our official front stage roles and you should be too. Just as a costume change in a play lets the audience knows that the character is in a different mood or role so the shift from formal to informal attire sent a message to the audience – students.

The change to more informal, more relaxed dress how one might away from the classroom backstage type of attire was a clear statement that the roles had shifted. The attempt to forge a less formal and more relaxed atmosphere worked. Perhaps too well because it also took away the pressures to perform in socially prescribed front stage roles and behaviors. That carried over to higher education in which the dress can be even more backstage than in K-12. Over time, the informal roles helped erase the academic lines between front and back stage roles. As a result, many of their communications with faculty and others on a campus are backstage behaviors which are similar to those they might use with friends. The college personnel might be using more front stage communication modes so there will inevitably be a clash which will be interpreted by the college member as a lack of respect when it is a lack of communication alignment.

If one realizes that what is occurring is a clash of front stage backstage expectations. It may become easier to deal with the clash. If one can understand the clash of communicating modes not as a statement of disrespect but what it really is - the variance in communication styles between generations. It should also be easier to predict the clash and it is hoped, not be taken aback by it nor simply believe the student is not being respectful and not deserving of one’s attention and help.

How to Cope and Overcome Irritated and Irritating Students
1. Smiling but do not overdo it. There are psychological and physical values to smiling at an irritated student. (Actually we should smile at everyone and even when there is no one there.) Smiling affects mirror neurons in the limbic system which is in the most primitive part of the brain. This is where the fight or flight response takes place. To keep it simple, when we smile, we tell another person that we do not plan to attack. The smile also turns mirror neurons on in the other person. They reflect the smile within the person to affect emotions that start to tell the person to relax and feel happier.

However when one person is angry and the other smiles too strongly, that can possibly trigger a negative response. An emotional reflection that “this other person is too happy while I am angry. Is that smile mocking me?” A fun if overdone example of this can be seen in a sequence from the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Steve Martin has been dropped off by a car rental company at a car that is not there. He has to walk back to the counter through snow, slush and moving airplanes. When he gets there, the receptionist is on the phone having an inane Thanksgiving dinner planning session with someone. The combination of the no car and then her breaking most every customer service rule by making Steve Martin wait while she giggles on inflames him. When she finally gets off the phone, she turns to martin with an exaggerated, phony smile on her face. She asks the usual but wrong question” Welcome to Marathon, May I help you?’ His response “You can start by wiping that f’---ing dumb ass smile off your f---ing rosy cheeks”.

A too energetic and/or faked smile will be like the proverbial red flag in front of an angry bull. It’ll just make the student charge. A smile is correct and called for but it needs to be an empathetic one. A simple, small smile that says “I see you’re upset and I WILL try to help.” The smile you would use with one of your children with a problem. Students are someone’s children and will respond to this smile.

2. Give and Name- Get a Name This is a technique that asks you to do exactly what it says. You provide an irritated student your name and ask her his or hers. “Hi. I’m ________. And you are?” When you exchange names you create a small community of people who know one another. That makes it less likely the irritation will be brought into the discussion. Remember, the student is not irritated at you but the institution. The anonymous amorphous “COLLEGE”. It is also harder for a student to be angry at someone her or she knows by name.

3. Apologize This is a lesson that we learned from people like Captain Kangaroo on TV as discussed in much greater length in the chapter How To’sGood Morning Captain” in The Power of Retention. Captain Kangaroo taught us to use manners and be polite. One of the things we could learn is how to simply say “I’m sorry”. If for example, he thought Bunny Rabbit had played yet another trick but he was wrong, he would simply say “I’m sorry I thought it was you Bunny Rabbit. I was wrong.”

A simple statement of apology to a student can go a long way even if you are not at fault. Even if you had nothing to do with the situation. Often what the student is looking for is to have someone recognize that he or she is upset and may not be to blame. To hear someone accept the situation with a simple apology rather than turfing him to the next office can work wonders.

The apology does not have to be an acceptance of error or wrong either. Greeting an irritated student with “I see you are upset. I’m sorry for whatever caused it. How may I help you?” Or “Gee, I’m sorry something has caused you to be upset…” or “I’m sorry if it’s something someone at the school did to get you upset….”

The irritated student will not be expecting someone to accept any level of possible accountability. By saying sorry, you sort of accept some accountability not for you but for the student’s being upset. You are not admitting guilt or a wrong has been committed if you say “sorry you have been made so upset”. But you will be recognizing the student is emotionally stressed and the apology will start to lower the stress levels and in turn the resultant anger.

Sometimes the student’s response will surprise you. It may range from “well thanks, but you didn’t do it” to “about d—n time someone realized I was upset. Than you.”

4. Compliments This might strike you as the most odd thing you’ve read but believe me it works. When a student is approaching you, your desk or window in an irritated state one thing you want to do is to interrupt the flow of adrenalin flowing through the body that reinforces the anger. The adrenalin affects the limbic system’s fight or flight decision. The hormone pushes blood into the muscles to prepare for a fight or flight. The next set of signals the limbic system receives will determine the decision.

So the objective is to interrupt and lower the stress level and thus the adrenalin flow. What can cause that to happen most readily is to introduce a pleasurable event into the situation. A simple pleasure? Receiving a compliment!

Yes it may seem contrived or phony but so what? You will need not to encounter angry students or your own adrenalin level increases, providing stress that makes your heart pump faster. Blood pressure rises. Other hormones like cortisol are released adding physical and psychological stress that can and will cause physical weakening and make you more susceptible to illness and other health problems. So if you need to give a fallacious compliment to keep you and the student healthier, do it.

Here’s an example. “Hi, I’m _____ Just want to say that I like your tee shirt, blouse, hair, glasses, jeans, backpack...” whatever seems to strike your eye quickly. Say it casually too so it will sound less contrived. Then as the student’s anger is interrupted you can even follow it up with a normal secondary question such as “Where did you get the tee, blouse, glasses….”

The student will most often just tell you where the tee was bought or even stop and think about it. This absolutely interrupts the flow of stress and anger and opens up a much more comfortable and congenial path for you to then ask how you may help.

These four techniques are tried and true. Try them and you might just feel that this job is worth the short hours and high pay.

If this makes sense to you, get the full book The Power of Retention by Dr. Neal Raisman from which part of this article is drawn.
Looking for a speaker for you school, contact Dr. Raisman today at

No comments: