Stories from a Tech Writer's Studio: Humility

I was once assigned onsite to a client overseas and was doing my thing with API and user interface documentation. The floor where I worked had two maintenance staff I saw everyday. One was a thin, short, swarthy fellow who wore a cheap black suit, a circa 1994 walkie-talkie, and walked around the cubicles as if he was the God of Dance. He had this swagger and a look that announced he was The Man. One time, I saw him bark importantly at an employee who had reported that his standing desk didn't rise like a prop from a David Copperfield magic show. The Man, however, often fell asleep in one of the expensive, comfortable chairs provided to the programmers.

In sharp contrast, the other building staff was an extremely quiet, small, unsmiling bald gentleman who lingered in the toilet area. He regularly replaced the toilet paper and industriously mopped the floors, though employees relentlessly trod through his area of responsibility every few minutes. I have bladder issues especially during cold weather and always felt guilty having to walk into his territory several times a day (sometimes several times an hour thanks to Twinnings). He almost always had his balding head bent low and it was difficult to see any acknowledgement from my friendly grin. He barely uttered a peep when he once lost his footing and I steadied him by his shoulder.

The "Man" in the oversized suit and walkie-talkie would sometimes brush his teeth after meals during lunch break and wouldn't even look his fellow staff member in the eye. His chin was always up and looking in the mirror, checking if a hair was out of the place. The quieter uniformed floor cleaner was uncomplaining and had no airs.  He would lean quietly on his mop, sometimes just staring into space and occasionally fingering his QWERTY phone.

One knew his place and the other didn't. The two were almost comical archetypes of how people see their place in the huge scheme of things whether it was in terms of a company, project, product, city, country, world, universe or reality.

In some of the companies I've worked with, employees are given a calendar at the end of the year - one of those stiff fold-out desk calendars with designs that are supposed to remind everyone they should be proud to be working under the company logo. As a consultant, I often don't get those types of freebies disseminated to permanent employees. It's not a big deal except when the lead developer or project manager handing them out gives you a look as if you were some gum stuck on someone's shoe.

As a technical writer working with subject-matter experts, engineers and bespectacled youths with several postgraduate degrees, you learn to be humble. No one really expects you to know anything (which is often true for some technical communicators). Some technical writers are in denial and linger in the illusion that people actually read their writing or people give a damn about the punctuation or grammatical errors they correct (Editors with zero tech background are actually worst).  Humility is part of the job and you are often reminded of it. Still, it's tough when lead developers look at you disdainfully or give you condescending nods when you walk past each other in the hall. Even the user interface designers who don't work with code actually raise their eyebrows once in awhile.

After a day filled with those thoroughly self-esteem mashing encounters, I stepped out of the building after my shift feeling a bit disgruntled and not a little bruised. As a I walked a side street on the way home, I came across a local street vendor selling grilled chicken, fish and pork in a modestly furnished cart. Feeling like I deserved a consolation prize after getting my ego massaged by the Hulk, I decided to buy two pieces of skewered chicken wings. The street vendor was delighted and chatted on and on as he turned over the wings on his charcoal grill. My knowledge of the dialect was feeble but I caught "chicken" and "healthy" as he cheerfully sprinkled seasoning over the sizzling meat.

The street vendor was so enthusiastic about his product that I couldn't help but salivate as he prepared them. He was all smiles and still talking amiably as he packed my dinner. I didn't understand a thing as he spoke several sentences that had an intonation of advice to a "young" stranger. Strangely enough after I paid and another customer took my place, I walked off feeling a bit angry at myself for feeling so dejected that evening. 

I suppose it takes years to find your place in the world and even more years to accept it. The quiet gentleman standing outside the toilet door and the charcoal-wielding street vendor clearly and steadfastly knew their place in the scheme of things. So why do most people regularly forget theirs?


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