And all the residents are above average

When Bette and I completed our plan to move to a retirement community last August, we knew that we were going to “reside” there. That was the point after all. Neither of us appreciated the exalted status that would imply; that we were going to be “residents.” Being a resident at Holladay Park Plaza in Portland is a very big deal. We were surprised—I was, anyway—and that is what this essay is about.

At Holladay Park, a persistent tension exists between two entirely respectable positions. Each establishes a set of categories. The first set, I would call status-denying and status-affirming. That will mean something in just a moment; please be patient. I’m a social scientist by training and clunky-sounding terms like that actually mean something to me.

I call the two status-denying and status-affirming, but, of course, denying the particular status of a person means focusing on something else and the other set of categories relies on that “else.” I think the people who work with the other set of options might call their preferred set “person-affirming,” meaning that every human has an inherent dignity and the right to be treated as an equal, and “person-denying,” meaning that some humans have this right and some do not.  People come like the six dots below.

That latter position is entirely honorable, it seems to me, as a motivation, but as a rule of operations, it is a SNAFU waiting to happen. If I were called on to defend the status-oriented system, I would say that, at least at Holladay Parkstatus-1, it functions to protect the staff and it protects the residents and that is why it is good.

A very attractive staff member explained the principle to me recently. The background of this principle is that no tipping is allowed here. There is no giving of gifts either, except the programs by which “the employees” are given gifts or bonuses or scholarships. The staff member who explained this to me is exactly the kind of staff that people would want to give gifts to. The gifts would single her out as special, which she is, and then there would be the expectation that she would reciprocate is some way, however subtle. That’s where the train starts to go off the rails.

If she did not reciprocate, the gift giver might wonder why. The example she gave was that she would not be permitted to accept “a chocolate,” but it would be fine for her to accept “a box of chocolates” because she would share them with everyone else in the office. The “gift,” in other words, would not entitle the giver to anything—and that would be clear to everyone— and therefore she could accept it.  No harm, no foul.

I think this is a wonderful rule because I have an acute sense of where the natural pattern of behavior would lead if we did not have such a rule. In a setting where everyone knows who has received good service and who has not, it is almost inevitable that favortism be chosen as an explanation. If A got served more promptly than B or if A’s food preferences were remembered while B’s were forgotten, or if extra menu options are offered to A but not to B, you know it will not take the B’s of the world very long to charge that the staff are playing favorites.  It would be like throwing sand in the gears of the community.

And that’s just the dining room. If the housekeepers treat some apartments better than others or the maintenance staff respond to some needs more promptly than others, the charge of playing favorites is right around the corner waiting to attack.

The solution to all these problems is the same: it is the formal equality of all residents. status-5That is, the residents are treated alike because they all share they same status. They are “residents,” the status I stumbled into when I moved here. They are not treated differently because they are so different as persons. And this formal equality is played out as the staff [1] refers to each resident formally as Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. and we refer to them by their first names. There is a status asymmetry, in other words, that is presupposed by the culture and practiced by the staff.

It is this distance, this echo of formality, that protects the staff from getting trapped in interpersonal relationships which will necessarily vary from one person to another. The dining hall manager, who doubles as the maître d’ hôtel, receives each diner by name and seats them at the tables they have reserved or arranges tables for those who have not made arrangements on their own. “Mr and Mrs. Hess, your table is ready for you,” is a common way to be greeted in the dining room (when we have made a reservation) and that treatment started the week we became residents.

The same pattern is taken up by the wait staff, who have been trained by the manager and who are under her guidance. Some of the wait staff are very good and others not so good. We are pleased by the performance of some and displeased by the performance of others. But all wait staff are protected by the formality of the relationship. If their supervisor needs to know something about their service, she is told. But the servers are not told. They are, in a sense, “too far away” to be treated like that and that protects them. [2]

status-2It’s really just the no tipping rule played out in most forms of face-to-face interaction. Tipping is a great idea in a restaurant because rewarding the staff for extraordinary service is built into the model and works to reward be best servers. There is a very good restaurant within a few blocks of Holladay Park Plaza where there is a superb waitress; I conspire to be seated at one of her tables. She is good at her job and has a great deal of fun in the process and I tip substantially to reflect how well pleased I am. That works just fine in the restaurant setting. It would be just awful at the retirement center.

Before I let this go, let me represent “the other side” of the argument. I characterized it as nobly motivated. It is based on the truth that all persons have a dignity that belongs properly to them, but then it skips over the roles those persons are playing at the time and which are necessary to the smooth functioning of a society.

According to this view, it would be unacceptable for me to be called Mr. Hess by a staff person and for me to call him George in return. If I should call him George, then he should call me Dale . That protects the equality of persons by requiring a symmetry of address. “Mutual respect” requires that we relate as persons, not as statuses. This is the same logic by which “modern parents” teach their children to call them by their first names just as they call the children by their first names. It is, these parents believe, a mark of respect to insist on symmetry.

Some of the older residents at Holladay Park feel that way about the staff. They know these staff people; they may know the spouses and the children. They celebrate these staff members’ successes, especially those that have nothing to do with their employment, and mourn the setbacks. They involve themselves as they are able in the health and illness of staff and woe to the resident who tries to tell them that they should not. Woe also, I imagine, to the staff supervisor who objects to this bending of the rules by a long-time resident.

So long as these little bendings of the rules are isolated, they are unlikely to cause tensions status-3within the system, just as the occasional filching of towels from motels is not likely to cause the motel owners to hide all the towels. The behavior of these older residents is, in a sense, the cost of doing business. It is allowable so long as it doesn’t become common.

But it is not a principle of operation that could be tolerated within the system and the major reason that is so is that it offers no protection to the staff.

The same staff member who gave me the example of the box of chocolates summarized her point in very general terms. “You live here,” she said, meaning me in my resident status, not me personally. “We just work here. It’s your home and we need to make it a good place for everyone.”

“We do that,” she said, “by putting the interests of the residents at the center of our concern. We want you to have the kind of life you had in mind when you chose Holladay Park. That’s our job.”

She may have expressed it a little more cogently than another staff member might have, but I am quite sure that it is “the line” of the institution she was expressing. It is the focus of training, as I imagine it, and of memos and of special commendations that we residents never get to see and the existence of which we only imagine.

It is the staff contribution to the resident culture for which Holladay Park is well-known and widely respected. It isn’t “natural” in the sense that people are natural because systems organized around statuses, such as the system we have at Holladay Park, are not natural. They are an achievement.  But it has been carefully thought through by someone, long before Bette and I got here, and it is practiced daily by a circulating cadre of staff who, when they have been with us for awhile, learn that “this is how we do it here.”

[1] Not all kinds of staff (there are exceptions) but within a kind of staff, e.g. dining hall staff, everyone follows the same rule.
[2] If the dining hall manager were also “far away,” the whole system would collapse, but she is not.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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