Hey Big Daddy,
So, I work in a state office building that shall remain nameless, and a certain deputy director likes to continue his discussions not only into the bathroom, but into the stall. Is this normal? Should I tell H.R.?
-Revolted on R St.
Keeping people off balance is a central tenet of wielding political power. When you call a meeting with someone with whom you're locked in negotiations, you never cede the home-field advantage. You try to get the meeting in your office. You make sure the twerp in question sits in the mushy couch, or in a seat where his legs don't touch the ground. You keep the heat up high, or the air conditioning down low. You invade his political space when you're talking, make sure you eat garlic for breakfast and ‘forget' to brush your teeth.
In short, you get in their heads, and look for any little advantage – psychological, geographical, emotional or otherwise – to get them off their game. As Sun Tsu once said, "All war is based on deception."
There was no greater master of this than Lyndon Johnson, who was not afraid to use the bathroom as his own Presidential conference room. As Doris Kearns Goodwin once wrote of Johnson, "When he had to go to the bathroom in the middle of a conversation, it was not unusual for him to move the discussion there. Johnson seemed delighted as he told me of ‘one of the delicate Kennedyites who came into the bathroom with me and then found it utterly impossible to look at me while I sat there on the toilet. You'd think he had never seen those parts of the body before.
"'There he was, standing as far away from me as he possibly could, keeping his back toward me the whole time, trying to carry on a conversation. I could barely hear a word he said. I kept straining my ears and then finally I asked him to come a little closer to me.'"
Point being, there are ways of throwing your political foe off his game to gain an advantage. John Burton used to spit all over Gov. Schwarzenegger during Big 5 meetings. His brother, Phil, was a master of getting into your physical space whenever you had the nerve to disagree with him. The true masters have a way of just looking at you that can create the need for a new box of Huggies.
Political intimidation and misdirection is a time-honored technique that takes a lifetime to master. And to watch it in action, if you're not on the receiving end, is better than any ballet or symphony.
That said, there's a fine line between political astuteness and faulty hygene. If the guy is dragging you into the his poorly-ventilated outhouse just after you've asked him for a raise, then you're probably in the hands of a student of power politics. But if he's just discussing last night's episode of "Dancing With the Stars," you may not be dealing with Machiavelli here.
If it's any consolation, I can assure you that you're not alone. Everywhere we go, we see people talking on cell phones in inappropriate locations – the john, the movie theater, baby's first communion. And inevitably, it's the most trivial conversation you've ever had the pleasure of overhearing.
Civility may be on the decline, but it is also overrated. Sure, people are rude, obnoxious and boorish, but so what? Anyone who's worried about how his farts smell in the stall next door is probably too self-conscious to be getting anything done that's worth a damn.
So, the guy is the kind who walks out of a bathroom stall and doesn't wash his hands? Stop whining, and deal with it. Just think twice before shaking his hand.