People hate surprises

Brad and Beth decided to move to Seattle in the summer of 2015. Brad had a great opportunity at UW, and I could not blame him for wanting to pursue that. For now, at least, the dream of the family compound was seriously on hold. (And I will continue to think of it as being on hold, thank you very much.) I had never given much thought to any other plan for the cottage and was likely lamenting my new without-them reality when my oldest son Drew said brightly, “Why don’t you try airbnb?” He gave me examples of airbnbs he and Nicole had stayed at recently, telling of the wonderful hosts and the conversations they all had had together. He gave me the boost I needed, then wisely advised: Make sure there are no surprises. Whatever you do, make sure people know what they are getting into regarding those stairs. What he really meant was: Don’t withhold any information that is potentially problematic. 

March 2016 (5)

Ah, yes, the very odd staircase that leads to the sleeping area. The cottage is small and the staircase is steep enough that Bradley built the treads with curvy cut-outs so that your knees don’t bump the next step as you ascend and your descending foot easily lands on the next tread. There would be guests who for various reasons could not negotiate these, or would not want to. One of my guests went so far as to call them a “sobriety test,” and people who get up frequently at night might not want to deal with a peculiarity. (I do now keep a bottle of water and two glasses at the bedside for those who get thirsty in the night, but the bathroom is still on the first level. It’s through that white door you see in the photo.) You would not want people to arrive and then find they cannot get to the bed built for two; the option of the first floor trundle with its two single beds may not be appealing. I get that.

Drew said I needed a good picture of those stairs. Several friends who are better at photography than I am offered to come take pictures so that the images on the web site would have a professional look. Their generosity notwithstanding, I was impatient to get the ball rolling once I decided on this venture, and the not-so-terrible camera that lives on my phone did the job, at least initially. I did not realize until months later that the casement windows were open when I took the outdoor photos (and that is the one that is on the airbnb site and on this one – consistency may count for something) but the mission was accomplished, and the first set of images successfully were uploaded. During that photo-taking session, I specifically recall considering the best angle for the photo of the stairs. Let there be no doubt. This is not your run-of-the-mill way to get to an upper floor.

One can only imagine the dedicated, hardworking team at airbnb headquarters, basking in their amazing San Francisco office space, reviewing as-yet-unlisted listings (“Hey, Sara, did you ever see stairs like this?”), which is to say I suspect that invisible team felt the same way about this staircase as Drew did.  I did not ask them to position the photo so prominently on my cottage page, but they did. (I can’t think it ended up there randomly.) In any case it is impossible to miss when you open the page and begin to scroll down to read more. The photo’s position is a little like your mom or dad or favorite family friend giving the kind of advice you know is important using a blatant preface: Pay attention now — this is important. The prominence of the image serves plainly as the blatant preface and gently, subtly yet strongly speaks volumes: Make sure you are comfortable with this image. There is no other option for gaining access to the second story.

I love being on hand to welcome my guests. I find ways to finagle my schedule and most of the time am on site when they arrive. Doing the welcome spiel and tailoring it depending on the interest of the guest, time of day and previously expressed circumstances or concerns is one of my favorite parts of this whole gig. For me it involves the meet and greet, the presentation of place and the explanation of must-knows. Part of my spiel is “Right foot first up the stairs.” Starting with your right foot, and having to tell yourself to do so is not hard and possibly adds to the overall charm of the cottage — one more piece that is unexpected and unconventional, but totally works. But I would be subjecting my guests to disappointment and possibly to too big a challenge if I did not tell them ahead of time.

In the grander scheme of life, people do not want to deal with unexpected inconveniences. If something is potentially an inconvenience, or could remotely be construed as an inconvenience, it is best to tell them ahead of time. Whatever is a need-to-know, say it up front. Naturally, individual judgment complicates everything. What bothers me might not bother you. I speak as someone who does not like or eat nuts of any kind.  I am not allergic, it is simply beyond me what people see in them, taste in them, like about them. I just don’t get it. (For this reason, I am sorry to tell you nut-lovers, I also do not put nuts in the cookies I bake. You just have to deal with that.)

I also do not watch television except on occasion. Before the cottage was listed on airbnb, a neighbor stayed in it for a few days and suggested that the lack of a TV would be a detriment to potential guests. This was a quandary. The cottage has no ideal place for a television (just look at those pictures in the first post – where would it go anyway?), plus I know for a fact that not everyone feels the way this neighbor does. I myself had been firmly planted in the thanks-but-no-thanks camp regarding television ever since my best undergraduate prof told us that someday we too would watch television just the way our parents did, despite any lofty ideas about having better things to do (“We’ll see about that,” the little voice in my head had said — and thank you very much, Peter Sandman).

On the other hand, maybe some guests would want a TV. Not everyone, after all, had been challenged by Peter. I had input on both sides. Finally it seemed best to go with my gut, but make sure there are no surprises. Leave the cottage aesthetically pleasing (i.e.without the large black screen in the scene) but explain the lack and offer to put a TV in there if someone did want it.

In the country, out here on my gravel road, cable has not come. Stations are limited. But hey, I offered. So far, not a single person has asked me for a TV. Quite a few have thanked me for not having one. We just want to play real board games, they say. We just want to listen to the crickets. We just want to talk to each other. Again I say: Thank you, Peter.

There may not be a TV at the cottage but, assuming you read through the details of my listing, you knew that. It is not a surprise. Whether conveyed through image or words, people want to know what they are getting. This observation is not limited to airbnb. None of the observations I will discuss are limited to airbnb. Parallels are everywhere in this world.

In business, an entire segment of the workforce exists to make sure that the parties involved in any operation or transaction know what they are getting and in fact get it. Words, those squirmy, slippery little buggers that are not always clear no matter how hard we try, comprise the contracts that attempt to clarify the details of our dealings. We had best not promise precision parts if we do not have access to the machinery to make said parts, the labor to build them, the materials specific to the job and the management to pull the order together. We had best not promise confidentiality when members of our team don’t take non-disclosure clauses seriously.

In relationships, we find ourselves annoyed, threatened or worse if vital information is not disclosed in a timely way. We generally don’t want to be with someone who is, in fact, already with someone else. We don’t want to show up for a party with a bottle of wine and having already had a drink or two when our hosts don’t drink at all. We don’t want to find out about an important meeting when, well, you know. Could you — could someone — have told me?

While it’s true that what matters to me may not matter at all to you, the disclosing of certain information will be not only helpful and appreciated, it will keep you from getting into trouble. I don’t want bad reviews any more than I want to sign bad contracts or enter bad relationships. The understanding of “People hate surprises” plays hand in hand with one of the guiding principles of success — preparedness. As an airbnb host, this means be prepared in every way you can think of, and in turn prepare your guests.

One way to do this is to say or present the same thing multiple times in multiple ways including words, image, action or any combination thereof. (Again I thank Peter, who suggested that saying something three times in three different ways would do it.) If you stand too close to me (unless I want you to stand close to me) I can tell you to back up either in spoken words (unlikely since I am not the confrontational type) or I can myself back up (count on it). Backing up increases the distance between us and accomplishes the goal of establishing appropriate space without my having to verbalize my discomfort. If you live with me, I will tell you sooner or later to keep the door at the bottom of the spiral staircase closed (unless of course you are going through it!). This has to do with my lack of affection for the sometimes large arachnids, creepy no matter what their size, that may be living down there and are more likely come up here if that door is open. The nonverbal I have adopted here is a sign on bright pink paper taped to both sides of the door, with the polite imperative: Please close this door (which for the record was pitifully effective with Bradley, who always had better things to do than close a door).

My inability to convey my wish effectively to Bradley should in no way deter anyone from expressing (or trying to express) what’s important in multiple ways. In the case of the cottage stairs there are no fewer than three means of communication. The online text includes a plain description, the web page includes the prominent photograph and my introductory spiel always includes the “right foot first” part. Lack of a TV is plainly stated and plainly visible when you are in the cottage. I don’t bring it up unless the guest does, and usually they say something like “Oh, I’m so glad you don’t have a TV.”

Deception is a bad idea most of the time. The exception that comes to mind is when a friend gets a haircut she is really excited about but which actually looks awful, and you simply say, “You got your hair cut!” with the most genuine smile you can muster, and leave it at that. If you are unable to quickly steer the conversation to other topics, you may be forced to say something along the lines of a compliment, which you know to be untrue. Technically this is deception. I know it’s mild, but still. The best way to avoid trouble is to be straight with people. Present what you have, who you are, what you offer, what’s important to you. To the best of your ability, be clear. Make sure people know what they are getting.

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