Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell

THIRTY
Power Ploys

 [p.102]Here’s an update on power ploys, if that sort of thing is crucial to your life-style.

I am still seeing the word “power” attached to a wide range of objects and behaviors in ways unforeseen by those of us whose competitive edges are less than razor-sharp. Of course the word makes sense in phrases like “power strategy,” “power negotiations,” and “power production.” It becomes a bit more puzzling in its wider connotations: “power meetings,” “power lunches,” and “power dressing” (ties that intimidate; blouses that say ‘I’m in charge but non-violent’).

Actually, as I think about it, this approach to getting one up on your rivals, and those who even presume to think of being your rivals, is not all that new in my life. As early as the second grade, the power principle seemed to be in place. While most of us made do with a couple of standard pencils clutched in our nail-bitten little paws, there was always at least one classmate who intimidated the daylights out of the rest of us by something as simple as an accessory eraser that fitted over the top of the pencil—remember those pyramid shaped add-ons?—or as [p.103]resplendent as a three-drawer pencil box with enough drafting tools to design Hoover Dam.

Power telephoning continues to enrich some lives—mostly those of stockholders in assorted phone-mongering corporations. The whole idea behind power phoning is to intimidate by giving a sense of the incredible busyness, complexity, and high-level networking that is your life. In the beginning, of course, the last word was the answering machine. That didn’t last long.

Today sixth-graders have their own answering machines.

Two or more phones on a single desk still carry some status, as does Call Waiting, the maddening little beep that lets someone put you on hold in order to take a higher priority message, most likely from a carpet cleaner whose truck is going to be in the area tomorrow . . .

The car phone is considerably upscale. The car phone says, “The world cannot possibly afford to lose contact with me even for the time it takes to drive across the valley.” The problem with car-phone-power is that for best effect you must be seen phoning; anyone can say she is calling from her car. Last week driving along the freeway I saw a man in a convertible busily talking away on his phone and thereby blunting every competitive edge that whizzed by on Interstate-15. But as I watched him, a little inner voice said, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

I drove parallel to this captain of fortune for a while, and discovered that he didn’t really have a cellular phone; he’d just detached the receiver from some spare set around the house and was happily talking to the breeze with this prop in hand. You must admit, his way is infinitely cheaper.

Coming up, of course, is the totally portable telephone, the phone that doesn’t even need to plug into a car. (It works off the satellite system.) My brother has had a portable unit for some time, and likes to ring up clients in Saudi Arabia while trolling in Chesapeake Bay. (These phones currently cost in the neighborhood of three thousand dollars; if status is your quest, get one quickly before they start being hawked on late-night TV for $19.95.) Here again, you have the problem of convincing impact: how do they know you’re calling from the middle of the ocean, or atop Machu Pichu, or astraddle the Great Wall of China? The solution is creative background sounds. Corral some Chinese-speaking students and have them talking even as you [p.104]phone. Play an “Environments” tape of the ocean, complete with seagulls’ cries and the dinging of a buoy. Dig up an old gong and claim it’s the Tibetan monastery bell calling you to meditation. Your rival won’t recover until you’re made CEO.

Perhaps the most widely used power ploy is the appointment book. I can’t even remember when we all started carrying these. Years ago, if we had a dentist appointment, we wrote a note in soap on the bathroom mirror and that was it, or perhaps we penciled a reminder on the calendar: “Aunt Blabby arrives Sun.” Then suddenly, everyone in the world had a pocket agenda book. We all impressed the heck out of each other for a while, but then, as so often, overkill made the little purse appointment books banal.

Next stop: the four-pound Franklin Planner-Daytimer-Liferunner packages. These babies cost so much money they’re apt to remain empty because you can’t afford to go anyplace or do anything after you buy one! And there are so many instructions for using them (one comes with a three-cassette tape set of how-to’s) that the main thing you write in the planner is: “Write in Planner.”

Finally we move up to the agenda-on-computer—a software package that keeps track of everything-appointments, birthdays, tax deadlines, garbage collection days-on computer disk.

It’s a whiz: someone calls to invite you to lunch tomorrow. “Hold on,” you say. You go downstairs to the computer room, get out the appropriate floppy disks, boot up your PC, call up the right file, type in the appointment, hit the save key, exit, store the disk, and run back upstairs to your caller, who, if she has any competitive edge at all, has hung up.

There is one power level above keeping your appointments on computer. Really powerful people don’t make appointments at all; they simply say, “Call my office and see when I’m free.”

That’s the ultimate. It’s analogous to the desk situation. Middle management people have desks stacked high, suggesting that everything has to go through them, nothing gets done without their okay, they have their fingers on the pulse of the organization. But top executives have absolutely nothing on their desks, except possibly a picture in a silver frame, showing them posing with a marlin freshly hauled in at Acapulco.

Maybe that’s what they mean by “less is more”!