I am in the middle of a ten-day job as dog-and-house sitter at a posh Manhattan apartment. I sleep at the apartment and play or hang out with Arlo, their standard poodle, every evening. I also walk him at least three times a day and generally take care of him. (I am a recent art school grad and spend most of my mornings at a ceramics studio downtown.) Arlo is a nice dog and, except for having to be tricked into taking a pill twice a day, very little trouble. But the walks and companionship and endless games of tug of war—not to mention subway rides—do take time.
I am new at this dog sitting thing, and was too shy to discuss how much I would be paid. Arlo’s owners did ask me if I wanted my payment before or after their trip, and I said that before would be great. They said they would leave it on the table with their written instructions about the dog’s food and med schedule, when to water the plants, and so on. I was surprised and very disappointed when I saw that they had left me an amount that’s less than half what I expected. They did tell me I could eat their food, but they did not leave much. And of course I am staying at their apartment for free, but I do have my own place, which they know.
Now they have just texted to ask whether I can stay an extra two days because they are having such a good time on Nantucket. Again, no talk of payment, not even a limerick. What should I do? (I realize that you can’t answer me in time, but I thought your answer might be of use to future dog sitters.)
—Uncertain on the Upper West Side
You and I both know I’d tell other dog sitters to avoid your current predicament entirely by settling payment terms in advance. If possible, the prospective sitter should ascertain the going rate for the service in the client’s community before negotiating. (I’ll bet it’s astronomical on the Upper West Side.) The sitter should perhaps adjust that rate as circumstances warrant—for example, if they have extensive experience or special training, or if there are other tasks involved, such as taking care of parrots, watering plants, watching multiple dogs, or cleaning a cat’s litter box. The next step is to say: “My usual rate is $X. Does that work for you?” Or, in some cases (e.g,, money is tight, the dog is charismatic, the going rate is obscene, the sitter is a friend, or the fridge is full of wild salmon), it might make sense to say: “The usual rate around here is $Y, but for you I’ll make it $Y-Z.” Then everybody agrees, or haggles a little.
But it is sometimes hard to ask about money, and I can see how you got swept up in events, or didn’t want to be pushy, or were perhaps thrown off-kilter by your clients’ talking about when to pay you without mentioning the amount, which I find odd. I like to think that they were shy about money, too, and perhaps uninformed, rather than cheap and devious, but I suppose we will never know.
So let’s pretend that I am answering your letter instantaneously, and that you are still at the apartment with Arlo, wondering what to say when you answer their question. Here’s my plan. First, fire back a text saying that you’ll let them know in an hour or two. Then, unless you already know the local rates, contact a couple of services and see what they charge. You might even ask the doorman or other dog walkers you see on the street. If you don’t get any hard facts, use your best estimate. Then, adjusting the dollar amounts as applicable, text or email to this effect:
“Arlo is doing great. He loves the park time, three or four daily walks, and one-on-one attention. I will be happy to stay until Monday if we can agree on compensation for past and present services. But I note that you have left me $200. I assume that this is partial payment for the 10 days. (The going rate in these parts is $20-40 per walk or $70-90/day for sitting, plus medication fees. Even at the lowest point on the range, that would be several times what you left for me.) Please let me know what you think is fair for the original 10 days and the 2 additional ones, and I will get right back to you. Arlo says woof. Photo to follow.”
The worst they can do at this point is refuse to pay anything more except the same paltry (in Manhattan) daily fee for the extra two days, at which point you can decide whether to stay or go. You will not have lost anything, except perhaps some good will.
But the good will issue does raise a caveat: do you have any special relationship with Arlo’s owners? Are they close friends or relatives, who may think that they are entitled to special treatment, and, more to the point, with whom you have an ongoing relationship you want to preserve, or have to endure? Or are they people with whom you’d be wise to stay on good terms, such as former professors or potential clients or luminaries in the world of ceramics? From your not mentioning any relationship, I assume that this is an arms-length transaction. But if you do have some connection with Arlo’s peeps, you may think it wise to dial down the cash demands and file this interlude away under lessons learned.
In no situation should you feel that you have to stay on without any advance agreement.
I’d love to hear how you handled the situation, presumably in the absence of my advice (unless they’re still stringing you and Arlo along, like Horton and the egg). And remember to be strong: if you ever get into a similar situation, try very hard to grit your teeth and settle the issue of how much you will be paid before you agree to take the job, much less actually do it.
And I’m glad you spent so much time with Arlo. At the very least, you made a poodle happy, which is more good than many people manage to accomplish in ten days.
I think you and I can agree that Facebook is the root of all evil? In the case of my friend, she’s the type that can never graciously be wrong; can never concede a point; can never seem to let something go by without remark. I have chosen to ignore my friend’s consistent rudeness, as it isn’t on my page and isn’t something I care to be embroiled in. I’ve muted and unfollowed. In person, she is excellent, and we’ve been through a lot together. Online? It’s a different story.
For example, last week, she and another very close friend of mine got into it over some semi-controversial article I linked on my page. 33 comments later, it was apparent that the dust was not going to settle. I didn’t agree with the points my rude friend made, and even less with the approach she took. I ended the thread.
My other friend reached out to me immediately, apologized, and explained why she’d gotten so worked up. My rude friend? Nothing. I finally sent her a message letting her know that my personal page wasn’t a place for debate, and that in the future she should keep her comments to her own space. A day later, I got a clipped response with a request to meet in person so she can tell me how I had offended her.
Good grief! No good will come of this, and I don’t want to get increasingly involved in adolescent social media scuffles.
What is the path of best manners in this case?
—Sick of Unfollowing
You should definitely meet with her, not so much because it is the “path of best manners”— although, since she is your old friend, it is— as because it should be very interesting to see how your friend behaves when her two selves collide. Your perfectly acceptable real-world friend (let’s call her Jekyll) will be meeting with you to hash it out about your supposed affront to her unreasonable and insufferable online alter ego (Hyde). But Hyde exists only online: when your friend meets with you in the Jekyll sphere to talk about your treatment of Hyde, which side of her will prevail?
At your meeting, I would start by hearing her out. With luck she will see at least part of the error of her ways while she is trying to explain why you offended her. If, for example, she points to some less-than-gentle language you used in your message, it may occur to her that she was being pretty intemperate herself when she provoked you. (I keep imagining the “semi-controversial” article that started this latest brouhaha. Was it something about cultural appropriation? Safe spaces? Dare I mention…Jill Stein?) You should also read over what you wrote her and see if it does, in fact, strike any unpleasant or dismissive notes. It sounds as if you were totally in the right about ending the thread—I mean, why would you want people basically coming into your yard and beating each other about the head with sticks? What can you do to regain control of a situation like that, short of pouring cold water on the combatants and blowing a loud whistle? And, once you have done so, you certainly have every right to tell your friend not to start any more brawls on your turf.
But might you have come off as sanctimonious, or insulting, when you delivered this message? You don’t sound like an insensitive person to me, but it is worth listening to your friend to see whether she felt shamed by what you said. A rebuke about improper behavior can be really hard to take, especially if one feels the truth of it. Some aunt of mine (she was actually kind of a pain, and cheated at cards, so take this for what it’s worth) used to say that it is rude to tell people they are being rude. I don’t see how it would harm you to express regret for having hurt your friend’s feelings, if that is what she says you did.
That said, you should in no way back down from your substantive position. Is Jekyll the sort of person who might understand why Hyde should not be duking it out on your page? Even if your friend sees no reason why she should change other aspects of her online behavior, it should be relatively easy to explain—to the Jekyll persona, anyway—why you would just as soon not have people write any comments on your personal FB page unless they are directing these comments to you. You need not belabor the issue of the rudeness of her comments in this instance, since you can offer plenty of other good reasons for wanting to set limits. One is that you feel the responsibility to monitor disputes that arise on your page, but find that responsibility onerous. Another is that your page is your brand, and you want to control it. A third is that you look to Facebook for news and personal updates, not the stress of debate. But the main reason should be that this is what you prefer and that, as your friend, she should respect it.
If the rudeness of her overall social media persona does come up at your meeting, which it certainly may, I am not sure how far you should go in dissecting and criticizing her manners. You’ll have to decide which side of her is uppermost. If she is acting Hydelike, any hint of criticism is likely to provoke the sort of childish squabbling you’re trying to limit. But, with luck, her Jekyll side will be in the ascendant, in which case you may have an opening for some diplomatic discussion about her online vs. her true self. Perhaps you could even throw in a general observation about how troubled you are by the lack of civility and moderation on the Internet. I hold out scant hope that anything you say will effect a major change in her online personality, but it could. If it doesn’t, I hope that muting and unfollowing will continue to afford you some degree of peace.
As for all those other Hydes out there who want to go at it on your personal page, it might help to post a plea for civility, warn people that you plan to stop threads at the first hint of rudeness, and recommend that those who wish to conduct lively debates with one another can start a thread on their own pages, or send private messages.
P.S. I love it that what you’re looking for is the “path to best manners.” These days that is a lofty goal indeed.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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