What I learned from my mother in law

My mother-in-law is Singaporean Chinese. She comes over to London to stay with us, and make a fuss of her grandchildren like all grandmas do.

A few years ago we were having the house renovated and she was watching the workmen putting in the drains.

She went out to take them a cup of tea. She said, “Excuse me, I think you should put a cover on the manhole while you’re working.”

The workman said, “Sorry love?” She said, “Otherwise you could get rubble in the drainage pipes and it could be a problem later on.”

The workmen looked at each other. They figured it was just an old Chinese lady getting confused.

They said, “Don’t you worry love, we know what we’re doing.” And they ignored her and carried on.

Six months later the drains started to back up and overflow. They thought some of the bends in the pipes might have been too sharp. So they dug them up and replaced them.

The system still didn’t work. They thought the angle of the drop might not have been steep enough for the flow. So they dug down and raised part of it.

It still wasn’t flowing properly. All the experts stood around and looked at it. They sucked air through their teeth and scratched their chins.

They were out of ideas. The only thing to do was put a CCTV camera down there. Send it along the pipe and see if it could locate the problem.

This cost a lot of money, but eventually they located the source of the blockage. Rubble.

The very same rubble that my mother-in-law had advised the workers about when they were putting the pipes in. If they’d listened to her, and covered up the manhole, they wouldn’t have had the problem. And they’d have saved themselves a lot of time and money.

A little while later we were having a new shower fitted. My mother-in-law took a cup of tea up to the workman putting it in.

She said to him, “Excuse me, is that a fibreglass shower tray?” He said, “Yeah, probably.”

She said, “Fibre glass is no good, you need a fired-clay shower tray.” He said, “Pardon?”

She said, “Fibre glass won’t take the weight.” He looked at the little old Chinese lady and said, “Don’t you worry love, I’ll put a wooden frame under it.”

He thought that would keep her quiet. But my mother-in-law said, “The floors are also wood, and wood expands and contracts with heat. So, with summer and winter and hot and cold water, the basin will move and it will leak.

If you are going to use a fibreglass shower tray you’ll need a concrete base. Otherwise please put in a fired-clay shower tray which will take the weight and not move.” The guy went back and checked with his boss.

They checked with their suppliers. And sure enough it should have been a fired-clay shower tray.

So they put it in and it hasn’t leaked once. What the workmen didn’t know about my mother-in-law was that in Singapore she ran one of the largest plumbing companies, also a cast iron foundry, and a stainless steel works.

My father-in-law had built up these companies. But because he didn’t speak or write English, he needed her help to run them.

And, because she was better educated, she had to translate everything he wanted done. He would want her to order large submersible pumps from Germany.

So she would need to know the pressure rating, the rpm, and the rate of fluid movement, etc. He would want to order massive steel pipes from Australia.

So she would have to know the diameter, the connections, the lining, the rate of flex, etc. Then she would negotiate contracts and tender for jobs.

She would also need to direct the workers on site, and at the factories, and check the quality of their work. All the English workmen saw was a little old Chinese lady bringing them a cup of tea.

What they didn’t see was a blue-collar trained, hands-on specialist-plumbing contractor. She had handled jobs larger than any of them had, for longer than any of them had been working.

In short, she had probably forgotten more than they would ever know. But, because she didn’t match their preconceptions, they didn’t listen.

So they couldn’t learn.

In our job, in advertising, we can’t afford to be like that. We deal in separating perception from reality. So we really need to be willing to learn.

We need to be on ‘receive’ not on ‘broadcast’. Life doesn’t always fit our preconceptions.

And that’s a problem if we’re lazy. If we come at everything with a preformed opinion, looking for the easy option.

In that case anything new and unusual is a problem. Life is only an opportunity if we embrace newness and discovery. If we enjoy finding out things that surprise us.

So that, when we do our job, we can surprise other people

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    Never belittle anyone. Not even when they come from the littlest islands of the world.

    You’ll never know… they could just be right! 😉

    Proud to be Singaporean!

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    I love this blog, and this is a really great piece of instructive storytelling.

    However, I think this is a very contentious statement:
    “…in advertising… We deal in separating perception from reality”

    That may be the aim but there’s a very powerful argument to be made that says advertising in particular and marketing in general do just the opposite of that: that the commercial communications industry, in its efforts to position brands and products to maximum advantage, seeks constantly to blur those distinctions between the actual and the ideal.

    Fight, anyone? 🙂

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    Now that’s what I call a quality mother-in-law.