Eggshells Are for the Birds

In this business, we all know people who are sensitive: clients, bandmates, a bandmate's girlfriend. Knowing how to handle people delicately is one of

In this business, we all know people who are sensitive: clients, bandmates, a bandmate's girlfriend. Knowing how to handle people delicately is one of the most valuable skills an audio- or a music professional can have. It requires that one use tact and restraint to avoid mishandling touchy situations, yet touchiness seems to be a quality that is endemic to creative types.

Some people, however, are so easily upset that tact and restraint are mandatory on a constant basis. You must analyze every word or deed for potential offense before you dare say it or do it. At that point, you had better trade your street shoes in for something softer, like moccasins, because you're going to spend your time walking on eggshells.

Eggshell syndrome differs from normal sensitivity — emotional or political — in that it is chronic. “Don't ever mention thunderstorms to him! His pet gnu was hit by lightning, and ever since then, just the mention of thunder is enough to set him off. Even talking about rain will do it sometimes. In fact, it's best if you simply never say anything about the weather.”

A person quickly becomes reticent to say or do anything for fear of a meltdown. Obviously, that is counterproductive in creative work situations. The progression of responses to the eggshell syndrome can start with concern, move through fear, and continue into annoyance, eventually evolving into frustration, and finally ending up as pent-up rage, which is easily triggered into an explosion. Eggshell syndrome can thus be contagious.

But eggshell syndrome is in no way restricted to individuals. Support organizations for major artists frequently exhibit the same chronic touchiness. If you want anything from this sort of organization and are not properly obsequious, you might not only be rejected but blackballed.

Let me be clear, because I don't want to seem, well, insensitive. Being considerate of someone or compassionate about potentially hurtful subjects shows character, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. It's also likely that a hypersensitive person has emotional issues that call out for psychological help. My comments are not intended as personal judgments; I am speaking strictly of the impact that this level of sensitivity can have on a professional working environment.

From that perspective, the eggshell syndrome amounts to a requirement for codependency, which, to be blunt, is bollocks. As frequently as it may be encountered, and as much a reality as it may be in our business, it is nonetheless an energy drain and a buzz killer in a creative situation.

So what's a mother to do?

In some cases, the situation can be handled by capitulating. I've worked with some people that were unflappable and could keep cruising right on through the minefield. Failing that, maybe you can just shrug it off and say “Whatever” to yourself. Other times, the problem might be sidestepped. Perhaps there's a good friend that can keep the syndrome in check and act as a buffer between the oversensitive person and the rest of the workgroup. Maybe the “problem child” doesn't have to be involved in every step of the job. There are many tactics that can be successful, even if most of them seem to be a silly waste of energy.

All of these solutions, however, illustrate the heart of the problem — that almost everything about the situation revolves around those sensitivities. Possibly the worst situations are those truly virulent cases when eggshell syndrome is a front for a control game in which the sensitive person's objective is to make everyone dance like puppets on strings. Accommodate one sensitivity, and another suddenly appears.

Sometimes the oversensitive person might not be crucial to the project, in which case simpler solutions become viable — specifically, telling the person to come back to Earth or hit the road, or even just pointing to the door. Such drastic action is not just viable but proper, given the difference between personal and professional contexts. If “tough love” works, so much the better, but one way or the other, in a professional (that is, business) situation, your imperative is to get the job done. There are limits to the amount of erratic behavior that you can tolerate — when you have a choice in the matter.

Whatever the causes, it's hard to see anything besides stress and frustration gained from encountering eggshell syndrome in a session, on a gig, on a project team, or during an essential professional contact. It is said that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. If that's true, then I guess you just have to hope that you don't have Humpty Dumpty on your hands.