Culture

What does it mean to give someone the shirt off your back?

I get cold very easily. I am Puerto Rican after all. Meaning, that I like the heat. Although, oddly enough, I suffer from heat rashes. If it is too cold I hive. Too hot, I turn into a bumpy-faced monster. Some would say that is not very adaptive. I have been told I give new meaning to “needing to live in a bubble.”  As a matter of fact, I am sitting in an Amtrak train right now wrapped up in a trenchcoat and a shawl. The neighbor across from me is in shorts.  I think somewhere in between is probably the right amount of clothing. Earlier in the day, I was part of a panel discussion taking place in a government building. The air conditioning was at full blast even though this is mid-September. That is your tax payers money at work. Then again, DC is technically considered to be part of the south and thus adheres to the “one must freeze inside at all times” rule.  I was shivering so badly during that meeting that I was offered a shawl by a female colleague and a suit jacket by a male colleague. I took both. They were both so generous that I didn’t want to turn either of them down. It is not the first time someone has taken pity on me in the south and offered me their extra clothing. But it got me thinking, what does it mean to give someone the shirt off your back?
Apparently the phrase goes back to the 1700s and is fairly self-explanatory. To give someone the shirt off your back means you are sacrificing something; being extremely generous. The individuals that gave me their shawls and suit jackets were most definitely kind to me. Yet, they literally were not giving me the shirt off their backs.  There was no need for such an extreme act of kindness. Think about this, though, how often do you see that type of selfless, generous behavior?  I don’t mean within families. That type of behavior, although not granted to occur, is expected from a societal perspective.  Let’s take this selfless act to a different environment that some may consider family-like. What about the workplace? How generous are individuals in the workplace environment to their peers? I won’t ask about how generous individuals are to their bosses or to their subordinates since that is an entirely different nuanced dynamic that could involve brown-nosing or phony empathy and ingratiation.
Helping behaviors within the workplace are always interesting scenes to witness play out. At times they are meant to establish oneself as a team player. Other times, helping behaviors are meant to establish power and status. Have you ever noticed that there may be a few people that never say anything to you in passing and then suddenly when you are on crutches they will chat you up and ask about your situation? That, my friends, is a power dynamic being played out. Helping someone out in the workplace puts you in a situation where you are designated as the one with the knowledge or the skill sets. Thus, it is also important to note how people accept help in the workplace. Is it readily or begrudgingly accepted? Now answer me this. Has anyone ever literally offered you the shirt off their back? How about figuratively? Let’s break it down like a polaroid camera. Oops, wrong song.
They are four types of people that give you the shirt off their backs or, rather, get you a shirt for coverage. First off, you have the individual that does give you the shirt of their back. They are seemingly selfless but it is also part of their goody-goody image. If you are not engulfed in flames people are not going to really give you the shirts off their back. So, if the situation is not life-threatening and they do so, it is for show. But, hey, you get a shirt. And you also bear witness to their greatness.
Then we have the individual that takes a bat to a wretched soul, forcibly taking off their shirt, and gives you said person’s shirt. It’s the good-guy bully. They look out for you, but they are a little scary. You are happy they are on your side and take the shirt as a sign of being indebted to their favoritism.
Next up, is the negotiator. This person really wants you to have a shirt. This person wants to look out for you. And they do. They just are not going to look out for you by giving you their own shirt. They use their social skills to get you your much needed shirt and they manage to get a pair of kick-ass high heels for themselves. Hell, everyone ends up going for a drink afterwards. You are warm both inside and out; as well as being happy.
Lastly, you have the person that gives you a partial shirt. They really want to help. However, while they want to be a hero, they are also super taxed. Thus, despite their efforts, they come up short. They may go to rip off their shirt in grand fashion to impress you with their agility and capacity and end up ripping and shredding the shirt. You end up with just a sleeve. At least your arm is warm but the sleeve just serves to remind you how cold the rest of you is.
So, there you have it. Who would you ask a shirt from?
I should note there is one other type of helper: the non-helper. This individual puts on a great show of how they can help you and you can count on them. But when you really need that shirt, they are nowhere to be found or runaway upon seeing you head their way. Two weeks later, they are at it again professing how much they are there for you.  You are better off trying to read through the healthcare reform legislation and seeing if there are any provisions therein for a shirt.
At this point in the narrative you may be quite lost wondering if this is for real and what is the moral of this story? Was this one big allegory? Was this in jest or is it a serious analysis.  I will tell you what. I have now been up 16 hours and am finishing up a series of business meetings after working on a grant for hours on end. At this point I am quite feverish and nauseous. You can make of this story what you will. I’m heading home for a cocktail.

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