I ‘knew' the emailer; which is to say, I'd reviewed his products. Now he asked whether I could help with a letter of recommendation for the American immigration and naturalization services. He meant to permanently relocate to the US. This got me thinking. I'd never met him. I couldn't speak to his character, general trustworthiness, background, political views, conduct, financial stability, work ethics, long-term plans… in short, any of the many things I expected the INS would want to know.
I could only speak to the quality of his products, their competitive standing in the current marketplace, their general presentation and certain importer feedback. Not by their words and promises but by their actions shall ye know them [from the Gospel of Vinny the Who]. Sentiments to that effect; except that in this instance actions become synonymous with products. They become the materialized expressions of engineering competence, originality, aesthetics, artistry, reliability, ease of use and as such, stand-ins for the man or woman who made them.
It struck me that particularly in the artistic realm, the final product—the music, dance, acting, poem, painting, novel—gets conflated with character and a resultant assumption of knowing the person who created it. This overlooks how easily personality may hide behind one's art. That creates a public persona very different from the private one. Not for nothing does the old adage warn us to never meet our heroes. The man or woman we fell in love with through their art could turn out to be a monstrous narcissist or barely functioning recluse once met in the flesh.
I felt perfectly competent to speak to the potential expat's products so happily agreed to write the requested letter. The proviso was the associated guidelines I hadn't seen yet. Would they cover the narrow area I was prepared to speak about? Would they accept the fact that I couldn't or wouldn't talk about anything else? For the purposes of today's brief missive, I thought it instructive to broach this topic of presumed familiarity—sure I know this guy, I read his stuff all the time—and how it pertains to relating to a complete stranger through their work. It ought to be relevant also to forum posters who often act as though being intimately familiar with whoever they criticize or comment upon whilst routinely knowing precious little indeed.
Thinking over what I'd write for the person who asked for help with as life-changing a decision as moving to a different country, I also saw an expression of real trust and respect that I'd been asked in the first place. Again, we'd never met and exchanged only a few brief prior emails on review info. Whatever this person thought he knew about me was gleaned exclusively through my reviews for them; my broader work over 20 years; and whatever reputation or perception that had built within the small upscale hifi community.
Let their actions do the talking. Seeing how many hours of our lives most of us spend at/with work, this remains good advice. It's not what we do but how we do it—what kind of passion, integrity, attention and skill we sink into it every day—that makes a real difference and directly speaks to even builds our character. It's how we contribute. It's also what we leave behind in people's memories once we're gone. If there's much we dislike about the world we live in today; if we're not movers and shakers with broad social and political influence; we shouldn't overlook that however apparently insignificant our present job, it's in how we execute it where difference-making lives. It matters naught if we can't see the effects directly. We're all connected. We constantly exert influence on the interconnectedness of it all. Now we can trust that paying it forward always finds its worthy mark without oversight or confirmation from our end.
So the good news is that we needn't be rocket scientists or heart surgeons to be/feel useful in making the world a better place.
Postscript: I did write the requested letter and mailed it out in triplicate. When the time comes, we'll learn who it was for; if the applicant's request for permanent US residency is approved…