Pleasantries

When you work with the public, you must be pleasant all the time.

I know it’s hard. I spent one summer handling phones for Sears Service Center in West Haven, CT. Part of my job was calling customers at the end of the day, and telling them that the repairman would not be showing up. You want to talk about a tough phone call?

One woman was so mad that she threatened to dump her broken air conditioner on my front lawn. I get it. Waiting around for a repairman who doesn’t show up is maddening. But most people were pretty understanding after their initial outrage, realizing that it wasn’t my fault. And most people were assuaged with the guarantee that the repairman would be at their house first thing in the morning.

What I found even at the tender age of 18 is it’s all in the delivery. People appreciate you understanding their predicament, that they took the entire day off from work to sit home with a broken appliance. They appreciate what has come to be known as “emotional intelligence,” or the capacity to understand how another person is feeling.

We knew that my son was emotionally intelligent when he was about 2. One of his older cousins was frustrated playing a game, and he went up to him and put his arm around him to console him. We looked it up in our toddler book and realized that this was emotional intelligence, or what used to be called compassion.

I’m not sure you can teach compassion, but you can certainly encourage your children to consider other people’s feelings. As a mom, it’s up to you to make sure that everyone is invited to birthday parties, at least until about age 10, so that no one’s feelings are hurt. After that, it’s kids’ stuff and they need to work it out.

Of course, you could get lucky and get a kid like my daughter. When I’d get offended that one of her friends didn’t invite her somewhere, she’d say: “Mom, they probably could only invite a certain number of people.” As moms, we know it’s stupid to get offended for our kids, but we can’t help it. Or maybe it’s just dealing with our own childhood baggage.

Being pleasant and cordial is particularly important in jobs that require dealing with the public. No one expects to be treated brusquely just because you’re tired, in a crappy mood or are dealing with a new computer system. We’ve all gone to work when we don’t feel like it, or would rather be doing other things. The trick is to get through the day in spite of it, faking it if necessary.

What I’m getting at – drumroll, please! – is that there is never an excuse for being rude, and if I was a braver sort of person, I’d call people out a lot more often than I do. I cannot stand confrontation of any kind, so I often bite my tongue. But if I was a little more bold, I’d:

  • Tell the woman in the bank to stop yelling at the tellers because Bank of America got rid of the drive-thru window. No one cares that she’s closing her account because she has to get out of her car to conduct her bank business. Personally, I’m glad they closed the window, because I used to have to wait in line while the drive-thru window customers got instant service. And if the old woman with the cane isn’t complaining about having to come in, neither should she.
  • Tell the young father shopping with his two kids at Stop & Shop to take a chill pill, or arrange for someone to watch the kids while he shops. Seriously, people shop with little kids all of the time, and it’s not a big deal. There’s no need to pull your cap down over your face in frustration because you’re behind an elderly couple who is walking slowly. Your overt exasperation and impatience with everyone makes me wonder how much time you actually spend with your children.
  • Tell the older woman at the optician’s office that there is no need to scream and swear at another driver as she tries to park her car. Her ultimate embarrassment must have come when she realized that she was going to the same place as the other driver.
  • Tell the woman at the bagel shop to use the wax paper to choose bagels instead of her bare hands and to wait her turn before digging in. What in the world is the rush?
  • Tell the woman at a place in town that loans out hospital equipment that she needs to go into another line of work or needs a radical attitude adjustment. This place, let’s call it Chad’s Corner, is not the kind of place anyone is eager to visit. If you are going there, someone in your life is laid up, and in need of equipment you never dreamed you’d need.

People who go to Chad’s Corner need to be treated kindly, or at least with a modicum of understanding. They do not need to be treated like crap, or else they will likely get their feelings hurt and want to run for their car.

I went to Chad’s Corner looking for, well I wasn’t sure. I wanted to see what they have, if that makes any sense. I was thinking about maybe a lightweight wheelchair, something I could put the Curmudgeon in and wheel him down our street until he regains his strength from his surgery last week. I was thinking something I could borrow for a week, and then gleefully return.

Please keep in mind that the idea behind Chad’s Corner is wonderful, and that most volunteers are probably outstanding. Equipment like walkers, commodes, wheelchairs and hospital beds is donated and loaned out to people who need it. It’s a beautiful concept and a wonderful community service.

But the place sometimes needs a little TLC, particularly on a Monday morning with walkers and commodes strewn about, making it look a little like Lourdes with its cast off crutches. It doesn’t help that a sign states that equipment on the porch has not be cleaned.

“What do you need?” a woman said.

“Not sure,” I said. “My husband just had surgery on his foot. Maybe a knee scooter?”

I don’t know why I said a scooter when I was really eying a wheelchair, but she went into the back room to poke around. “How much does he weigh? I’ve got something here, but the wheels don’t really turn.”

I took two steps into the back room to get a look at the scooter and she barked, “Stay outside please!” It wasn’t what she said, but how she said it. She was gruff and scolding, when I needed coddling and understanding. She hurt my feelings when I was feeling very vulnerable. I had no idea that I was feeling so sensitive, but I was.

“You know what?” I said. “I don’t need anything.”

“OK,” she said.

I walked away and got into my car. I sat there for several minutes contemplating whether I should tell her that I thought she was rude. I am a volunteer and would never treat someone like that. As an adult, I don’t think any of us likes to feel that we’re being scolded, even if it’s for our own good. We certainly don’t need to be upbraided when trying to borrow hospital equipment. We are looking for direction and guidance, maybe even a little understanding.

After discussing it with a friend, I decided to sleep on it. I decided to write about it instead. I’ve shared it with you, and I feel better now.

22 thoughts on “Pleasantries

  1. Discourtesy is on the rise and has been for a long time—strange when it coincides with increased understanding of emotional intelligence. Senior centers often are a good source for used medical equipment.

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  2. I am horrified sometimes at the behavior in stores. When I first arrived in Florida, I made extra money working part time in sales. I remember I was nervous as the area of the mall was heavily Hispanic and I don’t speak Spanish. One day two men came in and tried to flirt with me in Spanish. I was a little distant as I was on my own and they reported me for not being friendly and smiling. Huh. It made me rather turned off customer service jobs here!

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    • Dealing with the public is difficult. Some people are great at it, while others don’t have the right personality. I can understand why you’d be hesitant to flirt with strange men. What I can’t understand is why they felt they had the right to complain about it.

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  3. I have been struggling with this myself. The only conclusion I can come to is that people are rude or unkind often because they themselves are wounded/hurting, and lashing out is their way of coping usually because they can’t or won’t deal with the source of their pain. I’ve been trying to give others the benefit of the doubt when I feel wronged, but it’s challenging. I never like confrontation yet I recently asked a women to slow down in a parking lot when she was driving too fast, and her response was to yell at me to shop somewhere else. I have no idea what she was dealing with when she sped into her parking place, but I know I deserved a kinder reply. I’m discovering rudeness is often a sign of a deeper pain and trying to see people with this sense helps me to try to be more compassionate, even if only a little. Thanks for your post.

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    • Well, this is why I generally bite my tongue even when people are terribly rude or doing dumb things like driving too fast in a parking lot. I don’t want to deal with their comebacks, so I say nothing. You certainly did not deserve the response you got. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but as a customer I think I deserve some consideration. I don’t expect to be treated rudely, nor should anyone else tolerate such behavior. But you raise a very good point about people’s attitudes reflecting inner conflict. I will try to remember that.

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  4. I’m glad you wrote about it, because if you are like me, writing or talking about a bad experience does help. And yes, it’s all about delivery. If she had simply said, “I’m sorry, but you aren’t allowed back here. Wait a minute and I”ll bring it out to you,” all would have been well. But to scold you for doing something you had no idea was wrong was simply rude and unacceptable. I’m so sorry you had to experience that.

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    • Thanks Ann. I spoke to one of her supervisors, who is a friend of mine. She didn’t seem surprised, describing her as “gruff.” I’m sorry, but that’s not acceptable for a person in that job. But I felt better that I didn’t misread the situation.

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  5. Carolyn, compassion in others is such a gift to humanity. Patience is a skill that we should always be trying to master. I feel so challenged some days and have to remind myself, take a breath! Rudeness, that’s a whole other thing …and in a situation such as you describe where a person is vulnerable, and feeling exposed, what a terrible fit to have someone that lacks compassion in charge of assistance? Why would they even be in that job?!?
    I think that is why it was doubly shocking to be brought up short..in a parking lot, well I guess I get it, but not in a situation
    Like the Chuck’s Corner ☹
    Those examples you highlighted..make you shake your head, why are people feeling so entitled to be snarky and rude? …dont know….

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