Life in 2021 is hard for everyone—are you making it harder?

Saving the kindness supply chain

4 minute read
A black-and-white photo of 5 women operating a phone switchboard in 1915.
There's a hardworking person on the other end of the line. It's time to behave accordingly. (Image courtesy of Anamosa Library and Learning Center, via Wikimedia Commons.)

I was put on hold when I phoned the pharmacy recently to schedule a flu shot. “I’m sorry but I have to make you wait,” the pharmacy employee I’d reached told me. “There are several people ahead of you. I’m really sorry.”

Folks rarely apologize when they put me on hold. I usually get a terse “please hold,” followed by three to five minutes of canned music. But she had apologized — twice.

I appreciated that courtesy.

It was a long wait. It took at least five minutes for her to get back to me. But when she did, she apologized again. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting!”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“Thanks so much,” she practically gushed, “I really appreciate your patience.” She sounded elated that I wasn’t going to start screaming at her because she’d kept me waiting.

Why? She’d probably spent the morning facing the wrath of customers who were furious about having to hold. The fact that I had responded with patience and courtesy was enough to make her day.

Unusual civility?

It shouldn’t be like this. Everyone should be able to expect to be treated with civility. Courtesy shouldn’t be a special thing. It should be normal. Especially during a pandemic, when things are tough enough already.

Everything is weird and everyone is short staffed. What we need to do is pull together and take care of each other.

Apparently, we’re not.

Yesterday, I tried to get through to an airline representative to change an upcoming flight. Once again, I experienced a very long wait. And once again, when the rep finally got to me, he apologized. Way more than he had to. And when I said, “no problem” instead of screaming at him, he thanked me. Several times.

Preemptive groveling

As a circulation assistant at my local public library, I worked with the public for two decades. Sometimes the public would get angry. So I developed a technique I call “preemptive groveling.” If you suspect that a customer is absolutely furious and about to go off on you, sometimes you can head it off by profusely apologizing before they can get started:

“I’m so sorry!” “I’m really sorry.” “I’m truly sorry.” “I apologize.”

Before they can open their mouth, try to get in at least four different variations on the theme.

It’s impressive how often this works. All most irate customers really want is an acknowledgement that you’ve failed them, followed by an apology. Don’t make them holler and scream to get it. Give it to them, up front—whether or not the problem is your fault. Whether or not their anger is appropriate. Whether or not you truly, deep down, feel sorry in your heart. Whatever. Just say you’re sorry and move on.

Both the pharmacy employee and the airline representative had obviously mastered the art of preemptive groveling.

I was sorry they had to. Because the other lesson I learned while working with the public for 20 years? Don’t be an asshole.

Another rule for the ages

Sure, your anger is real. But whatever you’re screaming at that employee about is probably outside of their control. The fact that there aren’t enough folks to answer the phone at the pharmacy or airline is not the fault of the person who finally does answer the phone after putting you on hold forever. And—newsflash!—you won’t make anything better by losing it.

You’ll just make a fellow human being really unhappy.

As a circulation assistant, I was routinely screamed and cursed at by patrons who were livid about the fact that they had to have a library card to check out material, or that I wouldn’t waive their fines, or that I wouldn’t renew a popular DVD yet again when others were waiting for it.

I vowed to myself that, no matter how furious I was, I would never go off on somebody who was just trying to do their job. And I’ve kept that promise.

I feel sorry for anyone who has to waste a bunch of time on hold. But I feel even worse for the poor folks who are being screamed at about it when those callers finally get through.

These are challenging times, but more anger isn’t what’s needed to get us all through this. Before you unleash your rage, please think twice. Kindness is what’s called for. Maybe it can start with you.

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