Recently, I went to an author talk/book signing at a New York cultural institution. The talk was in an auditorium and the book signing after was in the lobby. The books, however, were on sale at the institution’s bookstore which was down the hall, so first you had to shlep over to the bookstore, get on line (as we say in New Yawk), and wait till you get to the cashier to pick a book from the very limited selection available.
The line moved slowly, but amicably. There was some confusion with people occasionally stumbling into the store and asking, “Where are the books?” or “Is this line?”
I was with my friend Karen. When it was my turn I asked a question, “Is this all that’s left?” The cashier replied, “Just what you see here.” It was not a good situation. There was still a long line and there clearly weren’t going to be enough books for everyone on it. At that moment some confused soul sprang forward and asked the cashier, “Is this where the books are?”
She snapped at him, “Do not interrupt me!”
I explained it was where the books are. Karen, who has many of years of customer service experience, then said calmly. “He was just asking a question.”
“I’m stressed!” The cashier replied in a tone that I heard as a warning, not an apology or explanation.
Then Karen said something else. Maybe, “Okay, but you could have just answered his question.”
By now she was putting through my order and verbally attacking Karen, yelling loudly enough to silence all conversation in the store. “You are interrupting me while I am doing my job. You need to be quiet now.”
Karen was continuing to try to have a rational conversation with a woman who wasn’t. “I’m not keeping you from doing your job.”
The cashier threatened to call security if Karen continued to speak and did. The guard looked at two middle aged women in the process of buying books. He stood by with a neutral expression as the cashier told him. “Okay you know what to do.”
After completing our purchases, we walked past the line. A woman who’d been sitting in front of us earlier, said “I’m terrified to go up there.”
As bizarre as the incident was, it was also familiar. Four weeks ago at an airport, my husband and I had just gone up to the counter to drop off our luggage and the counter-agent said, “I was yelling for you to come. Okay, I guess you’re not in a rush.”
I started to explain, “We couldn’t hear you at all. I was looking at the counters. Finally I saw you waving.”
“Well I was shouting pretty loud!”
“They really should do something. Have lights and bells that you could see and hear from back there…
“People just ignore us! No consideration for the people working here. I guess you’re all too wrapped up in your vacations….”
“No really, they just can’t see…”
My husband by this time was already whispering for me to move on. He had visions of us both being tackled by airport security and permanently placed on a no-fly list.
It’s not just customer service people. It’s everyone. Most people I know have work situations where it’s known that so and so and such and such aren’t on speaking terms and this makes meetings either a little bit tense or totally absurd. The root of it all is a sense of powerlessness. The cashier was like the groundhog that bit the Mayor when he stuck his hand in its cage. She felt she was being attacked in the little bit of territory that was hers. Who knows what staff cut backs and other nonsense the woman at the airport was dealing was?
You can’t reason with irrational people. You can’t get them to see your viewpoint or make yourself any clearer. The best you can do is engage as little as possible and keep moving. If they happen to be co-workers you need to work with or heaven forbid a supervisor, you’re screwed — especially now with the job market that much tougher and everyone trying to hold on to what he or she has.
What’s the answer? Take care of yourself. Remember to pop those vitamins and the fish oil (flax seed if you’re a veg.) Get enough sleep. Eat right and exercise. Be extra kind to those you love, and remember the next time a cashier calls security or you catch your co-workers rolling their eyes at each other during your presentation, that it’s not about you, and it’s about as personal as being stabbed by a crazy man on the subway.