When my mother and I attempted to pay for our purchases the clerk at the register made it patently clear that she was irritated, even including an obvious eye roll as my mom fiddled inside her purse searching for the money that she was certain she had placed there before leaving the house. As the saleslady’s anger grew ever more palatable I suggested that we put the items on my credit card and worry about repayment later. Mama smiled at my ingeniousness and then noted that if we were going to do things that way she wanted to get another blouse that she had admired but had not brought enough cash to buy. Without even noticing how beet red the now furious cashier had become she dashed away and left me standing alone at the counter.
There were no other people waiting in line, and for a brief moment I considered lighting into the offensive woman who seemed intent on letting us know exactly how she was feeling without regard for the old saw that the customer is always right. Instead I casually began chatting her up. I thanked her for being so patient with my mother as though I had not noticed her obvious irritation. I explained that my niece was getting married in a few days and my mother was excited about walking down the aisle as her grandmother. I continued by noting that Mama had purchased an elegant suit several weeks earlier but it no longer fit because she had lost a great deal of weight. We had found out after a visit to the doctor that she had lung cancer that was very serious. Her clothes hung on her because the disease was ravaging her body. Without even taking a breath I mentioned that my mom also suffered from bipolar disorder and sometimes became quite confused. I ended my tale by once again commending the worker for being kind and noting that Mama loved her little outings to the store as well as being able to talk with other people.
By this time the woman’s eyes were filled with tears. She took my hands and quietly spoke of how she truly understood. She revealed that her own mother had died of cancer and she told me how much she missed those special times when the two of them had done things together. Her demeanor was now soft and loving and we shared a quick moment of kinship just before my mother came back with her blouse and a big smile. The saleslady was effusive in her new found kindness for Mama. She gave her coupons to bring down the final cost of her items. She wrapped the purchases in tissue paper and placed them in a special shopping bag. She ended the transaction by wishing my mother Godspeed.
As we walked to the car Mama commented on how sweet the clerk had been. She appeared not to have even noticed the dramatic change in her behavior. She collared a store manager who was standing near the exit and heaped effusive praise on the lady. The manager beamed with pride and promised my mom that he would surely make note of his employee’s exceptional customer service in her file.
We encounter so many people in our daily dealings. Not all of them are pleasant and when we find the surly ones it is usually tempting to read them the riot act. We make lots of assumptions about the individuals that we meet without ever really knowing them or allowing them to know us. It is often easier to respond to rudeness in kind rather than to attempt to diffuse the situation. There are indeed some individuals who are simply as mean as snakes and will never change, but in most cases displays of anger or irritation are not personal. Instead they are an indication of something brewing in the person’s life that is affecting the way they act. Time and again in both my private and professional dealings I have found myself in emotionally difficult situations in which I have somehow faced hostility for no apparent reason. When I take a deep breath and delve a bit deeper I almost always learn that the person screaming at me is shouldering incredible levels of stress and my encounter is only the last straw in a long series of difficulties. By putting myself in their shoes for a moment I have almost always been able to bring the tension down to a reasonable level.
As both a teacher and an administrator I more than once found myself listening to a parent who was ready to choke me. I generally allowed him/her to vent for a brief time and then countered the ugly comments by saying that I could tell by the powerful words how passionately the individual cared about the welfare of the child. I spoke to them as a parent who had now again found myself defending one of my girls. I noted that I was happy to know that we all cared very deeply for the student under discussion because that concern would translate itself into developing a useful plan for making the necessary changes for success. By ignoring the meanness and concentrating on our commonalities as people I was usually able to bring control to the situation and provide the parent with a satisfactory conclusion. I was not faking my understanding. I truly know that there are times when each of us comes undone by life’s events. At those moments we can only pray that the people with whom we interact will show us the concern that we need.
Whenever my mother was in a state of full blown mania she could be meaner than a junk yard dog. Her personality at such times was nothing like the almost angelic person that she really was. Her brain was out of balance, chemically causing her to behave in ways that even she did not like. Thank God she was generally surrounded by people who knew and loved her who ignored the rantings and ravings that spewed from her mouth. They would quietly call me to report that she wasn’t doing well and once I got her back on track with her medications she would return to the person who was adored by all of us who were lucky enough to bask in her unconditionally loving nature.
Of late we have seen a number of situations that went ridiculously out of control. People have been assaulted simply for delivering bad news. We’ve seen riots at airports and road rage that leads to murder. I would strongly suggest to everyone that we do our best to stay calm even in the most concerning circumstances. Someone has to maintain a cool head when times get tough or things will be said or done that are regretful. We should always attempt to understand the other person’s point of view before going off into a tirade of our own. Sometimes it is even best to just quietly step away when we realize that nothing that we do or say will quell the anger. Engaging in a war of words is never a solution. Demonstrating an attempt at making peace on the other hand will sometimes lead to a satisfactory resolution. Stay calm. Try to understand. Don’t take so many things personally. It may not be you who is having the really bad day.