A recent tussle with a cell phone provider revealed an unexpected emotional response in me. A series of contacts to try to resolve some problems, all with non-native-English-speaking customer service personnel (aka NNES) pushed my patience to its limits. I found myself thinking, “Why doesn’t the company hire people who speak English better?” With each successive and enunciated apology, “I am so sorry you are experiencing this problem” and similar phrases, my temper simply got hotter. Worse, my speech got louder, more clipped, forceful.
Nothing shook the responders. I finally said (could I have yelled?), “You’re all very polite, but I need answers!” I may even have cut the conversation off a time or two.
After I hung up, I wondered why on earth I let the standard routine bother me so much. I knew I’d be connected with NNESs and there would be challenges. Having visited countries where English isn’t spoken, I knew the struggle of trying to communicate in another language.
“Well, it’s their job. They’re paid to do it,” I thought. “They should learn the language better. They should know the solutions quickly.” Then an ah-ha moment swamped me.
I was over-reacting precisely because they’d been so polite. Without thinking, I’d internalized a superior social position, a kind of kiss-my-ass attitude that seems to accompany a structure like colonialism or caste or slavery, in which responses of the “inferior” class are standardized and required. I was stereotyping.
It’s easy to castigate people in other times, other countries for what now is labeled racist or classist, to fling accusations of suppression and discrimination at others. But my ah-ha moment warned me to slow down. Take more care with how I act and react. Temper my judgments of others, whether they’re providing a service on the phone or spouting off in a news interview to advocate opinions different from mine.
I wonder how the people on the other end of the line stereotype me?
At the local Y, changes have occurred over the years I’ve been a member. Now when I visit the weight room, people have left 50-pound moveable plates locked on the ends of the bars, usually perching the contraptions on racks far above my head. Since I’m neither six feet tall nor a muscular football or soccer player, I can’t remove or change them for my own use. Smaller dumbbells are strewn across the rooms, handy for tripping over and breaking toes. Towels litter the exercise areas and actually seem to reproduce or replicate in the dark corners and under benches of the locker room, in damp white-ish piles.
Then there’s the matter of smart phones. Young exercisers are getting their fingers in great shape since they spend more time sitting on equipment to text their friends than they do actually using the apparatus. Or perhaps they’re checking the stock market. In any case, again, no one else can use the gear.
What can be done? Nothing, an attendant told me. There are no rules regarding this behavior.
Are humans, or at least Americans, losing their basic intelligence? No other explanation for this behavior, for we used to learn at our mother’s knee to endeavor to pick up our own messes and be considerate of other people. Don’t think the phenomena exist only in gyms and health clubs. What else accounts for drivers who merrily plow through red lights and drift the wrong way down one-way streets? Surely they don’t want accidents. Or the empty-headed pedestrian who crosses an interstate freeway at the height of rush hour? He’s ignored or never learned the inevitable result of that attempt.
Are we getting ruder? Maybe this is the cause of the poor behavior I’ve mentioned. Strong signs support this theory. People believe that day-to-day behavior has become more aggressive, less patient, and certainly not as sympathetic.
My inclination is to blame modern technology for both these phenomena. I no longer need a memory as long as my computer and phone remain ever-ready. And since I’m dealing with humans almost totally via these lines of communication, I can’t begin to sense the humanity that links me with those on the other ends of the networks. They’re just voices or words, symbols or algorithms.
I may be frothing at the mouth because I’m frustrated at the state of the world in general. I’ve pledged to do my best to combat the growing tide of stupidity and rudeness. I can’t do a thing about a man being beheaded half-way across the world, but I can try to improve my little corner.
In my rabid youth, I judged my friends by their politics and philosophies. I figured if someone wasn’t at least a left-leaning semi-socialist, they neither cared about the good of society nor read literary novels nor hugged trees. I didn’t want to be around them. I’m sure I had acquaintances who didn’t fit, but I carefully side-stepped discussions in which certain issues might come up.
Fast forward post-marriage and babies, and my outlook changed. Radically. Perhaps it was the consistent disruption of my nights by noisy if anti-war neighbors or the littered mess similar folks left in the wake of their parades and demonstrations. Perhaps it was the lackadaisical attitude of clerks in natural foods stores and cafes, who placed more importance on chatting with their friends than providing service.
I’ve come to believe that walking the walk absolutely over-rides talking the talk. Courtesy is critical, the kind of courtesy rooted in respect, not necessarily in etiquette books. Does an individual cut me off in traffic? His numerous bumper stickers supporting the candidate of my choice don’t prevent my knowing he’s a rude ass. The advocate for the homeless who dumps construction materials from his remodeling all over the alley gets zero points from me for his philanthropy.
This is especially true for people who make hard and fast stands on ethical issues. Puh-leeze. You’re not going to convince me by screaming. Just because you think the system of tipping service staff is patronizing and outmoded, you can’t force me into neglecting a gratuity. So what if you love dogs and want them prancing leash-free around the park? I’m scared of them, and I’ll continue to scold dog owners who don’t restrain their pets. And if I want to snitch a few fronds of dried greenery at the end of the summer from a neighbor for an arrangement, don’t excoriate* me as a thief.
To my surprise, I’m finding some of the nicest, most thoughtful people I know are ones whose choices on the ballot wouldn’t come close to replicating mine. Yes, people should express their opinions. Yes, they should live their lives and conduct their personal affairs as they wish. But as we struggle to walk, run, jog or crawl the rocky road through life, we’d be wise to value the oil that keeps our society functioning smoothly. The most important thing to bring along on the trip is human consideration and compassion, not opinions.
While politics can make strange bedfellows, civility brings even stranger fellows into bed. But to my way of thinking, at least the sheets are clean and the blankets tucked in properly.
* Excoriate: to criticize harshly, condemn