Put yourself in their shoes
I had another of those archetypical encounters over a service counter the other day. It was at the post office, where I have my bank account. I asked the lady who sold me stamps for some information about banking, but she couldn’t give it to me. She told me simply to call the hotline. There were no explanations as to why she couldn’t help and there were no apologies. I felt my blood getting hotter. I stuck to my wish for information, and she called the hotline. She didn’t ask me any questions to understand what exactly I needed, and so when she hung up the information she received was incomplete. I politely but firmly said I needed to know more. She called the hotline again …
When we had finished, I asked her for the receipt for the stamps I had bought. “I gave it to you,” she said. I asked her to check. She hadn’t given it to me. She printed it out. There was no apology, no friendly goodbye. I thanked her.
This is the kind of situation where you easily draw conclusions about people. This woman is unfriendly. This woman is incompetent. This woman is in the wrong job. Etc. etc. There may be some truth in them.
It helps to put yourself in their shoes.
Maybe she had a bad day or a difficult customer before me? Well, yes, but should that excuse her grumpiness with a new customer?
Let’s try a more systemic approach. She works over the counter at the post office. Her main job is selling stamps and taking in letters and parcels for posting. I may be simplifying, but let’s assume that that is it. She certainly isn’t a trained banker. And there I was asking her about international transactions, a subject she has probably never had to deal with in this small suburban post office. She hasn’t been prepared by her employer for this. (No doubt she hasn’t had any training in customer relations either, but let’s put that one aside for now). And here comes this determined man wanting something she cannot give. How does she feel?
I was once with a colleague in a city of five million in China. It was not unusual for taxi drivers not to know the location of the place we wanted to go, which was usually a university on the edge of town. They would stop and ask other taxi drivers, window to window. My colleague had been there before me, and he warned me that Chinese taxi drivers are “stupid”. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps they don’t have the same kind of rigorous training and licensing for taxi drivers like they do in Germany. Perhaps it is about educational standards, which is not the same as “being” stupid. Perhaps the city is developing and changing at a rate that it is hard to keep up with – after all the university was a new campus in a new suburb. Who knows?
I fly a lot. Every time I go through pretty well the same security procedure. Place my jacket in tray, remove keys, phone, coins from my trouser pockets. Take off my belt. Take my computer out of my bag, and place any toiletries in a transparent plastic bag into a tray. I have got very good at this, and the security personnel rarely have to remind me of anything. I nearly never get stopped and pat-down searched because when I pass through the scanner no bells ring.
I am pleased when the security personnel smile at me. They deal day in day out with the same procedure and day in day out with stressed travelers, a large number of whom do not follow procedure well. They have to ask people to do things they may not find pleasant, like take off items of clothing or shoes. They have to physically handle strangers. Sometimes I see situations where emotions flare. I bet the security people are not well paid. Their job is necessary, but to an outsider like me it doesn’t seem like it can be much fun.
I suppose one reason they smile at me is because I try to smile at or at least seem friendly with them. It’s because I try to put myself in their shoes. My speculations might be all wrong. But at least they make my dealings with them go smoothly and stay pleasant.