Lately, I’ve noticed that when I call customer service—whether about insurance claims, to straighten out a bill, or ask for assistance with my new cell phone—the representative often sounds harried when they pick up the phone. I’ve no doubt that, in this culture of impatience and nastiness, they get a lot of people who are angry or who don’t know how to communicate, so resort to anger. By the time I reach this human being, after going through the company’s phone tree and finding numerous dead-ends, I’m often angry too.
I have to remind myself that it’s not the fault of the service person and that they are probably just as stressed as I am by being the last resort for customers frustrated at having a hard time finding someone to help them. So I try my best to be civil, even nice, thanking them for helping me and exchanging pleasantries (how’s the weather there?). Gradually I can hear the rep’s voice change, become softer and more relaxed. By the time we conclude our transaction, we’re both wishing each other a nice day.
In fact, when I was doing an online “chat” with a salesman recently, and I asked him how his day was going, he wrote back that it was “much better now that I’m dealing with someone polite.” And I just read an article about how service people—like waiters and store clerks—are having to endure more nasty encounters with people who easily get angry and yell at them.
That’s why I feel, if I can do nothing else in this world, I can be civil. We elders grew up in an era when people were friendlier and more trusting. We were taught to be polite and to help others. More than younger generations, we have the capacity to make the world a better—or at least more civil—place.
I’ve written about this before, but I feel strongly about our role as elders during a time when people are becoming more hostile to each other and more ready to assume the worst about their fellow citizens. If you’ve reached old age in any kind of healthy way, you’ve lost some of the ego that needed to prove itself, to be cool or in control. By now hopefully some of those sharp edges have been softened, and you don’t need to be the smartest or funniest or most beautiful person in the room. You’re strong enough in yourself and what you believe to reach out to others, even if it means possible rejection. You can relax and support others.
Often when I’m hiking on familiar terrain, and I see someone looking lost, I’ll stop and ask if I can help them find something—like the trail, the waterfall or the parking lot. Often they look startled; why is this complete stranger approaching me? But I’m willing to try to break down the boundaries that separate us, even in this small way.
If we older ones don’t do it, who will? Not young people who are unsure about themselves and just want to fit in the world and not make fools of themselves. Not older adults who are too busy with raising children and/or establishing careers to get involved in society’s problems. As seniors, we’ve lost friends (to death or otherwise) and lost some of our abilities—both physical and mental. We’ve learned to accept loss and realize how important human connections are. Is it too much to ask that we try to soften the world? Make it a bit less aggressive and mean? It’s worth trying.
What a lovely post, Kathy. I’ve had the same insight about the customer service people I reach on the phone, and have made similar efforts to make their day a little more spacious and uplifted.
Recently, I learned that scam callers are often very poor people trapped in those jobs, where they’re abused and oppressed. They aren’t gaining anything by robbing you of your money; it’s stolen from them, too. That’s a more difficult situation, of course, and not as easy to approach with a heart full of charity—and yet that’s still a human being at the other end of the line. My solution is to simply hang up, without any response, unkind or otherwise.
Another note about the role of elders in our increasingly cruel world: I just read an article in The Guardian about a protest planned on Tuesday in front of banks all over the US that continue to invest in fossil fuels. It’s specifically organized by boomers for boomers, who are often the ones with the money those banks use for those investments. So we’re not dead yet!
Thanks, Jennifer. I hadn’t realized that spam callers are poor and oppressed, but it makes sense.
Tuesday’s protest is partly sponsored by Third Act (of which I’m a member), which is composed of senior citizens. We’re the ones with all the wealth, compared to younger generations, so we need to step up and make our beliefs known.
What a lovely sentiment and practice. Very nice!
Great message! What a wonderful approach to take. I can do better and will make it my mission to do so!
Wise, thoughtful words. I do try to treat everyone with kindness and respect, hoping to be treated the same way. And I’m extremely grateful when that happens. I’m not sure I would/could persist in that if I were met with anger, frustration, or disrespect. But I’ll try to remember what you’ve written here — that the other person may be having a bad day that started before I came on the scene, not because of me.
Thanks, Susan. I get a small jolt of happiness when I sense that the person on the other end of the line is softening. It’s a bit addictive.
I love this blog. We’ve all been crushed by the pandemic and now we’re coming out of it. Time to connect to each other with love and understanding, protect those who are fragile and show courage in the face of political despair.
Absolutely. Thanks, Niki.