“You can’t choose your family,” they say. We can choose our friends. We can even choose those we decide to be around on a regular basis, even if they are not our friends. We can’t choose our family members, however, and we can’t choose the co-workers around us. Those of us who have been a part of a large, multi-national corporation, on a long-term basis, have found that the lines between family and co-workers often become blurred.
“There are times when we may find ourselves closer to our co-workers than our family, and the simple reason for this is that we’re around them more often,” a boss of mine once said.
In the course of our tenure, we will sit next to a wide variety of office workers who will reveal their eccentricities to us over time. We will find that the office contains just as many black sheep as our family does, if not more. When a person works in the service industry, on the overnight shift, they will encounter a Star Wars Cantina of black sheep on a nightly basis, and the attempts to overlook their eccentricities might become a part-time job. My advice is to attempt to tightrope the line between being as inclusive as possible while maintaining a sense of exclusivity. Hedge too far into your ideas of exclusivity, and the hours spent at the company will be excruciating, as you will have no one to talk to, and you may not have many friends. Become too sympathetic to their plight, to the point that you begin to believe that they’re all a victim a circumstance, may lead you to becoming one of them. The difficulty of maintaining objectivity is made all the more difficult by the players involved, and their apparent desire to top the most extreme eccentricity the normal person believes they’ve ever heard. If the person manages to escape this exercise untainted, they will walk away from the experience mumbling you can’t choose your co-workers.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
Rhonda told my girlfriend at the time, that she saw me at a bar that was well-known in our city for being a low-rent meat market. When my girlfriend confronted me with this, I informed her that I had never been to that particular bar. The next day, my girlfriend informed me that Rhonda stated that it wasn’t just that saw me there, she stated that the two of us engaged in an extended conversation. I reiterated the fact that I’d never been to that particular bar. When Rhonda later found out that there was another person working at our company who had the exact same name as me, she conceded that it may have been a case of mistaken identity. I accepted this at face value, at first, until I chewed on it for a second.
“Wait a second, didn’t she say she had an extended conversation with me that night?” I asked. “How can one have an extended conversation with another and believe it’s someone else, based on their name?”
It’s important to note, here, that my relationship with Rhonda went beyond a name basis. The two of us spent three months working across the aisle from one another in the company. And … and those three months were her first three months with the company, and she had tons of questions, and I was the senior agent on that team whose primary duty it was to answer those questions. In these two respective roles, the two of us had over 100 exchanges in those three months.
“It’s not a case of mistaken identity,” I said. “She’s out to get me. She wants to break us up, or something.”
“She doesn’t think that way,” my girlfriend at the time stated. “It’s just Rhonda. She’s kind of a ditz. I’m embarrassed that I ever believed her over you. Forgive me?”
Of course I forgave her. How could I hold her responsible for another person’s fables? I didn’t forgive Rhonda however. I knew Rhonda was a bit of a ditz, but I wasn’t buying the “It’s just Rhonda,” excuse regarding the accusation she leveled against me, and I thought less of my girlfriend for believing her. I thought Rhonda was out to get me, and I carried that particular grudge against her for months, until I ran into Dan.
“It is just Rhonda,” Dan said to confirm my girlfriend’s characterization. “I can tell you all you need to know about Rhonda in one brief, little story. Rhonda found out that $600.00 was missing from her checking account, and she could not explain that missing money. She knew that she didn’t do it, and her daughter said that she didn’t withdraw the money either. Rhonda was so convinced that something nefarious was going on that she took her complaint up the corporate chain to the bank’s vice-president (VP). Once in that seat of power, Rhonda proceeded to berate this woman for her bank’s apparent lack of security. ‘You just let anyone walk into your bank and withdraw money from other people’s accounts?’ Rhonda asked the VP. Rhonda then stated that she informed the VP that the bank would be pulling all of the bank’s security tapes, and that it had become her mission in life to get her $600.00 back if it killed her, because she knew knew that she didn’t do it. She stated that she would’ve remembered withdrawing $600.00, because $600.00 was all she had in that account, and her $500.00 rent was coming due, and she wouldn’t just withdraw her rent money for reasons she couldn’t remember. She informed the bank VP that she had nothing to show for that $600.00 withdrawal, and if she had been the one to withdraw the money she “sure as hell” would have had something to show for it.
“Well, the bank VP, being a responsible VP, responded to Rhonda’s complaints, and she called Rhonda in a couple days later to watch the tape and show her that it was, indeed, Rhonda withdrawing those funds.
“Now,” Dan continued. “I’m sure that that bank VP privately accused Rhonda of all the same ulterior motives that you just did two minutes ago, but the one thing neither of you account for is her stupidity, an inexplicable, almost unprecedented, embarrassing amount of utter stupidity that is just Rhonda.”
I strolled into work one day to find Bill and Jim riding around on a guest’s sit down scooter in the back office of the front desk of a hotel. This scooter was motorized and very similar to that which can now be found at a neighborhood Wal-Mart. Jim rode around on this motorized scooter, like a little kid with a new toy: laughing, beeping the little horn, and hooting, and hollering, and waving his pretend hat around like a cowboy in a rodeo.
“That’s hilarious,” I said watching Jim go crazy.
“Yeah,” Bill said. “Too bad there’s a limit to the fun … It’s an old lady’s cart, and it’s limited in how fast it can go.”
“Whaddya mean?” I asked Bill, as Jim began his dismount. “These things are universal. There’s no such thing as an old lady’s model.”
When it was my turn on the scooter, I turned the accelerator switch from turtle to rabbit. Just before I went on my first ride, I saw Bill and Jim’s imagination light up. I took one run through the back office to gain a little comfort with the scooter, and its new speed, and in my second run, I began yelling, “How do you stop this thing? I’m out of control.” I then crashed into one of the telephone operators that had been sitting in her chair.
The telephone operator’s initial alarm could not be faked, but as she read my face, her alarm softened. “Jack ass!” she said with the remnants of a smile lifting the corner of her mouth.
Bill and Jim were out of control with laughter. I thought of making a couple more runs. It was, indeed, a blast, but the performer in me couldn’t see how I could top the hilarity of first run, however, so I dismounted.
Bill replicated my run, when his turn arrived, by screaming the exact same words, “How do you stop this thing? I’m out of control,” and he ended up crashing into the exact same operator’s chair in the exact same manner.
“Look,” someone who entered the back office area said when Bill was in the midst of his run. “Bill figured out how to make the scooter go faster.” The person who said this just happened to be the most attractive female in the hotel, and I had spent weeks trying to impress her. When Bill crashed into the very same operator’s chair as I had, she laughed hard and said, “Bill, you are hilarious!”
“I did that,” I told Bill in a manner that I hoped would affect this girl’s impression of me. Bill stopped right in front of me, looked up and grinned. “I figured out that switch,” I said. “I made it go faster. I — you even ran into ran into the same operator’s chair in the exact same manner I did.” Bill just sat there and grinned at me. I knew that declaring propriety of a joke was a fool’s errand, and as a result I didn’t do it often, but this impressed girl was so good looking, and she laughed so hard that I couldn’t help but ask Bill for my proprietary interest back. He just sat there and smiled at me.
I got credit from the schlubs at the front desk, but when the best looking girl at the hotel stepped in the back office, she only saw Bill doing it. “You know I did that first,” I said like a five-year-old trying to reclaim a good boy deed. I hoped that this incredibly beautiful woman would hear this and know that I was the funny one here, and that Bill had just copied a run that led her to laughter. I didn’t care about schlub laughter. I wanted beautiful woman laughter.
Bill’s smile increased, until he was beaming at me. At one point, his beam increased to the point that he was starting to turn red. My competitive urges began to grow, until I began disliking this man named Bill. I never cared for Bill before this moment, but the two of us managed to have a working relationship with one another. This particular was just beyond the pale. He was the beneficiary of excellent timing though, and he knew it. When he continued to smile at me, and beam, and go red with glory, I considered the fact that I had underestimated how loathsome a creature I had on my hands, soaking up more than his share of glory. I was getting fired up, trying my hardest to look away. I was fighting the urge to call him a dirty name, at this point, and his prolonged, unusually long stare was only making me more angry. I imagined that this altercation might progress into something physical, when a third party stepped in to interrupt us:
“Okay Bill, settle down.” The third party then said in a very soothing voice, “You know you need to refrain from getting too excited.”
“What?” I asked the third party person. “What’s going on?”
“He’s having a seizure.”
Standing behind the front desk of a hotel, a woman named Jenny asked a porter named Jack to clean up a small nugget of trash she saw in the foyer of the hotel.
“Yuck, Jenny I think it’s poop,” Jack said leaning down to look at a small particle on the floor that was at the bottom of the ballroom announcement board.
“It’s not poop Jack,” Jenny replied. “Just clean it up.”
Jack went overboard. He insisted on it. He went into the back and grabbed a tissue. Jenny was somewhat frustrated by this, but she did not say a word as Jack collected the particle in front of the announcement board with a tissue and threw it in the trash can.
Minutes later, the front desk housekeeper began bending down to make quick dabs and wipes with a washcloth on the floor in front of the front desk area, and she proceeded to do this down the hall. “What are you doing?” I asked her.
“Someone spilled coffee on their way down the hall,” she said cleaning a trail of brown dots. “Happens all the time.”
Minutes later, a gift shop employee approached me saying, “I need you to accompany me out to a car.” What? “Just come on!” she said. “I’ll tell you outside.” At the car, she informed me that a guest knocked on the stall of the bathroom, asking the gift shop employee if she worked for the hotel. When the gift shop employee told her that she did, the guest informed her that she had had an accident. The guest asked the gift shop employee to go to her car and retrieve a coat for her. Fearing a lawsuit, or that this was some kind of ruse perpetuated by a guest who might claim that she stole something out of her car, the gift shop employee asked me to witness her going into the guest’s car for the guest’s coat.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the customer also asked the gift shop employee to retrieve a to-go shopping bag for her. Once the guest had her London Fog, knee-length coat on, sans the underwear and pants the guest now had in the to-go bag, the gift shop employee informed me, the guest decided to stop, en route to the exit. The guest proceeded to shop in the gift shop for a full fifteen minutes, “Like nothing happened,” the gift shop employee informed me. She was wearing a London Fog length coat that stretched to her knees, but she had nothing else on below the waist, due to the mess she was purported to have made in her undergarments and in her pants.
“She must be used to it,” the gift shop employee surmised.
The Obnoxious Email
One of my fellow email customer service agents quit the job that required her to answer emails from customers, because she couldn’t handle the swearing she encountered via the confrontational emails that she received.
“It’s an email,” I told her on numerous occasions. “Prior to this job,” I informed her, “I’ve experienced face to face confrontations with angry, swearing customers, and I’ve even had some of them throw things at me.” I informed her of some of the abusive phone calls I’ve taken over the years in which I’ve had my life threatened. “And these are just emails.” I told her that some customers will do everything they can to get under your skin and rattle you. “It’s the nature of the customer service industry,” I said. “Compared to a person trying to dress you down, face-to-face, and an irate customer that won’t let you get a word in with their less personal phone calls, an abusive emailer is nothing. It’s impersonal, and they know it. The anonymity allows them to think they can write anything, and it has no reflection on them. Just ignore it, and don’t take it personal.” I said the latter in a dismissive manner that suggested that once you get over this hump, you’ll be looking back on all of this with laughter.
“I can’t ignore it,” she said. “And to be quite honest, I don’t know how you all can?”
“Just laugh at their feeble attempts to prove that they’re mad,” I said the latter in a derisive tone that mocked their attempts to appear emotional via email. In my attempts to lead her into dismissing these silly people who get emotional in emails, I was informed that I was acting in a manner that she considered dismissive of her complaint. “It’s a mindset that you have to have in the customer service industry. Always remember that they don’t know who you are. They’re angry people who want to have something to be mad about. You’re just the unlucky person that happens to be on the other end of their rage. You’re an anonymous worker for the company. Their grievances aren’t with you, or even company. Their complaints are with the life fate has dealt them. In the end, be happy that you’re not them, and you don’t have to live with them, and that it’s just an email. Most of us have experienced a lot worse.”
“I couldn’t do it,” she said greeting me months later, after numerous counseling sessions. She was quitting the company. “I couldn’t ignore it,” she added. I couldn’t help but think less of her, as she told me how much my efforts to console her meant to her, and she said all that with tears in her eyes. To say that I was shocked does not do it justice.
From that point forward I took what I considered inconsequential complaints from fellow employees more serious, and I realized that we’re all different, and we all have different thresholds, and some of us define Darwin’s theories on natural selection and survival of the fittest better than others.
The Identifiable Characteristics inherent in the Penis
Working in the intangible world, employees are often required to require that some customers send the company a form of identification to prove their identity if customers hope to continue to do business with the company. In one of the replies to such a requirement, a customer sent an image of his penis. Next to the picture were the words, “This is me!” and an arrow pointing to the image. I’m not sure if this customer was sending a rebellious statement in regards to our company’s policies and procedures, or if he believed that this would fulfill our company’s requirement for identification.
Putting Down the Dog
Sitting next to a person for forty hours a week, can lead one to think that they know their co-workers. Some are tempted to believe that they know that person better than that person’s family and friends do, but most of us know that this is a silly conceit, as it is impossible to know a person in such limited constraints. In the day-to-day interactions we have with them, however, we hear intimate details we believe they will not share with family and friends, and this can lead us to the temptation that we think we know them better.
The friend that led me to know the limits of my powers of observation, informed me that she had to put the family dog put down over the course of the prior weekend. In the midst of my sympathetic response, she said:
“It’s a dog. You men get so attached to dogs. You’re all so ridiculous.”
I agreed, and I made a joke about the inherent loyalty men have for a dog versus what they should have for a spouse. Unbeknownst to me, at the time, this otherwise meaningless joke changed the dynamics of our conversation. I only gained the full breadth of this change in hindsight, after her full confession was out. She laughed a little at that joke. She presumably considered that joke a statement of solidarity she and I shared on the issue. She opened up after that joke.
“My husband’s so upset,” she said. “He thinks I did it, because the dog was messing all over the place.”
“Well,” I said. “That’s grief. Maybe that’s how he’s dealing with it, by blaming you.”
“No, he’s right,” she said, “but it wasn’t just one mess here and there. The dog was going all over the place. Every time I came home and opened my door, I smelled urine. Our whole house smelled like dog urine, and I couldn’t handle it anymore.” The look on my face affected hers. “I told him and told him to take care of it. I told him to train the dog better,” she expounded. “I told him that maybe he should race home, during his lunch hour, to let the dog out one more time, but he didn’t do it.”
A lengthy answer of this type requires repetition. Even if the listener heard everything the speaker said, they need the speaker to pull quote the answer.
“Wait a second,” I said. “You said he was right. What was he right about?”
“I did put the dog down,” she said. She then put a hand up to caution me against proceeding before she could answer in full. “But it was not an impulsive decision. This dog had been having trouble with its urinary tract for months. I told my husband to take care of it. He said he would, but he either wouldn’t or he didn’t, so I did.”
“Who are you?” I asked. When I asked this question, it was framed in the comedic rhythm that many sitcoms use to condemn another in a soft fashion and allows the target of the accusation an easy exit. She flinched in a manner that informed me that she might have never heard the joke delivered that way before. “What did you say to your husband’s accusations?” I asked her.
“I told him that the vet said the dog suffered from some debilitating disease,” she said. “I can’t even remember what I said that disease was. I made something up.” She then laughed.
Again, I heard everything she said, but in order to process this information my processing center required repetition. “What did the vet say the disease was?”
“There was no disease,” she said. Her tone was one of impatience, as if to suggest I wasn’t getting it. “The dog wasn’t suffering from any disease, and it did not have infections in the urinary tract. It was just old, and it couldn’t control its bladder anymore.”
Some writer’s discretion was involved here, as I did not include all the blank stares I offered this woman, as she detailed her weekend activities. In those blank stares, I characterized her through her actions. I considered her act so heartless that I couldn’t comprehend it, but I didn’t want to bore the reader with the innumerable blank stares I offered her. The next question I’m sure a reader might ask is why didn’t I call her out or condemn her action further. All I can say is that I thought I’ve been the product of the ‘awful to the extreme’ joke so often that I thought I was in that situation. I am quite sure that everyone has fallen for this joke. It has happened so many times that my guard was up here. I’ve condemned people for actions so completely that when they say, ‘I didn’t really put my dog down. I was joking. I cannot believe you would think that I would do something that awful … You can be so naïve some of the times.’ I felt like a fool for overreacting in such a manner, and I didn’t want to overreact in this situation.
Another element that drove the stupor that prevented me from questioning her further was that I am constantly confronting the exaggerations of human empathy. I am amazed at the irrational compassion some people direct to alleged victims they’ve never met in life to the point that they believe some outrageous claims based on some form of emotional allegiance. My friend who put down her dog was so lacking in empathy that it was another hill for me to climb to understand how lacking in empathy some people are, and I didn’t do that well in the time and place.
I was so curious about the variations in human empathy she displayed that I would ask her about it numerous times. I didn’t recognize how persistent I became to have her assure me that she was not joking, that it affected our relationship. I didn’t even know that she was avoiding me, until she confronted me and informed me that I needed to “Get past the whole dog issue.”