Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State with Victor Yushchenko, President of Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Yahoo!)
One snowy afternoon in January, I took the tram across town to my former neighborhood and went to the post office to renew my P.O. box there. While waiting in line, I watched for the young clerk with whom I had butted heads almost two weeks earlier.
I would recognize her immediately. She was taller than average, streaky blond and loud. After finishing my business, I waited in the lobby area in hopes that she would come along. Sure enough, soon she emerged from a back room and strolled through the lobby, heading outside for a smoke.
As she came toward the door, I caught her eye.
I need to talk with you for a minute. Last time I was here, we had an unpleasant conversation and I was impatient with you. Forgive me please.
Oh it wasn’t all that bad, she shrugged.
That’s one thing I love about Russian folk. They’re so quick to forgive.
And that was that.
Back out on the street, I felt such relief.
That feeling was so different from how I’d felt ten days or so earlier after our confrontation. That day, I kept asking myself, how would Condoleezza Rice have handled all that?
That had been my third trip across town to renew said post office box. The first two times, one clerk or another said something like, Oh come back another day. It’s only 30 minutes until closing time and we really don’t want to haul out that paperwork again.
I probably said something such as, Well, it’s not all that easy for me to get here. I live in another neighborhood now and so it’s not as though I live around the corner.
But I did come back again the third time and was making progress. I waited dutifully in the fill-out-the-renewal form line and the clerk there – to her credit – went far beyond her duties, helping me with the paperwork. Next, in the pay-for-the-box line, when I got to the front, my progress came to a screeching halt.
You’ll need to come back another day. I’ve already put away that stuff. Come back tomorrow.
So I explained that we’ve been through this before and all this was quite unnecessary. That it really would not be hard to take my rubles, write me out a receipt and stamp it in five places to make all official as they’re wont to do here.
The clerk was pleasant enough but she shrugged and turned to the next person. During our conversation, a teenage clerk was standing at the other end of the service counter with a gaggle of her clerk buddies.
She’s American isn’t she? she asked just loud enough for all to hear.
Next time, I’ll just ignore that.
Yes I am. And at least in America there is decent customer service.
Next time, I'll direct my best withering gaze in her direction. (Note to self: Start practicing this look in the bathroom mirror.)
So there was a little back and forth between us there, mostly her laughing with her friends. As I started to leave, I decided it was time for some eyeball-to-eyeball conversation with the Miss Mouthy and headed in her direction. She saw me coming, let out a loud shriek of laughter and fled to the back room.
Is your friend okay? I asked her co-worker. Was she was laughing at me?
Oh of course she’s fine. No, of course she wasn’t laughing at you. We were laughing about. . . about something here in the newspaper. She motioned to the tabloid open there on the counter.
That’s a typical response. People can lie in a heartbeat, without blinking an eye.
So I left and felt pretty good about all that for about 30 seconds but then it dawned on me that I’m the first American many of the other customers have ever encountered. And while it may be true that most of them would have a complaint or two about customer service, I was uncomfortable with the tone of our conversation.
How would Condoleezza Rice have handled that? Her diplomacy and grace come to mind quite often. It doesn’t hurt that she specializes in Soviet studies and is said to speak fluent Russian.
* * * * *
We learn a lot about ourselves when immersed in another culture. We see how we handle stress of smashed expectations. We see how we deal with the frustration of communicating at a child’s level. Cross-cultural living is a magnificent growth opportunity. But only if we use it as such.
After an unpleasant incident, it’s important to mull it over, ruminate on it and analyze it. First, what happened? How did I feel about what happened? How did I respond to what happened? How will I handle it differently next time?
I have no control over the twerpy behavior of a 17-year-old postal worker. But I do have control over myself. As long as there aren’t any sweets involved, that is. I can choose to ignore a verbal jab. Or I can respond with humor.
So, let’s rewind the whole scene.
She’s an American, isn’t she?
You’re close. Actually I’m from Antarctica. And believe me, your customer service here is far superior.
Who knows, Condoleezza Rice might be so impressed with such diplomacy that, in an historic move, she would appoint me first U.S. Ambassador to Antarctica. No lines and no waiting for that job!