The other day I was in a mall near where I work, when I saw something that prompted me to write this. This has been a long time coming actually, and had I not seen what I'm about to discuss, something else surely would have made me put these words down.
In the middle of this tiny, insignificant mall, there was a small stand erected by one of those "We're Not A Rip-Off!" phone companies. You know, the ones that offer you "345% off long distance, no calling circles, and we promise we won't screw you this time." Working at this... well, what do I call it? It's not a booth, not a kiosk, just a freestanding wall with photos of the celebrity spokesperson (and her ugly necklaces), and a small podium/display case thing. Let's just call it a display. Huddled behind the very poor protection of the display was a young woman, about 17, wearing the cheerful red and white uniform of the company, trying desperately to hold off tears.
An older woman, probably in her early thirties, was berating the young woman. It was the young girl's job to promote this thing, which the public at large already regards pretty much as an incredible scam. The young woman had been trying to hand out these sad little leaflets encouraging people to sign up, when this older woman had obviously taken exception to some policy or other.
Now from what I could tell, this woman hadn't actually signed up for the "Steal your money!" special, she just wanted information. And she kept hounding the young girl over and over again, trying to get answers which the girl, who had probably about ten minutes worth of training, couldn't supply. The older woman was driving towards the brilliant conclusion that the whole thing was a scam, a rip-off, a lie. This young girl was desperately trying to defend her position, which just wasn't defendable. She was trying her best, but all she had was the half-assed promo talk, which can't stand up to anyone who thinks about it for more than ten seconds, let alone attacks for five or ten minutes. The young woman became more and more flustered. People in the mall, seeing her stress, were starting to gather around.
I was meeting my friends, who came at about this moment, so I don't know exactly how she escaped. I just saw her a moment later, talking at a pay phone, her school windbreaker over her "I'm so perky I could just shit" uniform. She'd left the booth/display/whatever unmanned. I don't think she was walking out... but away from her job she looked a lot more calm... peaceful.
The girl obviously had a shitty job, working for a shitty company. Just as obviously she just wanted to make some money for the summer. Or perhaps she was saving up to go to college, or university. Maybe she wanted a car. Maybe she just wanted some pocket money to hang out with her friends. Or maybe she was supporting an awesome crack habit. Doesn't matter. The point is, I see this sort of thing all the time. I've experienced it more times than I can count. And I remember, standing in a different but equally dippy uniform, talking to customers who were berating me, wishing desperately that I could be somewhere else, anywhere else, but feeling trapped, because that's what I was. I remember trying to hold back tears and explain something I did not believe in, a decision I was powerless to change and was made by somebody else who was not there.
I remember the great joy when I finally worked it out. You see, I was making the same mistake those big-mouthed customers were making. I was confusing the individual with the organization.
If you go into your local fast-food conglomerate and you're not happy with the price of the chicken nuggets, be sure to complain to the cashier. They'll get on a phone, call head office, who will immediately patch their call through to the CEO, day or night. They'll say "A customer says that $2.99 is too much for six pieces of chicken fat." The CEO will say, "By God, you're right Alice," (the CEO will know the cashier's name), "Ask them what price they think is reasonable, and then half it."
Psst--That was sarcasm for the uninitiated. Stay awake, there's more where that came from.
For those of you who didn't get it, the people you actually deal with in any given business have absolutely no power to alter the policies of the company. They can't bend the rules, they can't break them, and they certainly can't change them. They may agree with you totally, but can't do a damn thing about it. Still, that doesn't stop a lot of people, such as the older woman I just described, from trying. This causes a great deal of stress for employees, who have to enforce stupid policies for suited morons who imagine they know what life in the trenches is like. I can remember cold sweat bursting out of every pore as head office described a hideous new procedure that both we and the customers would obviously hate. Our pleas would fall on not just deaf, but dumb ears. In fact, even customer complaints were often ignored by these bozos, for reasons I will get into some other time. For now, know that many people every day are forced to put on uniforms which make their customers want to take them as seriously as someone wearing a straight- jacket, and explain policies like "We put broken glass in all our hamburgers now" and furthermore, "that's how people like it."
That is the sort of activity which drains you of all morale, of all self-worth. You feel like a liar and a crook, but you can't even fall back on telling yourself you're a good liar and crook. Anyone who's worked a really shitty job knows what I'm talking about.
Then one day, I figured it out. I had been drafted to a side I didn't believe in. I was here for the money, I wasn't here for the fun. I didn't like the customers, and I liked head office even less. So I became a sort of draft-dodger, or pacifist. I couldn't win the battle for the customers or head-office, even if I did actually believe in either side, which I didn't. So I just stopped fighting.
So I would recite the company line. "We do such-and-such-and such." Customers would say, quite correctly, "That's idiotic." To which I had two responses. "Yeah, I know," or "Would you like to speak to the manager?" Okay, I had a third response for my nastier moods. I would say, "What do you know about idiotic, asshole? You don't even work here."
Response one was excellent for communicating the truth to the customers. A few simple words conveyed the message: "Yes, I know it's stupid, but it's not my decision. The only reason I'm telling you this is so I can keep drawing a paycheque. If you want someone to do something about it, you've got the wrong guy." You have to be careful about going too far though. A lot of people make that mistake of going further and adapting "The I only work here" attitude. Managers get all pissed if you show you don't care. Oh, some of the smarter ones know in their heart of hearts that if you won the lottery, you'd be back the next day to wipe your ass with your uniform (watch it doesn't give you a rash) and give everyone the finger. But they hate it when you display it. You've got to keep giving the impression that you would personally donate all the spit in your body to help put out a fire that was burning the place down. A good impression to give is that false humility. You're too low on the Totem pole to understand why the policy is the way it is- obviously if you did, you'd be a manager. Which brings us to response two:
"Would you like to speak to the manager?" Very few managers have the courage to realize, let alone admit, the truth. Head office and other forms of upper management are insane. They have no idea how to manage human beings, let alone a business. Any and all progress a business makes is done by lying like hell to head office, disguising the facts, or better still, telling them nothing. Most managers are forced to swallow the company line. So they defend it like mad. Even to their employees, who know better. It's fun to watch a customer repeat everything you said at the staff meeting when you explained that the idea would be about as popular as a home circumcision kit that didn't pass through safety inspection. Don't go saying, "I told you so" though.
By instantly surrendering, you let the stream of responsibility wash over you. It's quite comforting. Stress melts away like ice, and you'll feel free again. It's like a Taoist teaching. You can't reverse the direction of a river. Why try? Why not drift down it, and see where it takes you?
Someday, I hope that young girl will realize that she does not deserve the stress. I wonder if she left that booth empty, just running away from it all. Unfortunately, there's only more to run to. You're unlikely to escape, so you must adapt. I hope she's out there now, collecting minimum wage, still working for that obnoxious long distance company. Only now I hope she's lying on her back, letting the river wash her along peacefully by saying, "Of course it's a total rip-off. So, can I sign you up?"
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