I remember a phenomenon that used to occur in my house as a kid: my mother would be upset with one of us (and there were eight kids, so this could occur frequently) and she would be using her frustrated voice--or as we liked to say, she was yelling. She would be angry about something like we were caught jumping off the garage roof on to the trampoline below or that we had poured motor oil down the driveway just to see how fast it could go or we had locked a little kid in the dryer and turned it on. You know, normal stuff.
This would raise my mother's temperature enough that it would raise her voice as well. So, one of us might be the target of a bout of yelling when: the phone would ring. This ring always did something to my mother. She would point at the child she was yelling at and give him or her a look that said, Stay there if you know what is good for you, and then she would turn and answer the phone. And somehow that voice that had just been screeching at us would drop ten decibels and turn as soft as butter and as polite as the Queen. As if she hadn't a care in the world.
I found it remarkable that my mother could turn on the charm so quickly and move so effortlessly from one volume level to another. The phone conversation might last a minute or ten minutes and my mother would move fluidly from polite and welcoming through efficient and kind to even funny and amused while the recently-yelled-at child stood near by afraid to move for fear of his or her life. If we moved even a smidgen she might employ The Look again and that couldn't bode well for the child's life expectancy.
The yelling might or might not ensue following the phone conversation. It would amaze me when it did, when she could ramp right back up to her previous frustration level. Whether it did or not, I would still walk away from the whole encounter a little bemused. I was bewildered by the fact that adults could modulate emotions and voices with what looked like so little effort and I was deeply absorbed in reviewing that event in my head. I'd even laugh a little as kid and think, I will never do that when I grow up, like I was a superior being and would never be challenged to control my temper in the future.
Enter the future. I was in the store the other day in a long line at the checkout stand. Typically Murphy's Law applies to me when I pick a checkout line at the grocery store--you know, whichever line I pick will invariably turn out to be the longest line in the store because someone ahead of me will take 943 years to count out the exact change in pennies for a purchase totaling $71.49. (It takes a really long time. Believe me, I know.) This time my line was moving at a pretty good clip and I was pleased to see it progressing. Every line in the store was booked full of people and I thought, Wow, I picked a good line.
I was one person away from the cashier, nearly out the door, when this woman approached the 18-year-old cashier. She had apparently been in his line a few minutes before and had gone out to the parking lot and found a problem with her purchase and had come back in to have this cashier, her cashier, deal with it. This little cashier instead of telling her to wait or to go to customer service stopped everything in his line and tried to assist her. She was worried that she had been overcharged for something she had purchased. So, he ran her purchases through the scanner again and came up with the same price as on her receipt. She still didn't like that answer and so he did it again. That still didn't appease her so he did it again, for the third time. When this didn't work, he pulled out a calculator and added up the purchases and applied tax (And how would the hand calculator make a difference over the cash register??? It's a puzzle.). Then he did it again on the calculator. All of this to ensure one woman that she had been charged $10.33 for purchases that really added up to . . . $10.33. Oh, the insanity!
In the entire 7 minutes and 54 seconds it took to help this woman, my blood pressure was rising and rising fast. I wouldn't dare say anything directly and be considered rude, so I employed various passive-aggressive techniques. I rolled my eyes. Pause. I checked my watch. Pause. I drummed my fingers. Pause. I let out an exasperated sigh. Pause.
It didn't work. Neither the cashier, nor the woman seemed to register that there were six people waiting through this entire transaction. So, I sped up my techniques. I rolled my eyes. I checked my watch. I drummed my fingers. I let out an exasperated sigh.
Still nothing. My mercury level went up several more notches.
Then I started muttering. "Come on!" under my breath. "This is ridiculous," came out next. Finally, a little louder, "What's the hold up?"
The cashier finally glanced my way and dropped his pen. Great, I made him nervous now. But the customer hadn't caught on. So, I repeated.
I rolled. I checked. I drummed. I sighed.
Magically, my techniques worked and the woman left (or could it be, she had spent enough time trying to wrangle an extra three cents out of the cashier?).
It was soon my turn to have my purchases rung up. The cashier started by apologizing. He was so sweet and so young and I was so wicked and impatient. And then, that trick of my mother’s kicked in: Despite my anger and my impatience, I plastered my oh-so-sincere smile across my face and turned on the sweet.
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m sure it was frustrating for you too. You were so kind to help her out like that. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have been so accommodating.” More like I would have turned cashier-kamikaze and head butted her out of my line after scanning her items three extra times. "You were very patient," I said, gagging a bit on my own gooeyness.
He smiled. And didn't drop his pen through our whole transaction and hurried me through the check-out process. I left feeling better than I did after employing all my favorite passive-aggressive techniques.
See, the thing about "nice" that I'm just beginning to catch on to is that it not only affects the outcome of an interaction like that one, it also affects me. Sometimes by acting nice on the outside, it makes me feel a bit nicer on the inside too. I start to see it from someone else's perspective rather than my own.
Maybe being nice isn't as bad as it is chalked up to be.