March 23, 2011

The Unkindness of Strangers

Over the past few weeks, I have been dealing with a woman at a county office who is being extremely and purposefully difficult.

The woman has a handbook, which she pulls out and reads to me every time I go in to talk to her. Despite being three inches thick, the handbook is very vague when it comes to describing procedures and policies. The purpose for this ambiguity, I have argued repeatedly, is to allow room for common sense.

The woman sees things differently.

To put it mildly, the woman is driving me crazy: she is rude and condescending, sits on her hands, drags her feet, and smiles smugly at me....all because she can.

This situation has played out in different ways a couple of other times in recent memory. In Philadelphia, I knew a woman who stuck her tongue out at me if I greeted her in the hallway. If I didn't greet her, she told everyone that I was stuck up and rude. At the same time, I had a neighbor who decided that I was the worst parent in the universe. Every single afternoon at the bus stop, she had something to say. "Your daughter's clothes don't match." "My daughter said that Cortlen was bothering her on the bus." "I was volunteering at the school today and I saw your daughter running in the hallway."

Shortly after I moved to Florida, the first woman got a divorce and my former neighbor revealed that her husband was an alcoholic and that she was addicted to prescription painkillers.

As it turns out, it wasn't about me after all.

What I learned from the episodes in Philadelphia is that everyone is fighting a battle and sometimes you just get caught in the crossfire. In such situations, my first instinct is always to unleash my own set of arrows, but as experience has taught me, it rarely accomplishes anything beyond extending the sphere of bad feelings.

Because of all of this, I have been trying to look at the woman at the county office with compassion. The operative word here is "trying." Specifically, I've been wondering a lot lately what is so out of control in this woman's personal life that compels her overcompensate by ruling her tiny corner of the fiefdom with an iron fist.

Whatever it is, it must be really awful, because no one, I believe, likes being nasty for no reason. It's neither productive nor becoming. And it lacks, among other things, common sense.

39 comments

Patti said...

I totally agree....hate and anger usually stems from a place of hurt. I always feel sorry for people who treat others so terribly...you know inside they are hurting and are unhappy.

Catherine Dabels said...

You know what they say about common sense....right?

Niki said...

I aspire to be as wise and compassionate as you.

Anonymous said...

I've recently found your blog and spent 2 evenings reading each entry! THANK YOU for making me feel like a somewhat normal mom with crazy kids!

Let me guess, you're trying to get some kind of permit for your house? 5 Years ago we had the pleasure of building our home. Our "lady" liked to interpret the code book based on what she saw fit. She even told us she brought it home at night to study it....The last straw was when we bolted something down with 3" bolts. NOWHERE in the code book did anything describe the exact kind or type of 3" bolts to use, just 3" bolts....She wanted 3" stainless bolts used from a certain manufacturer.

We told her to shove it & my husband got on his cell with the state dept. of community affairs. Before they even picked up she magically approved everything!

If you are having problems, perhaps a call to your state DCA would help, or else maybe letting her know you will be making that call might persuade her to do what you'd like.....

Charlie Pulsipher said...

Very big of you. I would struggle being nice to someone who read from the manual. As a manager, I always got mad at my employees for even using the word "policy". I told them over and over that I do not want them to use it. It is just an excuse to not do something for the guest and did no one any good.
Funny Stuff I Write And Draw

Natalie said...

I know how you feel! When someone is being especially unruly to me I make up a story in my head about what has happened that has made them take it out on me. It's usually pretty horrible and hilarious and makes me feel better.

This was an especially useful tactic when I was in high school working retail and got stuck on returns. I don't know why people are so combative when doing a return. I don't care what the problem is, if it's within the return policy of the store I'll take it back.

May the Schwartz be with You

Mrs. Fun said...

I do believe some people are only happy if they are miserable. Nothing more to it. We all have that friend that constantly has drama because without it they wouldn't be happy.

kmcaffee said...

I think you're right. Thanks for a good reminder! I hope your stuff gets handled quickly!

The Mommy said...

I'll make two points: First, you can try killing her with kindness. That's something that I did A LOT when I worked in retail. We had "policies" but some people were ridiculous with the things they wanted (One woman used this logic: If one item is 25 percent off, then two items should be 50 percent off! Uh, OKaaay, then 4 items would be free? Exactly!)

And two, I think this is especially true in the blogosphere. I will never, ever understand the need to make very negative comments (I'm not talking about "disagreeing"). And then there's the fact that some folks dedicate ENTIRE BLOGS to bad-mouthing another blogger. Huh?!?! Crazy! They're free to do so, of course, but it makes me wonder how awful they are in real life!!

GooChick said...

In times like those, I try to remember the famous quote: 'Be kinder than necessary,for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.'

The Miller Five said...

You should be commended for your attitude. I don't know that I could be as gracious as you. Good luck with your new friend.

Mommymel said...

Beautifully said. You're totally right... when someone spits in your face, it's usually because they themselves are hurting and lashing out to hurt someone else in turn. Sorry that she's being a real butt though :)

Erin said...

What a great reminder! Thank you!

Michelle said...

I'm trying to shift my thinking about the "difficult" people in my life too, but as you know, it's not easy. Great post! Lurve your blog!

deilataylor said...

Oh, this does hit home in so many places, but so often in the workplace. I do believe that women bully other women. It is hard to see past it.

Lindsey said...

So true. Thanks for the reminder!

Another one I try to keep in mind is "treat your family as well as you would treat a stranger." I know for sure I wouldn't yell "Knock it off!" to a stranger, so I'mma try to stop doing it to my kids. :)

Rebecca said...

What a great post! I have a neighbor who could be that county worker.
After reading your post, I realize I need to approach her with more understanding.

Lainie said...

YES. Thank you for the perspective.

Katie H said...

Oh, how I needed this...I've been having issues with my in-laws, and always wonder why they inflict pain, just because they can. Thanks for giving me a different perspective.

Lisa, An American Mom said...

Sorry you are having to deal with this woman Jana. She sounds like she is making things sort of miserable for you but you clearly have the wisdom to know it's not really about you and she probably has some major problems in her life. Hang in there.

overwhelmed mom said...

I don't really know what these people get out treating people like this!

They must have been raised under a completely different set of values or something!

Polly Scott said...

This type of thing has happened to me several times - when I find out that they are going through something terrible. I think it's a good rule to thumb to do what you do and assume that everyone is going through something big. Some people just deal with it better than others.

Jennifer said...

Something my Daddy would tell me in situations like yours....."It was on fire long before you sat on it".

Connie said...

Beautifully said.

Mama Hancock said...

She needs to learn the quote... "You teach people how to treat you."

Megan said...

As my mom says, " Always be kinder than necessary. You never know the burden that someone is carrying." This principle is difficult to put into practice when dealing with someone like you describe, but probably all the more necessary:)

Beth said...

Well said!

Mal said...

Honestly, I think it's to compensate for the hatred she probably feels toward her job. A few months after I got married I went into the DMV (the hell of all state and city departments) and tried to get my name changed on my license. It was no problem at the Social Security Office, but the lady behind the counter at the DMV not only had small eyes and horrendously bright red lipstick but a lack of understanding for how things work outside of her little sphere of Rexburg, Idaho.

"This isn't a legal marriage certificate."
"Uhhh...yes, I'm pretty sure it is actually. I mean, we're married, and that piece of paper--the one with the State Seal of Massachusetts--says so."
"No. It's not. There needs to be a 'date after the marriage date' on it. It's not on here."

*My thoughts: ???????????????????????

After explaining to me what the date after the marriage date is, I explained to her that since Mass was both a state and a commonwealth, maybe it had different rules. Or maybe because it was just a different state it had different rules.

"No, all states have them. All of them. I know because I've seen them."

She's seen all of them? ALL? In REXBURG, IDAHO?!?!?!

Even calling Belmont, MA to help clear things up and getting the man on the phone to practically testify under oath that there was nothing else to give by way of marriage certificates didn't help. She wouldn't budge. I finally waited two years, moved to California, and got it done there.

It's sad when California's bureaucracy beats any other state.

Leanne said...

You're more generous than I, I was going to say something about smacking her. I bow down to your wise soul..

Jenner said...

It's a good way to think and something I try to always do. Take driving for example. Someone speeds past us and my hubby cusses them out. I reply, "Maybe they have an emergency." We can never truly know what's going on in another person's world. Although, I admit, I'm not always that altruistic. I have a pretty short fuse.

Nicki said...

You are so right. I try so hard not to judge others and if I find myself being judgmental, I will try really hard to keep my mouth shut or my fingers from typing. However, when others go off on me when I am going through a tough time, I have NO problems letting them know they suck!! I hope the lady works out her issues for her sake and for yours! You are awesome for trying so hard to understand and not launch the arrows that I may have launched by now!

Leah said...

Unfortunately, common sense is not so common anymore. Everyonethinks they ahve to follow every rule/policy to the letter, no matter how ambiguous it is.
Just kill her with kindness, or... maybe just give her a flesh wound with your arrows~!~

Elise said...

I agree...I have a saying hanging on my wall that says "Kindness= speak kind words, receive kind echos" and I believe being kind and patient with others does pay off in the long run (even though it's hard- and I am often at fault of not being kind/understanding enough). I've also found when people seem to be on a power trip- I just don't take "no" for an answer and say something like Well, that's unacceptable, so who do I need to talk to who can change this? Usually a WIN-WIN solution is available...GOOD LUCK!

Anonymous said...

Maybe, if it was possible, send the hubby in? I know it sounds stupid, but it seems like they don't jerk men around as much, especially when it is something to do with building or fixing stuff. I have dealt with a lot of state and county agencies around here, with about the same results as you seem to be having. Then I send my husband (or ex husband did this too) and it is done in like 20 minutes.

I understand that there are rules to be followed, and I understand people are busy, in jobs and at home, but it seems like if they just did their jobs as quickly as and competently as possible, that things would be done oh so much faster, and they could get on to the next thing.

One of my favorite things to say is "God forbid anyone use any common sense".

Ruth Ann said...

Remember the kid who took a casserole bowl to school for Show-and-Tell because it was a symbol of his religion? The Catholic had a rosary, the Jew had a menorah, and the mormon had a casserole bowl.
So take this lady some cookies or a mini loaf of bread and drop it off with a smile!

tulipdjc said...

Good for you!
I think some people feel the need to try and make everyone around them miserable just to prove how much power they have! Good on you for not playing the game!!! Those people usually get my sweeter than sugar voice, and as I am Canadian, a LOT of "I'm sorry"s!! Drives them crazy!!

Meredith said...

I am a loyal follower! My little loves have overlooked my shoulder on several occasions and because of the title of your blog, they are quite convinced that I check your blog every night as my "How-To Be the Meanest Mom Guide"! LOL! It's definitely fun to keep them on their toes. I don't believe that I have ever commented before, but I just wanted to say thanks for this post! I really needed it!

Cindy said...

Amen...hard to hold on to sometimes, though...

Simply Complex said...

So true. I don't get how people have no self control though. I mean, it's always easy to be mean, but it's not right. It's also always easy to spend someone else's money, but isn't it funny how priorities change when it's coming from your pocket?