Apples of Gold

§   As the Thanksgiving holiday is fast approaching, I decided to re-run this essay, (originally posted on January 6, 2018), about the importance of thanking those who give to us.   §

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”   Proverbs 25:11  KJV

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided plenty of food and funds for decorations; bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—merely a cheap card, without even a personal message–just quickly signed and stuck to a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home-baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome on her lips, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. Acting out of appreciation for several helpful things he’d done, she’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911, but stopped and got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived.  He then provided the officer with a description of the accident, absolving my daughter of blame.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.

 

The Power of an Insincere Thank You

Justifying bad behavior is being wrong twice.

A while ago I was shopping at Super Big Evil Mart, and found myself enamored of a pretty knit top which I didn’t need, couldn’t afford, and knew I shouldn’t buy. So of course, seeing that there was only one in my size, I flung it into my cart and marched up to the checkout with it.

The line was long since (as usual) there were only perhaps three checkout lanes open of the twenty or so available. So I was dismayed when the clerk started to ring up my purchases and found the top had no price tag. Obviously irritated, she switched her lane light to strobe, hoping to attract a supervisor who could verify the price. Meanwhile, I turned to the lady in line behind me, and said abjectly, “I’m really sorry to hold you up.” The woman responded with an expressive lift of the eyebrows and quirk of her head which seemed the equivalent of a shrug–whereupon the teenage clerk, not quite sotto voce, remarked snippily, “Well, if you’d checked to see if the item had a price tag, you wouldn’t be holding everyone up!”

Expressive Eyebrow lady raised her brows even further, if that were possible. I’m certain my own eyebrows were riding at high tide, also. But I reined in my temper and just looked coolly at the young clerk, replying in saccharine tones, “Oh, thank you so much! There is nothing I appreciate more than being given life lessons by someone at least 40 years younger than I am!”

When my purchases had finally been rung up by the now-silent clerk, I smiled sweetly at her and said in a voice dripping sugar, “I’ll be sure to let your supervisor know all about your helpful advice! Thank you again!”

This wasn’t the first time I’d routed a clerk at the Super Big Evil Mart using the extraordinary power of an insincere thank you. A few years earlier, I’d strolled into the garden section in the very early spring. The main shelves were already full, but I didn’t see what I wanted there, and so wandered toward an opening between some pieces of clear vinyl sheeting hung from the ceiling. In a hazy sort of way, I thought they were hung there to keep chilly air of the still-raw weather from seeping into the main part of the store; there were certainly no signs or cones indicating that the section wasn’t yet open. But a middle-aged clerk, who certainly should have known better, charged down upon me, snarling loudly and angrily, “Hey, YOU! GET AWAY! That whole area’s still closed!” I pulled up short as commanded, and, placing a hand over my heart, replied, “Oh, I’m SO sorry! I didn’t realize that! And thank you for letting me know SO courteously! Thank you for saying, ‘Please be careful’. Thank you for saying ‘Ma’am’. Thank you for speaking to a customer with SUCH courtesy! ”

If looks were a box of matches, I’d have burst into flames on the spot. But there is simply very little response even the most obnoxious person can make to being thanked, however insincerely.

There are some who try, of course. Spluttering or muttering, they attempt to defend their execrable behavior. My standard response to such equivocation is to stare them down with X-ray eyes and snap out a snarky comment of my own: “Justifying bad behavior is being wrong twice!” Occasionally, too, the chided individual will simply mouth off an insult (i.e., “Bitch!”). This, of course, requires a return to childish rhetoric: while still evading an exchange volley of insults, I just grin and sing out, “Hey, takes one to know one!”

I’ve utilized the astounding force of an insincere thank-you when given unasked-for advice or when, as described above, I’ve been victimized by those in a service capacity; I’ve even used it, very carefully and in a modulated tone, when faced with a situation in which a stranger seemed murderously angry. I was known to exercise the gesture back when I was still employed, although in those situations, also, I dialed down the saccharine tones and gestures quite a bit. Insincere thanks have seen me through many a moment in which speaking my mind or responding with my true feelings could have produced awful results.

In a world of rising dissension, in which common courtesy has become so uncommon as to be notable, there is enormous strength in the words “thank you”, whether meant sincerely or otherwise. But for shutting down outright rudeness, there’s nothing quite like the power of an insincere thank you.

Judge Not…Sort of

At a summer gathering I attended some years ago, I overheard a young guest berating another for having worn pantyhose with her open-toed shoes.  Totally without shame, I sidled over and eavesdropped while the condescending young person explained that this was a complete fashion faux pas; no one wore pantyhose anymore, and certainly not with open-toed shoes.

It horrifies me to see anyone publicly belittled this way, so, despite the fact that I’m rarely assertive, I decided discourtesy was justified. I rudely interrupted the Fashion Policewoman to compliment her victim’s shoes, which were not the ubiquitous flip-flops but retro heeled sandals.  The girl under fire looked grateful for the change of subject and commented that both the shoes and her cute sundress had come from a vintage shop, and were classic 70s style.  She did not even attempt to explain the pantyhose, but she didn’t need to do so; it took very little effort to see a fresh surgical scar down one calf, partially-disguised by the sheer material.  At that point I glared at the self-righteous critic and said bluntly, “I think the pantyhose were a great idea.  I’m giving away my age by saying this, but that’s exactly how we wore open-toed shoes in the 70s.  Pantyhose without a reinforced toe were a new fashion then, designed just to be worn with shoes like yours.” I smiled at both young women and melted back into the crowd.  But what I really longed to do was grab the sanctimonious little faultfinder by her over-styled hair and yank her right along with me, possibly bitch-slapping her a few times as I did so.

I experience pretty much the same reaction when reading stories about the various shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church members. Administering a few head slaps and hair yanks to those people, perhaps accompanied by a kick or two, would be eminently satisfying, as would being able to reach into the computer to dispense a few good wallops to some of those posting cruel comments at the end of news stories.

I admit it: I am completely judgmental about judgmental people. I am unforgiving about condemnatory, negative, disapproving, disparaging and pejorative commentary, especially that made by individuals who don’t have all the facts at their disposal.  It infuriates me.

No matter how well-intentioned, publically criticizing another person in a social situation is an unnecessary cruelty—and, yes, that includes all the pejorative commentary heaped upon celebrities. It is hard enough, I imagine, to live one’s life under a microscope, without having the very hand adjusting the lens also writing vicious rhetoric for public consumption (fully half of it untrue or inaccurate). Let their agents tell them that there is no such thing as bad publicity; I’m not swallowing it.  Having hurtful and scathing things said about one in public forums is rude and miserable.

But (and here is my shameful admission) the simple truth is that I am so intolerant of judgmental behavior, not just because I’ve been the victim of it numerous times in my life, but because I have also practiced it.  It’s true: The bad behavior of others that we hate most is conduct we dislike in our own selves.  I am absolutely as guilty as anyone of sitting in public making casually cruel comments about various public figures, based solely on my own supposition of their probable characters.  Doing this—and I’ve done it a lot–is essentially slander.  And the fact that my victims are not, will never be, present to hear my comments is not the point.  It’s just bad behavior.  And to justify that bad behavior would be to be wrong twice.

There is a place, a proper place and time, for constructive criticism, which should be given gently and with consideration. A garden party, surrounded by other guests, is not such a place.  I’ve often wondered if the Fashion Policewoman took heed of my interruption and learned something from it.  Sadly, I doubt so.

Customer Service…Or Not

Some time ago, I travelled into the city to a government building for what I believed to be a simple transaction, taking some paperwork to obtain a license. I’d already done all the initial preparation on-line, navigating my way through a frustrating website, trying to be sure I’d dotted every i and crossed every t.  I’d even fulfilled the requirement for fingerprinting and a background check which seemed rather ridiculous, since as a former government employee, I’d been fingerprinted and checked twice before; my information had to be on file somewhere.  But, so be it. I did it all once again.

Before starting out, I carefully divested myself of my usual weaponry (pocket knife, pepper spray, nail file, “keycat”, even my miniature flashlight that I knew from bitter experience would be confiscated due to its batteries). Having dealt with streets under construction and city center traffic and non-existent parking, after arriving downtown, I walked several blocks to finally arrive at my destination. I went through the charade of security, submitting my purse for scanning – twice — and then being asked to remove what they thought were tweezers (my reading glasses.  Deadly weapons, those).  After being questioned as to why I had so many sets of keys – uh, let’s see, my house, my daughter’s house, my father’s house, the home of one friend and the apartment of another — I was finally allowed into the building.  Thus it was that, already in a state of irritation, I wandered about looking desperately for a directory before finally, quite by accident, stumbling upon an information desk that was, of course, nowhere near the security entrance.

I waited patiently for the woman at the information desk to complete a phone call, and then asked for directions to the department I needed. I arrived there a few minutes later. Stepping inside, I waited for the desk clerk to look up and say something basic, such as, “May I help you?”  When not a word was forthcoming, I simply smiled, said hi, and began to explain my errand.

Checkmate. “They shouldn’t have sent you in here.  That unit is closed on Tuesdays,” she said.

I’m sure my face was a picture of consternation. “But…but it didn’t say that anywhere on the website,” I stuttered, dismayed.  She shrugged.  “They’re closed on Tuesdays.”

I shook my head and picked up my paperwork to leave and sighed,  “They really need to put that on the website.  They really do.”  But before I could even turn to leave, the clerk leaned forward belligerently and snapped at me, “Well, you can just march right down the hall there and tell them that!.”

I was flabbergasted. I’m sure I stood there staring at her for a full thirty seconds before I said quietly, “I’m quite sure my opinion wouldn’t matter to them any more than it does to you, ma’am.”  I turned and walked out the door.

Now, no doubt that young woman was weary of dealing every Tuesday with customers made unhappy by a situation beyond her control, a problem created solely due a failure of the IT department to properly update a website. But her insolence clearly illustrated a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.  The customer, once touted as “always right” is now never right and deserves not even a modicum of courtesy; the customer is merely an irritation to be swatted aside like an errant housefly.

In a government career that spanned 37 years, I spent much of my time dealing with complaints and trying to assist welfare recipients. (I even learned to call them clients, although in my viewpoint a client was someone who was paying for a service, not receiving payments and services for free.)  During those years, I was the target of many a customer’s frustration as they tried to navigate an unwieldly system with contradictory rules and overworked caseworkers. I dealt with men who mouthed obscenities and women who broke down in tears.  I was called filthy names and threatened.  I was shouted at and endured racist remarks.  Yet never once was I as rude to a those members of the public as that receptionist was to me.

There is simply no excuse for the mistreatment of customers by those entrusted with work on their behalf. Until and unless their own behavior makes it impossible to do so, one deals courteously with consumers who have just come smack up against a wall not of their own creation.

Had that receptionist sighed and said, “I know, I get that all the time, and I keep telling them, but no one will listen to me,” all my sympathies would have shifted on her behalf. I would have commiserated, understanding what she was up against.

Instead, when I returned a few days later, I asked for her name, and her supervisor’s name—both of which, shockingly,  she refused to provide me. Still, I went over her head and attempted the useless process of reporting the problems I’d encountered with the rude young woman.

That no one even bothered to respond to my report, I’ve thought many times since, just made the situation even sadder, since the effort to restore some measure of civility and courtesy to everyday interactions needs to begin somewhere. But it seems that, short of a viral video showing someone being dragged brutally down an aisle, no one truly even cares.

A Tale of Two Funerals

Like so many people, I often bemoan the lack of courtesy and etiquette in modern society, but never so much as during the past year, when I attended two funerals, months apart, and encountered vastly different experiences.

On the first occasion, I did not even know the woman who had passed when I attended her funeral calling. I was making the nod to kindness, in that she was the daughter of a distant acquaintance, and that she had died unexpectedly and far too young. I had already sent a sympathy card, but I felt it would be appropriate to offer my condolences in person, sign the guestbook, make the requisite and banal remarks, and take my leave.

It didn’t turn out precisely as I’d planned.

I arrived at the calling, and, not seeing my acquaintance, signed the guestbook and walked up to the coffin to murmur a prayer for those left behind, grieving. An inherently shy person, I am never at ease in a roomful of strangers, so I looked about, hoping to spot someone else whom I knew even slightly.  Having failed at that, I seated myself.  A few people in the room glanced at me, but no one spoke.  After a quarter-hour or so, I thought I might check the refreshment room and the chapel; perhaps my acquaintance was taking a break from the stress of the calling.  Still failing to locate her, though, I returned to the calling room;  again, a few of the family members and friends present glanced at me, but no one spoke or even smiled.  I had just nerved myself to ask one of these aloof strangers if my acquaintance was present when she finally arrived.  I waited patiently to one side while she talked with family members, and then, when she finally acknowledged me, I spoke to her briefly, extending my sympathy.  Although she thanked me for my condolences, she didn’t introduce me to any of the family members standing with her.  I found that odd, but  attributed it to her stress and grief.  Having nothing more to offer, I left, feeling as though the whole thing had been hardly worth my effort.

The second funeral I attended was so different that I felt I’d stepped off the Transporter. Again, this was the funeral of someone I barely knew—the mother of my daughter’s old friend.  I’d met this lady a few times, years earlier, when the girls were teenagers; her passing, too, was unexpected and sudden.

I was not looking forward to a repeat performance of the first funeral, but consoled myself with the thought that my daughter would be present at this calling, so I wouldn’t be quite alone.  This time, though, arriving at the funeral calling in the same manner, a stranger to almost everyone present, I was greeted.  A young woman, a friend of the family, stepped forward to acknowledge me, thanked me for coming, shook my hand, and asked me how I knew the deceased.  When I explained my tenuous relationship, she assured me that, although my daughter’s friend had not arrived yet, she would be so glad that I had come to pay my respects to her mother.  I was directed to the guestbook and to the photo gallery for the deceased, shown where I might get a cup of coffee; in short, I was given every courtesy, set at my ease in a roomful of strangers, and assured that my effort to be present at this sad affair was appreciated.

People sometimes bemoan the lack of decorum at modern funerals – the casual clothing, the inattention as individuals focus on their phones. And while those are very valid criticisms, they are but a few facets in the overall loss of courtesy, charm and kindness that seems to infest all society, but is never more noticeable than when people are cloaked in anguish and grief.

Charm, I once read, true charm, is the ability to set someone at ease by assuring them that they are wanted, and liked. Courtesy to a stranger is much the same thing: it is to demonstrate to that person that they are welcomed; that their presence is appreciated.

We should always extend courtesy to the stranger in our midst, for we never know when an angel might be walking among us. I hardly count myself an angel, but the young woman, unknown to me, but who made every effort to set me at my ease in a stressful situation, was most certainly one.

Apples of Gold

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Proverbs 25:11

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided funds for food and decorations, bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—just a cheap card, quickly written, stuck on a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. She’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor out of appreciation for several things he’d done.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911 but stopped, got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived, and then provided the officer with a description of the accident.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.