Toxic Recipients

As the holiday season approaches, it seems the perfect time to rerun this blog post from 2019, regarding those people who, no matter what gift is given, are never quite pleased.

As we will soon be enduring the gift-giving whirl of the holiday season, it’s probably the perfect time to discuss the situation of Toxic Recipients.

Most of us have known one…and many of us, unfortunately, still do: the person who, no matter what gift is given, is never quite pleased. Who is not only displeased, but vocal about her or his displeasure. (The dress is an unflattering style; the shirt is the wrong color. The membership to the local museum is a waste of money—after all, no one goes to the museum more than one time yearly. Movie tickets? The movies these days are all trash. There’s nothing worth seeing. Ditto the restaurant gift card; don’t you know how much that place has gone downhill?)

As to why these individuals behave this way, well, that is a topic for another blog post.  But in an attempt to please a TR, friends and family (having exhausted all the usual avenues for gift ideas), often turn to creativity, sure that something handcrafted, homemade, will be given the respect due the work put into it, if not the gift itself. Homemade bath bombs and salt scrubs, hand-knitted sweaters, carefully-constructed photo journals, “just add water” recipe jars, handcrafted suncatchers, redeem-at-will coupons for yard work, home repairs, chauffeuring, babysitting…  But all are rejected with a roll of the eyes and a heavy sigh, or a scathing comment about a how a flagrant misuse of their funds must have resulted in a limited budget for gifts this year.

A gift card to a favorite store? Couldn’t  be bothered to shop, could you? Cash? Giving money is the biggest cop-out ever! Fresh flowers? What a waste—the damned things don’t last any time at all; they just wilt. A gift made to a charity in one’s name? Don’t you realize that NOW that self-same charitable organization will be dunning the honoree for donations at every possible turn? A planter? Who has time to take care of plants? A spa gift card? One has to tip the staff at those places, you know!

I recall a story once told me by a coworker: Her family was sure they had finally hit upon the absolutely perfect gift for their Toxic Recipient Matriarch. They contacted an astronomical society and had a star named for her. Now there was a present that couldn’t be topped! It was, in fact, sky-high.

The Matriarch’s reaction to this gift was, as they recounted afterward, a true Mastercard moment: utterly priceless. Upon opening the certificate, she read it through twice—the first time uncomprehending, the second time, in patent disbelief. Then she pinioned her hapless family with a gimlet stare and, tossing the certificate toward the discarded wrapping paper, demanded, “Just what the hell am I supposed to do with this?!”

So….  My humble suggestion to all of those trapped in the hellish round of attempting to please a Toxic Recipient on every birthday, anniversary, holiday, or whatever, is just this: Stop. Stop trying. Stop giving. And, above all, stop caring.

Give a gift with the store receipt prominently displayed, and when the TR comments upon the tackiness of this behavior, merely shrug and say, “Well, we knew you’d hate it, since you always hate everything we give you, so we were just making it easy for you to return it.”  Or show up empty handed, and mention casually and with total unconcern that your financial circumstances right now limit gift giving to small children only. Or, when the poisonous remarks about your gift begin to be spouted, throw up your hands and recount a laundry list of past gift failures. “Well, let’s see. You didn’t like the pink blouse/blue shirt. You used the restaurant gift certificate, and then gave us a blow-by-blow description of how poor the food and service were. You never even used the zoo membership. You didn’t cash in on our “a full day of yard work” coupon. You said the tool set was cheap. You never got a pedicure at the spa. You told us the year of gym membership was just our way of saying you were fat. So it was this,” (here making a dramatic gesture toward the most recently-rejected gift), “or purchasing your funeral plot. Of the two, we thought this was better.”

Of course, this last statement is likely to result in one’s being cut out of the will, or thrown out of the house, or banished from the family, or treated to an Amish-style shunning, or some other such volatile gesture of utter disdain.

Which, come to think of it, might not be so bad a result after all.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like “Apples of Gold”, which may be found in the Archives from November 20, 2019.

We Look Forward to Your Apology

It’s doubtful that I will do any further business with the “Green Fruit Bird” company, and I’ve warned everyone I know about the treatment I received.

Not long ago I sent an order to a company with which I’ve done business for several years. (I won’t actually name the company, but perhaps I can just say that its name is a fruit, a bird, and the population name of those who live in New Zealand.) I had a large credit due me owing to a previous miscommunication.  So it was with some apprehension that I entered my current order.  The credit was applied without a hitch, though. Pleased, I hit the checkout button.

Having the credit available meant that I decided to purchase double my usual order, but I didn’t anticipate any problems; in years past, I’d also sent in a double order.  I followed the shipment and tracking e-mails casually, simply glancing at the subject line and sliding them into a saved mail file.

Unfortunately, at no point in either the checkout process nor in the order acknowledgement e-mail was it mentioned that my order was being shipped in separate packages. Later, more closely examining the tracking numbers, I would find that, although each tracking number began with the same three digits, there were, in fact, two separate trackers. For one of those, I’d received nothing except the “It’s been shipped” e-mail. That notice had been sent seven days after the initial package shipped. There were no further updates. But I would learn those facts much later.

At any rate, I received my order, and was dismayed to find only half of what I’d paid for. I immediately sent a quick e-mail stating vital stats such as the order number and total price, noting the credit that had been applied, and explaining that I had received only half of my order. I requested that I receive the rest “ASAP, please”.  (Yes, I really did say “please”.)

In reply, I received a long-winded explanation, stating all the reasons for which my consignment had, unknown to me and never mentioned in the checkout process, been sent via two shipments. The e-mail concluded with the words, “We look forward to your apology.”

Ouch.

I replied, politely thanking them for their explanation, but remarking that, having worked 47 years under that precept that “The customer is always right”, they would not be receiving any apology from me for a straightforward and polite inquiry and request!

Later I was notified that my ticket was being escalated to a manager. Well, I hadn’t expected that, but decided it was a good thing; the individual who had sent the snotty response would, perhaps, be chided.

No such luck.

Instead, the manager replied with a long harangue, castigating me for my remarks, telling me that “The customer is always right” might go over at a pet store (A pet store? I wasn’t ordering a clownfish!), but not with regard to their company, nor any other well-run company these days. That precept might, I was informed, damage employee morale. The manager helpfully included links to articles written on that very topic, published from such sites of sterling journalism such as Huffington Post.

Wow.

Replying mildly, I said only that my remarks had been in response to being asked to apologize for my inquiry. A truly professional reply from their employee(s), I added, might have been to simply state, “Thank you for your inquiry. If you will look closely at your e-mail tracking information, you will see that your shipment was split; there are two shipments. Possibly the similarity of the tracking numbers confused you. We hope this clears up any question. We appreciate your business.”

Of course, I received no further response to my suggestion. Probably just as well, for I can’t imagine what such a reply might have said!

The whole exchange rankled, though, and was also bewildering. As I once explained in the blog post, “Customer Service…or Not”, the insolence which I endured clearly illustrates a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.

I thought it unlikely that the employees making these responses had been introduced to the true meaning of the concept that “The customer is always right”: that it denotes only that customers are to be treated respectfully and with appreciation. That even the most irritable and contrary of customers serves to keep a business afloat. That learning to maintain one’s temper is an obligatory aspect of customer service.

Seventeen days after this exchange of acrimonious e-mails, and five full weeks after my original order, I finally received my second shipment (for which there had been not a single further tracking e-mail).

Of course, it’s doubtful that I will do any further business with the Green Fruit Bird company.  And while I had lauded them in the past, I’ve now warned many people, customers or potential customers, about the treatment I received.

I’m truly tempted to contact GFB one last time, though, providing links to a pair of interesting articles published by a slightly more respectable mainstay of high-standard journalism, Forbes. These articles explain the genuine meaning of “The customer is always right” in a manner that should be understandable even to those employees possessing the most fragile of egos.

But I doubt that I could look forward to their apology.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2018/09/24/a-global-view-of-the-customer-is-always-right/#51993ba8236f

https://www.forbes.com/sites/micahsolomon/2013/12/27/is-the-customer-always-right/#72a991d770f1

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Customer Service…Or Not”, from March 10, 2018. Check for it in the Archives.

The Best Revenge (Part 2)

§ At one point or another, we all endure rough patches (or worse) in our lives. No one comes out unscathed. §

Not long after I bought my little condo, I experienced a series of water-themed disasters. First, my dishwasher began pumping water onto the kitchen floor one Saturday afternoon. I frantically called a repairman who quickly located a small piece of piping that had separated, and fixed it easily. Only a few weeks later, though, as I was both running the dishwasher and doing laundry, I heard the toilet in the half-bath begin making disturbing “burps”. It sounded as though a giant with a bad case of indigestion was lodged inside the pipes! A few minutes later, both washing machine and dishwasher began to drain right onto my already-abused kitchen floor.

After another plumber had cleared out the latest problem, I thought all would be well—until the Saturday that I came downstairs from my morning shower to find my unfortunate kitchen flooded once more.

After locating a plumber who actually knew what he was doing to diagnose and clear the real problem, I found myself sitting with my coworkers the following Monday, bemoaning the mess and expense I’d incurred. Some of the women responded with tales of their own home disasters, many of them far worse than mine, and we commiserated. But the woman sitting across from me looked up from her phone long enough to say in a patronizing tone, “Yeah, well, welcome to homeownership.”

I didn’t reply to her snippy remark, but it stung, especially because a relative had made almost precisely the same reply to my tale of woe. I thought at that time, just as I’d thought in response to Ms. Patronizing’s remark, that the comment was not just unsympathetic; it was rude.

Oddly enough, though, when I began to pay more attention to similar situations, I found that uncaring and insensitive remarks were rife whenever a person dared to discuss an unfortunate circumstance in her or his life. And, surprisingly, these snarky statements were most often made by some individual who had endured a comparable problem.

I found this bewildering. Surely, I thought, surely having been in the same position would make one sympathetic to the plight of anyone who was undergoing a similar difficulty. But that didn’t seem to be the case. It was as if many of those who’d undergone a challenging situation seemed to feel that this entitled them to belittle the experience of anyone else who endured the something similiar.  They apparently felt the need to take the distressed individual down a peg.

Unkind remarks and a demonstrable lack of empathy were, I realized, a roundabout way of announcing, “Hey, I’ve had bad times, too. Tough shit. Deal with it. And don’t expect any sympathy from me.”

In one way, I suppose, this makes sense: all of us, at one point or another, endure rough patches (or worse) in our lives. No one comes out unscathed. But while a few individuals will always whine endlessly over their unfortunate events, expecting everyone within range to proffer them tea and sympathy, the majority of us, describing our problems, are just looking for a listening ear, a nod of understanding; perhaps even advice. To be responded to instead with curt, snide comments is distressing. And to be the person making those comments is simply unnecessary–cruel and unnecessary. There is just no need to compound the unhappiness of someone already in distress.

But, in closing, let me return to the memory of those early mornings with my coworkers, wallowing in coffee and gossip before the day’s labors began. A few months after my series of minor household disasters, Ms. Patronizing joined us before work one morning, and, plopping down into her chair, announced that her bathroom shower was unusable. Her adolescent daughter had been dancing in the shower the night before; while flinging her arms about wildly, she’d struck the tiled wall, only to have it crumble and collapse around her. A small, unnoticed leak from the pipe behind the wall had slowly but surely destroyed the integrity of the structure, and the results were horrendous. Shoulders hunched, head in one hand, my coworker moaned that she was looking at major repairs to her bathroom.

I remembered her snide comment in response to my own series of water-related disasters, and considered for just a moment how utterly delicious it might be to fling her words back at her head. But then I took a breath and said gently, “That really just plain sucks. I wouldn’t wish that kind of trouble on anyone. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

Sometimes the very best revenge is simply to do the right thing.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge”
in the Archives from February 5, 2018, or “My Nosy Encounter”, May 13, 2020

Reading the Comments

§   Despite knowing that reading the comments probably isn’t wise, I still get sucked into doing it. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination.   §

I’ve been reading the comments at the end of news stories again.

This is never a good idea. Never, ever. Not under any circumstances.

Despite knowing this fact, I still get sucked into doing it occasionally. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination as I scroll through viciousness, ignorance, name-calling, uncivility, brutality and bullying. I read words smacking of Nazism and Fascism, and retch to see politics dragged into even the most innocuous stories. (A kitten rescued from a drainpipe? Someone will sling “libs” and “cons” into the comments, or blame Presidents present and past.) And despite the fact that I am aware that much of this trolling is done by paid performers–more on that in a moment–it shocks and terrifies me.

[As an addendum to that “paid trolls” remark: A few years and one President back, I read the comments at the end of a review for one of the never-ending Star Wars series of movies. A commenter who had apparently not liked the movie ended his remarks with a bitter, “Thanks, Obama”. My reaction was, at first, “Huh?! Say what? Excuse me?!” Then I realized that the commenter probably hadn’t finished his weekly quota of anti-President Obama remarks and was in danger of not getting paid. I really do wonder, sometimes, if the money is good enough that I should look into becoming a paid troll.]

Trolls aside, though, the level of sheer, vile nastiness in the news comments inevitably leaves me gasping in disbelief. Then I find I must give myself a stern talking-to regarding my own naivete. I realize that my generation, as well as my middle-class upbringing, has led me to hold certain unrealistic expectations regarding manners and civility. As a child, I was taught to address adults as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. (Ms. was not yet a glimmer on a feminist horizon), or as Sir or Ma’am. I might despise the individual whom I was addressing with a depth of coldness unknown even to Dante’s hell, but I had to be polite. As I grew to adulthood, courteous behavior extended to those with whom I had political disagreements. I might debate with them, ignore them, avoid them, or, in the depth of extremity, roll my eyes and walk away—but, overall, I had to be polite. Conservative or Liberal, Democrat and Republican, were points of view, nothing more; they did not define someone as a person any more than did being Roman Catholic or Buddhist.

My choice was usually, whenever possible, to avoid those with whom I had no common ground. When contact was unavoidable, or when faced with a comment so utterly outrageous that I found myself nearly choking, I preferred to stand my ground by saying calmly, “I do not agree” and walking away. If pressed further, I would firmly refuse to discuss the matter, falling back on worn but useful phrases: “This is neither the time nor the place”; “We must agree to disagree”; or the straightforward truth: “My mind is made up on this matter, and I refuse to debate it with you.” Once I was even heard to say, “I simply don’t like you well enough to continue this discussion.” That was as near to being rude as I, brought up to be civil, allowed myself.

But the anonymity of the internet has erased the requirement for civility, and that viciousness has extended into real-time, everyday interactions. Perhaps the number of road rage incidents were the first breach in the bulwark of civility; now the madness extends to every moment of life. Hearing details of parking lot quarrels that end in fatal shootings evinces little more than a sigh from the news audience, while spiteful, malicious political commercials are an accepted part of the barrage leading up to elections.

I sometimes contemplate a terrifying idea: What might happen if it was possible for the words written by commenters at the end of news stories to cause physical harm? There would be a bloodbath each newsday! As I envision that possibility, I am forced to wonder if it might not prove be a profound solution to the problem of uncivility in today’s society. After all, if Darwinian theory is to be believed, races evolve when those best suited to survive reproduce. And so I picture those of us who choose civility standing back, hands covering our eyes and faces turned aside from the horrifying carnage, as all the mannerless, bullying, cruel individuals destroy one another via their brutal comments and remarks. Then perhaps we survivors—broken-hearted but courteously and with compassion–could respectfully bury the dead, pick up the pieces, and establish rational debate as a measure of civil society once more.

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.

 

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.