I have discovered that there can be a lot of truth in some cliches. One I hear a lot is "You get what you give," which seems to be a simplistic way of defining what we casually call karma.
On a discussion forum which I used to frequent, posters often lamented the rudeness of most people they encountered. Cashiers at Wal-Mart who have a surly demeanor, for example. Salespeople at Macy's who are more interested in having a conversation than helping customers. Starbucks baristas who screw up orders and roll their eyes when asked to correct their mistakes. Reading this forum would work me into a state of despair so severe only pounds of chocolate and several hours of gazing at Robert Pattinson pictures could ease my pain.
Though it took me an embarrassingly long time to notice it, I eventually realized that the world was not in such a severe state of rudeness. Several stories on the forum were exaggerated (or outright made up), but even in the case of stories that were true, most had something in common: the poster was looking for reasons to be offended and/or the poster never spoke up to help the situation. I began saying to myself (shouting at the computer screen): "Why didn't you just ASK THE CASHIER TO CHECK THE PRICE?" or "Was there a reason you couldn't clear your throat and ask for help?" If people would speak up in a positive way instead of passive-aggressively fuming about the way others can't read minds, the results would be very different.
I decided to test my theory. Wal-Mart was the obvious choice; in many parts of the internet, the brand is synonymous with bad service and trashy customers. (The fact that most of us are also customers does not stop us from ridiculing them.) When trapped in a line in one of the two open registers (out of 28), I would make brief eye contact and smile at people. I helped translate for customers who couldn't speak English. (I don't speak any other languages well, but just listening patiently usually helps.) I chatted with the cashiers and made sure to thank them. I even gave a recipe to a cashier whose husband had just been diagnosed with diabetes. Wal-Mart is now a very pleasant place for me.
Next stop: fast food. After a late concert I went through the drive-thru at Jack in the Box. There were two people working inside and the line was really backed up. I could tell by the tone of the person who took my order over speaker that they were very harried and stressed out. I got up to the window and the cashier was very brusque with me. Not rude, but short. As I paid, I noticed that she did not make eye contact with me at all. I decided to try an overture.
"Busy night?" I asked.
"Terrible," she sighed. "Only two working and we get slammed on a Tuesday night."
"Well, I appreciate you being here," I said as she handed me my drink. "Saves me from cooking this late." She looked at me then and I saw a little smile. I asked for some buttermilk dressing and she must have given me 15 packets. I thanked her.
"You have a wonderful night, Ma'am," she said. I wondered how many people had driven through without a word to her. I also wondered how many grumbled and muttered to themselves about her rudeness or her hostile demeanor without making any effort to improve the situation.
I'm not trying to hold myself up as some paragon or anything. I'm a scientific person; when I have a theory, I test it. My theory is that people who are nice get treated more nicely than those who sit back and wait for other people to control the interaction. So far, I've been proved right most of the time. There are jerks out there, of course, but I think they are in the minority.
At least in real life.
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