My buddy Sam and I have this thing where we like to flip people’s attitudes from negative to positive in our attempts to usher society into the high vibe era. It’s become a game, really, and we enjoy sharing our success stories with each other. The tougher the nut, the more satisfying the crack. When we worked in the dress department at Nordstrom together and one of us had a difficult customer, we’d rub our hands together in anticipation, knowing the tough customer was totally screwed, about to be reduced to a puddle of vulnerability by our manipulative kindness. You see, people want to be seen, and validated, and told where the boundaries are. Sam and I inherently understand this, and use these truths to make the worst act their best. It’s fun for us.
It started one night when we were closing at work, a long, slow evening hour when the only traffic was people from other departments dropping off dresses customers had tried on in their fitting rooms. Excellent internal customer service dictated that if you, the salesperson, had curated the dresses from our racks for your customer, you put them back on the appropriate racks. If your customer brought them over to you, well, you could just throw them in our backroom on the aptly named “dump” bar, from which all items had to be cleared back into floor inventory each night. If you were a courteous professional, you used the honor system to inform where the clothes were returned toward the end of the night–racks or dump. Dumping clothes on another department in the last half hour before close was the ultimate dick move, because that department was either spotless or they were scrambling to finish. A half hour before close that night, a colleague strode over with a huge armload of dresses, shoved open the door to our back room and dumped ’em.
Sam and I stared at her. We had seen her bring her customer through our department hours earlier, carefully selecting a multitude of dresses to compliment the selected items from her own department. Oh hell no. Not cool. Excuse me, Sam began, but I’m going to have to ask you to put those dresses away, since I saw you pull them earlier. Nose in the air, our colleague replied, I don’t see why I should when no one else does. I should add there was a bit of a class issue transpiring because she was from one of the high-end departments, rich with high price points, whereas dresses was widely considered a step-child due to our reasonable price points and lack of inventory diversity. Stunned by the dearth of professionalism, Sam fell silent. I jumped in. See, if we don’t take responsibility, the whole internal customer service structure falls apart. We all have to be part of the solution, which is why I’m going to ask you to please put the items away, I said. Turning nasty, our colleague sneered, oh yeah, like you two always put everything you pull from other departments away.
I sensed our colleague’s edge was more than discomfort from being challenged by the dress slum girls. I find that in moments like these when defensive hostility rules, the other person might be on the very edge of flipping, so I push.
Actually, we do. We always put everything back where it belongs, and that includes many things from your department, I said. She stared at me, heels dug in. What’s this really about? I asked gently. Her eyes filled with tears and she burst. I feel so out of place in this store! I just moved here from out of state and I’m trying to learn how things are done here, because my store was totally different and I feel so alone, and I don’t know anyone! she cried. Sam and I drew in closer, and the three of us talked earnestly about how hard moving and change are. We listened. She was missing home, and I had coincidentally just moved from the same state she’d left. As the three of us talked, we discovered we shared things in common, like how much we all believed in helping each other succeed as colleagues. We walked away at the end of the night agreeing to model excellent internal customer service for the rest of the store, no matter how others acted, but not before the three of us cleared the dump bar together, and put every last dress away.
The first time I can remember flipping someone was at a Mariners game, when I was sixteen years old. My buddy Katie and I had been going to games together since elementary school, and had rediscovered our love for baseball our junior year of high school. We sat high up in the stands, running our highlight reel of inside jokes, funny voices, and impressions, all while keeping score and watching the game intently. A sixty-something year-old man sat a row ahead of us, and by his body language and the daggers he was shooting back at us over his shoulder, I sensed we were driving him nuts. But we were kids enjoying the National Pastime and I felt no need to stop. Around the fifth inning he turned around angrily, and through clenched teeth hissed, blah, blah, blah. You girls and your incessant chatter are ruining my good time and I wish you would just SHUT UP! Rant over, he turned his back on us.
Shocked by his outburst, Katie and I fell silent. Now our good time was ruined. By a grumpy old man. This would not stand. I gathered my courage and all the verbiage I’d learned in therapy, stepped over the seat backs into his row and plunked myself down next to him. Hi, my name is Kate, and that’s my friend Katie. We are huge Mariners fans, and we love coming to games together. What you called incessant chatter is our way of enjoying the game and our time together. I apologize if we’ve offended you, and I would like to ask that you allow us to have fun in our own way. The man watched my little speech with a look of consternation. Then his face softened. His voice softened as he said, yes. You girls have fun. I misunderstood, and I’m sorry. And for the rest of the game he turned to high-five us when a great play was made, a home run hit. We were fans, enjoying a game together.
Sam told me she, too, has been flipping people since she was a teenager, and I hope it’s something we’ll continue to do, together and apart as long as we live. I love her stories about customers screaming at her on the phone, who leave the call her new best friend, desperate to talk to her longer, absorb her positive energy through the line. A man raging a blue streak into the phone eventually paused to ask if she was still on the line, to which she calmly answered, yes, I didn’t want to interrupt because it’s important I hear everything you have to say. Stopped cold by her kindness in the face of his grossness, he fell silent. Eventually he said quietly, well, thank you. You’re the first person who has listened. By then end of the call she was the only person he trusted at her company, and he couldn’t have been more grateful for her help, he told her over and over.
At dinner for a friend’s birthday one night, the place was packed and clearly understaffed. We sat for fifteen minutes at our table without water (a matter of survival in Phoenix) or menus or acknowledgement. The third time the person I assumed was our waitress buzzed by I asked if she could bring water and menus when she had a second. Yeah, she snapped angrily, we’re kind of busy at the moment. Sigh. On the other end of the service provider-customer relationship for once, I understood I was going to need to flip her if our friend was going to enjoy her birthday dinner. When she arrived at the table with our items, I leaned toward her conspiratorially, saying, I didn’t mean to pressure you back there. I can see you guys are understaffed, and I’m just trying to make sure my friend has a great birthday dinner. I promise we’ll be patient and kind. I watched the fight go right out of her. She wanted to know whose birthday it was, and what dessert they were going to want, because that was going to be on the house, and what could she get going for us right now, and what else could she do? We hung out with her for several hours, and she kept finding time to come by and talk to us about clothes and music and food. We’d made a friend.
I watched as an irate man stormed into the dress department, berating everyone in his path until Sam stepped in and turned him into jello. He was in a hurry! He didn’t have time for this! Didn’t we understand how important his time was! Sam carefully and quietly began to ring his purchases, asking permission to take extra time to wrap them and festoon them with bows. As she tied off the silky silver ribbons with great care under his lowered eyes, he was suddenly at a loss for words and managed to choke out, thank you. They look beautiful. When she finished, he lingered, thanking her profusely for taking the time to make his gifts look special. Mhmm.
You see, people want to be seen. They want to be validated. They want permission to stop their bad behavior. When they are at their worst, sometimes they are closest to their best. You just have to show them the way. It’s not always possible, but often someone has marooned themselves on an island of anger, or bitterness, or unhappiness, and it’s our job to offer them a way back to humanity. We do it by observing their struggle and asking them to connect with their fellow human being, standing before them. We model what it looks like to be a person, and we don’t let their grossness touch the good and the worth within us. We do not allow their bad behavior to change us into something ugly, because then the whole world sucks. We remind them of the basic human need to connect with others, and we give them the opportunity to enter the high vibe era, one flip at a time.