Monday, June 16, 2008

Habitual apologies for unavoidable problems

At the post office today, I was the second person in a two-person line (it's a small town and a small post office). The older-but-not-elderly lady ahead of me was one of those people who clearly has trouble figuring out how things work. She tried valiantly to buy some stamps, but the task was beyond her. She couldn't make herself understood, and she couldn't understand the clerk. Having given it her best shot solo, she dug in her purse and fished out a ruled sheet of paper upon which someone had scrawled in faint pencil what she had been sent to get.

The clerk, bless her, patiently deciphered the message as well as she could (from the effort involved, I don't think the letter writer was a whiz at communications either), and then got a booklet of 20 stamps for her. The clerk then told the customer that it would be 'eight-forty'. This had no visible effect on the customer. So the clerk tried saying 'eight dollars and forty cents'. That worked. I guess abbreviated money talk wasn't in the lady's repertoire. But 'dollars' and 'cents' meant something.

The customer dug in her purse and came out with a twenty dollar bill, which she shoved across, asking, "Is that enough?"

The clerk assured her it was, and also made sure she didn't leave without her change.

Throughout the rather lengthy transaction, the clerk was polite and patient without being patronizing. I would like to note that we have some terrific people working at our post office. They have their ups and downs like the rest of us, but mostly they're terrific.

During the proceedings, every time the customer saw me out of the corner of her eye, she turned to me, mumbling her apologies and telling me she was hurrying. Each time, I assured her I wasn't in any hurry and there was nothing to worry about; that I was fine, that she was fine. But then she would catch me out of the corner of her eye a little later, and turn to me - and even though I wasn't fidgeting, and was smiling, and was perfectly content to wait, she'd apologize all over again. She wasn't skittish or cowering, like some people who apologize a lot, although she was something close to skittish or cowering. She didn't look like an unhappy person overall, but she was unhappy and worried about making me wait.

I tried to move directly behind her so she couldn't see me, but that made it worse, because then she got nervous about me and kept twisting around to see where I was. So I moved back where she could see me and endured her apologies.

I got the feeling that it has become part of her existence to habitually apologize for taking so long; that it has become part of her very being.

I don't like to think how she got that way.

Folks, could we agree that some people need longer than others to figure things out?

Could we agree that it's crazy to ask a person to hurry if he or she can't?

Could we agree that it's probably cruel into the bargain?

As she left she apologized to me again as she was going past, and I reached out and touched her arm and said something along the lines of "It's OK. You didn't cause me any trouble at all." But I'm not sure it registered.

I couldn't help but feel that she has been told too often that she's being bothersome, and so that's what she thinks she is, even when the evidence is to the contrary.

This is not good.

1 comment:

Barb, sfo said...

That's really sad.
You may have been the first person in a long time who had the grace not to allow yourself to feel & appear inconvenienced by that woman. It's really a shame that she lives in such circumstances.