The other day, I was a witness to one of the most fascinating interactions I think I’ve ever seen. I was at work when I left my office to grab another cup of hot water for the herbal tea I’ve grown to love. As I stepped outside my door, I noticed that there was something unusual going on at the front desk a few feet from where I was standing. A man was standing in front of the woman at the front desk and it was obvious that something was going on.
I stopped near them and stood watching for a moment.
They were both visibly agitated, but I was unsure what dance they were performing. Finally, after staring at her for a while, the man turned, looked at me and asked, “Do you work here?” When I said I did, he immediately started complaining to me about how “someone” in the office had been rude to him. The minute that he began addressing me, the woman at the desk put her head down and pretended neither of us was standing in front of her.
(Please note: he never asked if I was a supervisor and I never volunteered that I was in a position of authority. He assumed, I think because of my age and race, that I was someone he could address his complaints to.)
“I have been a member here for about 42 years and I am a huge advocate of this organization,” he began. I have learned this introduction usually means that a lot of criticism is about to be unleashed. I was correct in this assumption. “I can’t believe that someone here could be so rude towards me,” he continued. It was very clear that the person who had offended him most recently was the woman sitting right in front of him, but neither of them would speak it or acknowledge it. He never named her as the irritant and she never spoke to defend herself. As I struggled to keep a straight face, his diatribe went on, and on, and on.
Keeping what I hoped was a pleasant smile on my face, I let him vomit out his rant, which covered old wounds and the current aggravation. While he spoke he would occasionally turn his head to glare at the woman, who sat less than a foot away, quietly working on her computer, never looking up.
Whenever there was a break in the conversation I would acknowledge what he was upset about, and offer to help problem solve the issue that he was addressing. This would then send him back off on a tear about how it wasn’t that specific incident, but the fact that he felt he should be treated better by the employees of this organization which he swore he was a big fan of. Then, he would rant for a while longer about yet another incident.
I didn’t count how many times he told me how important his job is and how hard he works, but I am sure it came up at least four times in the conversation. I wasn’t real sure how this was pertinent to the conversation, but he felt it was important enough to cover repeatedly. At one point he went so far as to tell me that he works 100 hours a week sometimes. At that point I smiled at him and told him that in addition to addressing his other issues I would be happy to help him figure out how to have a better work/life balance. I am grateful he chose to give me a brief smile at that point instead of lashing out at me for that less than appropriate comment.
Finally, he appeared to be worn out. He had brought out his whole litany of the ancient history of his disrespectful treatment at the organization he claimed to love. I told him I could do nothing about the old issues he was bringing up, but I would do my best to come up with a creative solution to his current complaint. Of course, he said that wasn’t the issue either. He walked to the door, once again glaring at the woman at the desk with laser like intensity, and left.
I stood by her desk for a few moments, waiting for her to react. She never looked up or acknowledged the conversation that had just taken place about her, around her, but never with her. I was, and continue to be, amazed by the behavior of both of these adults.
I’ve never seen such an intense exchange take place with no acknowledgement of who or what was being addressed. Not only do I find the degree of passive/aggressive behavior fascinating, I also find it intriguing that in many ways they both behaved like they were participating in a social media communication. Neither one spoke directly to the other person and neither of them were willing to make direct eye contact with each other.
Intellectually, I have known for some time that many of the niceties of polite behavior have been abandoned in today’s world. I know that much of this is because of the anonymity of social media. However, I really thought that the behavioral changes were primarily exhibited by people preferring to speak their minds, with little constraint, on social media. I have never before witnessed two people, upset with each other, standing one foot apart from each other, acting like the verbal exchange that is taking place has nothing to do with the person standing right in front of them.
Dealing with issues face-to-face seems to be a slightly antiquated method of interacting with each other. I am grateful that I have learned that it is much better for everyone if I calmly speak my mind when something upsets me. It may take me a day or two to find the right words to express my feelings without being insulting, but eventually, I’m able to speak my mind in a clear, but non-aggressive manner. The recipients of these conversations may or may not agree with me, but I do not think it’s fair to anyone for me to become upset with them and not address my feelings. I find it extremely unhealthy to let something that’s bothering me just sit and fester until something innocuous causes a huge, unbalanced reaction. I expect other adults to give me the same courtesy of speaking their mind, in a balanced, non-aggressive manner.
I have to be honest; I was highly amused by this exchange. I was also fascinated by it. That being said, I hope I never see an exchange like that again.