Posted by Mary Beth Dahl on May 14, 2020
I had a positive interaction with a stranger the other day. With all the social distancing, I’ve found myself not talking to strangers as much. It’s weird. It’s like I can’t even make eye contact. Overall, though, I’m typically nice to strangers … except for the plumber I yelled at that one time. But I’ve learned from that, and in this interaction, we both had empathy.
It all happened over email. I’d needed to clear up a misunderstanding, so the county where I used to live would stop charging me taxes. Already, you can see I entered the situation with some annoyance. Who knew I could get my car titled in Maryland, and Virginia would have no clue?
Anyway, after the second personal property tax bill arrived, I decided this wouldn’t go away on its own, so I made some calls and got through to Kenneth. He told me I would need to email him copies of my registrations. No problem. I got right to it, scanned those puppies in, and emailed them right over. I was so proud of myself. That was Friday.
On Monday, Kenneth emailed to say he needed the registrations on a higher resolution because he couldn’t read them. He was very nice and apologetic. I was annoyed, but how could I be too grumpy. Kenneth was kind, and I sent the pictures with the wrong resolution. So, I trekked out to the cars, gathered up the registrations, and got to scanning again.
On Tuesday, I got another nice email from Kenneth saying he just couldn’t see the pictures well enough to make everything out. I thought he was punking me. I opened the jpeg file. It looked fine to me, so I started an email to Kenneth. “Are you kidding me?” was the first line.
Kenneth’s kindness made me pause, though. He was apologetic and nice and said nothing negative about my computing skills. He just asked me to try again.
I stopped writing my snarky response and sent the pictures to myself to see what he was talking about, and do you know what? They were tiny! He was right. A hawk couldn’t have read the numbers off of those things. The images might have been fine on my computer, but when sent through email, they shrunk.
I quickly went back and erased my snarkiness and worked on figuring out how to get Kenneth what he needed. It all worked out. (Thank you, Google.) And I learned something.
I glimpsed for a second what Kenneth must have thought when he opened my email for the second time, unable to see what he needed to see. Did he roll his eyes? Say, “Are you kidding me?” Laugh? If he did, he never showed it. He was professional and caring.
Did you see the story about the ice cream shop in Cape Cod where the customers treated the workers terribly. The patrons didn’t follow social distancing protocols, complained when they didn’t get what they wanted, and even stooped to profanity and name calling.
I understand frustration and reacting poorly, but at some point, we all need to stop and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. It’s called empathy. It might not come naturally, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it. We can all do better.
Be kind. Try it. Kenneth’s kindness made me a better person. Maybe your kindness can help someone too.
How have you stopped yourself from reacting poorly to someone? What’s your secret sauce for empathy?