Here’s a Quarter

Many years ago — actually about a quarter of a century ago — I had applied for the job of Student Ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. The job of the Ombudsperson was to help students navigate the bureaucracy of the university, and to help them get their concerns heard when the usual channels weren’t working. It was a job where I got to problem-solve and advocate for people, and that appealed to me.

One part of the process for being considered for the job was an interview with a selection committee, which featured members of the faculty, administration and student body, who asked me (and presumably the other candidates) questions and offered hypothetical issues to resolve. It was during one of the hypotheticals, the details of which are not especially important, that I was confronted with a hypothetical student who simply wouldn’t be happy with any outcome. So, like this:

Q: A student comes with “X” problem. How would you resolve it?

A: I would do “Y”, and here’s why [explain why].

Q: Okay, but they’re not happy with that solution. What do you do then?

A: Then I would try “Z,” and here’s why [explain why].

Q: Okay, but they’re still not happy. Now what?

A: Well, then let’s try “Q,” because [explain why].

Q: They’re still not happy.

A: Fine, I would try “K,” because [explain why].

“Okay,” my interviewer then said, “But they’re still not happy with your solution or your efforts. What do you do then?”

“I give them a quarter to call someone who cares,” I said. “Because at that point it’s clear they’re more interested in being upset than anything else, and I have other work to do.”

Yes, I actually did say that (or something very close to it; it was 25 years ago and I didn’t record it).

And yes, I got the job.

Here’s the thing: I believe that we owe our fellow human beings a certain amount of compassion and courtesy and respect, and to listen to their complaints and grievances. We should ask ourselves whether those complaints and grievances are valid, and whether we can help — and in some cases, ask whether we are the author of those grievances, and if so what we can do to resolve them.

But I also believe that after a certain point, it may become obvious that some people just want to complain, or to be angry, or to be an asshole, or whatever, and that nothing a reasonable person can do will ever make those people happy or satisfied. So you give them a quarter, metaphorically or otherwise, and tell them to call someone who cares. Because you have other things to do. And then you go on doing those things you need to do.

They won’t be happy, but then they were never going to be happy, and it’s not your responsibility to fix their problem — “their problem” not being whatever specific complaint or grievance they might have, but a worldview that requires them to always have a complaint or grievance, and/or to believe that the root of that complaint is somehow about you. That’s something for therapy, perhaps, not for you, or anyone else who isn’t getting paid by the session.

You should be a kind and compassionate person to others when they have a problem or grievance. You should also know when it’s a problem you can’t solve, and also, when the person doesn’t actually want the problem to be solved. It’s neither kind nor compassionate to them or to you to keep being involved after that point. And to be sure, after you’ve given them their quarter, they will likely complain that you are a terrible person, and/or part of a conspiracy to keep them down, and so on and so forth. That’s their karma, not yours.

I was and am pretty proud of my time as Student Ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. I ended up helping a good number of people, and making sure that the students could get their voices heard. But I never forgot that part of the reason I got the job is because they knew I knew where to draw a line. It was a useful skill in that job. It continues to be useful to me today.

60 Comments on “Here’s a Quarter”

  1. Funny, I was thinking about this the other day. My self-image is that of a problem solver. I can typically come up with creative solutions to most problems as they arrive, and I enjoy it. One of the very hardest things I have had to learn is when a problem DOESN’T need to be solved. Marriage has taught me a lot, and one of the lessons is that sometimes my wife just needs to vent a little before fixing a problem herself. Same goes for most everyone, I think (note: the need to blow off steam occassionally is clearly a different thing than the need to constantly feel aggrieved and complain).

  2. When I was a restaurant manager for a national chain, I attended a training course in which one of the instructors advised us that about 2% of our customers formed our A.Q. That stood for “Asshole Quotient,” and he said that we shouldn’t waste our time trying to please them because nothing would make them happy. It’s advice that’s stood me in good stead for about thirty years now.

  3. SSteve:

    Very few. As it turns out, nearly everyone who came to me legitimately wanted their problem solved, and there were few problems I couldn’t at least get everyone on the path toward resolution.

  4. I’m glad to hear that. I’ve worked in tech support for a couple different music software companies and found that most people were happy to have their problem solved and appreciated being helped. There were very few who were completely unreasonable.

  5. In a similar vein, one of the best pieces of advice I received when I began teach university English many, many years ago is that every student has the right to fail. This does not mean to be cruel; it is recognizing reality. My job is to help; I can meet with them during office hours; I can direct them to tutoring or the writing center; I can reframe directions; but ultimately, the student has to do the work, and if the work is unacceptable, then they fail. It does students no favors to pass them if they are not ready for the next level. Some students put more effort into appealing their grades than they did in earning the grade in the first place. And some folks just like to complain.

  6. Working in Government as a regulator I experience this often. Most of the time some people don’t like the rules we explain why the exist and how they work. Some folks accept the explanation (they don’t need to like it) other just want to yell at us. At that point I end the discussion. I tell them that we don’t write the rules and I direct them to the people that do. Usually they are just looking for an argument – they don’t actually have a problem to address. Life is too short for that.

    There is a process in training where I was taught about anger and how some people use it as a tool to control situations. If they get you mad they ‘win’ because what they want it to see others out of control. Typically these are the same people who will never be happy.

  7. I remember a tactic I heard about once in the context of customer service: ask the unhappy customer what would make them happy. It puts the responsibility back on them, and they usually come up with something that you can actually give them. It gets them thinking about something other than the GRAVE INJUSTICE that has been done to them, and that helps to calm them down.

  8. You also have to think about what it might cost you personally to try and solve someone else’s problem. (Thinking of several experiences best left untold.)

  9. Were you still the Ombsbudsman in 1991? If so I think we may have overlapped at the U. of Chicago – I kinda assumed that you had left before I got there (technically I was there in the summer of 1990 while I was still in high school) but then was officially there in 1991 as a 1st year.

  10. This is a very important lesson for people in helping professions to learn. Because there are some people for whom no matter what you do, it will never be enough. The therapist, doctor, advocate will never be good enough or care enough or … enough.

  11. Miles: some phones still took dimes in those days, but it was getting very rare (IIRC, payphone calls were still a dime in Massachusetts when they’d long been 25 cents in Seattle, which surprised me).

  12. Years ago, working as a Long-Suffering Retail Manager, after trying everything I could think of to de-escalate a situation with an unreasonably enraged patron, I told her that I was sorry she was having a bad day. She left in a huff, to be sure, but actually returned a few days later to apologize to me. She HAD been having a bad day, she said, and was going through a very tough time in her life, but that didn’t justify taking her anger out on others. I was certainly surprised, and I should note that nothing like this ever happened again. But I was also reminded that more often than not, the way people treat others says more about themselves and what they’re going through than the situation at hand or the other people involved, and sometimes a little compassion can go a long way.

  13. Thank you for the reminder, sir. This is something I know, but is something I often forget when the situation arises, as it has recently. I’m not ready to give the person a quarter yet, but I’m swiftly approaching that point.

  14. Wish more people recognized this limit in their own encounters.

    When closing time comes, I often lead with: “Look, I have given you what I can. You can take what I have said and do something with it or continue to vent your spleen. Just be aware that the latter is merely expending energy that may make you feel better but isn’t going to improve your actual situation.”

    Mis dos centavos.

  15. I had a situation like this just yesterday. A man came to the unmarked and locked door that is in the back of my library building. It is an employee entrance to our loading dock. There’s no way to any public areas, so usually I politely direct members of the public where to go if they end up at that door. There is also an 8 floor parking garage literally attached to the library with a bridge entrance right beside the library. People unfamiliar with the area often miss the garage for whatever reason, and sometimes ask where it is. Usually in a car, right under the bridge, needing just to turn their head to see the garage. This man was looking for the garage, to return to his car. I tried to politely show him where to go, but by the time he was done he was acting like it was my fault he was there and not at his car. I eventually had to just say, “There is the garage sir, have a nice day.” No matter how dumb somebody gets it’s not worth the trouble being rude to customers. I just tell my coworkers about the idiots and we laugh.

  16. Years ago I somehow fell into the habit of trying to figure out what it was I wanted before I went to complain. Did I want my money back? Did I want a replacement? An apology? A change in policy? I don’t always get what I ask for but I often do and found that the whole process is much more pleasant if I don’t make the person I’m complaining to do the emotional work of trying to figure out how to fix it for me.

  17. I worked retail for a decade. At each job, we were told that we absolutely, positively, had to give the customer everything they wanted, otherwise *gasp* they might go home and tell ten of their friends about the “terrible customer service” they’d experience, each of those ppl would tell ten of *their* friends, and so on, until, theoretically, we’d have no customers left. I always countered that with “Let’s think about that for a minute, shall we? Angry Customer is angry because I physically could not stand on my head and spit wooden nickels for them. If they ‘go home and tell ten of their friends,’ one of two things will happen. One, they’re just like Angry Customer, in which case, great, that’s eleven less unreasonable customers I have to deal with. Two, at least some of the people AC complains to will be saner than AC and will tell AC to get over themselves. I’m not seeing a downside.” I’m all for helping a customer to the best of my ability, but if something is their fault and they refuse to acknowledge their responsibility, or if they want a $500 fix for a 50 cent problem (which they’d expect us to pay for, naturally), then no. GTFO.

  18. The song “Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares” came out in 1991, proving that a) pay phones mostly cost a quarter in the US, if a country song used it in the title and b) if John actually had ever had to say that, the message would have been understood, and c) I used that phrase once or twice myself on the Intarwebs back then with trolls.

    We just need more quarters nowadays, I guess.

  19. My sympathy evaporates when I help someone (who demands it, none the less!) and they’re upset with every solution. I’ve found that very often these people want something that’s just not possible, usually something that doesn’t require an ounce of sacrifice or compromise on their end. Well, the onus is on them to change their expectations — reality isn’t as malleable.

  20. And, IIRC, one of your predecessors in that job–a friend of mine in grad school–had the title changed from Ombudsman to Ombudsperson. It was done with a smile, but it was done. (I was there from 1986 to 1993, so we certainly overlapped; I don’t remember which year my friend had the job.)

  21. I think we all know people that fall into this category. They systematically complain about everything. They are the ones that are always changing their teachers/schools for their kids. Complaining about the way people treat them and generally just whining about everything. To them I say “Good Day!” There is enough real crap in the world/life that is actually worth dealing with without having to deal with their whiny, cranky BS…

    Allow me to step down from the soapbox now…but that did feel good.

  22. In my humble experience, people who aren’t happy with any solution tend to have as their issue not the problem per se, but the fact that they had a problem to begin with. I’ve found quite a few cases where patiently explaining to them why their problem happened, and how it was unavoidable -or even their own fault- usually makes them feel quite a bit better. Sometimes, people just care more about avoiding future problems than finding the perfect solution to the existing one.

    I’ve also found cases where mocking them endlessly is fun and gratifying. I’m a horrible person at times.

  23. Small integer number of strikes and you’re out. 3 tradtionally, 2 if you’re Zell Miller. Or you might get asked “Why?” 5 times if someone is Continuously Improving or Japanese. If you get past 5, you might want to give up. It’s probably not worth it.

  24. “they will likely complain that you are a terrible person, and/or part of a conspiracy to keep them down, and so on and so forth.”

    Hmmm, now why did this make me think of this year’s Hugos…

  25. John, I suppose your point is that some people are never happy, they just want to complain. The fact that you helped a bunch shows that one should not over generalize on the first case.

    Back when I was a graduate student, I went to the student ombudsman at the U of Minn. My complaint and goal were specific. His response was that he would not bring it up because it was too frustrating for him because he was powerless to deal with the powers that be at that institution. What he presented was dismissed out of hand. I’m glad you were more effective.

  26. I recall reading an article many, many years ago in a newspaper or magazine about the whole “The Customer Is Always Right” mentality and how too many customers took that idea as carte blanche to be assholes to retail employees, store clerks, etc. Some companies were starting to realize that “The Customer Is Always Right” is basically dehumanizing and demoralizing to their employees because that lets customers treat them like doormats and get away with it.

    Some companies were (and are) starting to realize that they had to stand behind their employees and empower those employees to stand up for themselves and reclaim some of their inherent dignity as human beings. In other words, if Customer X is being an asshole, you have the power and duty to call the person on that and either tell them to shut up and leave or you will call the cops and have them escorted off the premises.

    Sometimes you have to “fire” rude and unpleasant customers. They are much more trouble than they’re worth and like John says, you have other things to do, like helping people who actually appreciate you as a person and don’t feel you’re a doormat for their hangups, frustrations, etc.

  27. As someone who worked customer service, and would rather sell a kidney if the situation arose again, I totally agree.

    There’s also the sub-situation where Person A’s problem is that Person B is behaving in ways they don’t approve of, and the “solution” is letting Person A dictate morality to everyone, so, no, they’re never going to be happy, because Your Roommate’s Sex Life/Co-Worker’s Fashion Sense/etc is not actually a problem for anyone capable of minding their own business.

  28. I love this! I was on the opposite side of the table as student rep on a university hiring committee in days of yore… A fellow committee member, an English professor, very sharp guy, quizzed each candidate in this way… Very creatively came up with more and more impossible scenarios (the general idea was the same: a candidate would say “I would ask for help” “But what if there was NO ONE to help you? because duh de duh de duh.” basically until it seemed like the entire world would be acting as a force working against this 20-something year old Program Coordinator at a writing program)

    At first I felt sorry for the interviewees…. then I wished the prof would shut the hell up… then all 8 or 10 of us on the hiring committee wished he’d shut the hell up…. Now, I look back on the whole thing fondly (I suppose because I am perverse). But the person we ended up hiring was indeed the person who did the best job under the pressure of that line of questioning.
    Of course he was not nearly as clever as you ;)

  29. God, I wish I could hand out quarters. In my job, I’m pretty much here to take abuse with a smile, unfortunately. My empathy is exhausted, and I really, really hate problem solving with a white hot passion. Especially when I am tasked with problem solving in areas I have zero to little expertise in, and I’m not allowed to say no, go talk to someone with more experience about that. People will make your life hell if you don’t give them what they want, and I am terrified of the few times I have to say no to something because 95% of the time, people will get what they want if they throw enough fits about it and call up the ladder to complain about me. And as for my problems, everything boils down to “There is no solution, just suck it up and take it.”

    “You also have to think about what it might cost you personally to try and solve someone else’s problem. (Thinking of several experiences best left untold.)”

    Hah, yeah.

  30. Good to remember.

    I especially like Bunwat @ 4:55pm, “Years ago I somehow fell into the habit of trying to figure out what it was I wanted before I went to complain.” Awesome.

    For myself, sometimes people just want to get a rise out of you. Someone was crank-calling my work phone 20-ish years ago (or, I forget, it may have been my cell phone, but in any case, it was while I was at work). I politely told them that this wasn’t John’s phone, probably four or five times, and eventually decided they were just trying to get a rise out of me. So the next time, I pretended to be angry and I shouted at them, and they stopped calling.

    (The funniest part was my co-workers who came around asking if everything was alright. I’m a pretty calm guy, so me shouting about anything was unknown. I was like, “Yeah, everything’s fine, why do you ask?” I’d faked my anger, so I didn’t even realize at first what my co-workers were even concerned about.)

  31. My favorite report from the U of C Ombudsman (early ’70s) concerned the squirrel population. Many students had noticed that the little critters were looking alarmingly scruffy, and a number of them spoke to the Ombudsman about it. Fortunately he was able, after a week’s research, to reassure the student body: it was not, as feared, a Dire Disease, merely an out-of-season molt.

  32. I wonder what brought this post on. I have a hunch someone has an official Jogn Scalzi quarter.

    One caveat… If its your girlfriend who is complaining, givong her a quarter will make her your ex girlfriend. There have been a number of times I have held my toung over the years.

  33. Did you have to declare bankruptcy, or did others learn after a while? I don’t mind assisting people when politely asked, but sometimes, it’s not that they are just addicted to whining and being upset, they’re also lazy. I can’t count how many times I have replied to questions with “Google is your friend.”

  34. I worked in a portrait studio for many years and dealt with High School kids for portraits, proms, dances, etc. For senior portraits we worked a deal with the tuxedo rental shop across the street for $10 per session. Most of the kids paid for the tuxedo rental in advance if not we added it to their invoice. One parent came to pick up her sons proofs and I asked for her deposit plus the $10 tuxedo rental fee. She went ballistic and told me that she had given her son the money to pay in advance; he told her he had given it to me. I specifically remembered her son as he was a complete ass. She then became verbally abusive; cursing, calling me a liar and threatening to get me fired. I don’t remember the entire dialog but I remember going to my wallet, taking out a $10 bill, handing it to her and telling her that her son was a liar and was stealing from his mother. She went away and never came back. It was the best $10 I’ve ever spent.

  35. John, I believe this can be applied to the much wider, societal, problem of people reacting immediately with phony outrage to serious situations and demanding immediate revenge, not lawful consideration for punishment or action. In this century, I’ve seen it happen more and more, with people becoming more and more entrenched with an extreme viewpoint (regardless of “political” orientation), demanding the most extreme response or, otherwise, they will not be satisfied. Examples include the real and disturbing cases of police violence against African Americans, and the, in my opinion, counterproductive response of groups like Black Lives Matter, which results in another counterproductive response by people who, generally, support the police in their efforts to enforce the law. Additionally, the recently leaked videos of the callous behavior of some Planned Parenthood associates has resulted in the kneejerk response for the Federal Government to defund the group, even though the vast majority of the group’s funding supports the health needs of tens of thousands of low income women. At some point, our whole society needs to respond emphatically to these “perpetually indignant” (thanks, P.J. O’Rourke) people that no, they can’t have everything they want, and if they use the “No Justice, No Peace” argument, they may get a “No Prisoners” response, which is absolutely not what any sane person wants.

  36. Some people cling to their unhappiness because it’s their rationalization for every positive thing they fail to do. I work with people like that, hell, I dated one once. Left her without even giving her a quarter, she’d already taken too much of my time, money and life energy.

  37. I think it usually makes sense to ask, early on, what outcome the person making the complaint or asking for help wants, rather than leaping straight in with offering your solutions.
    Even if their preferred outcome isn’t possible, it can help you to identify what *type* of solution or outcome might be acceptable.

  38. As a reference staffer at the National Archives who works with the general public my goal is to at least clarify what the next step a patron has to take in the research process. However, I never sugar-coat what needs to be done because, often, the process IS hard. This is particularly when people are trying to prove a negative, such as their grandfather WAS NOT a U.S. Citizen, thus enabling them to claim dual citizenship.

    The real fun begins with the folks who have a conspiratorial view of the world.

  39. John, you have NO idea how much I needed to read this today. In fact, it’s actually kind of spooky.
    I’ve been breaking down into weeping for months now over someone who refused to help himself and [edited for length because it’s not really pertinent]
    Anyway, for Reasons, it’s been particularly bad this week. Thank you.

  40. A good post with good advice we all can use at one time or another! Energy Vampires abound and they usually hang out with Drama Queens.

  41. As a customer service supervisor for 10+ years at a large utility company, I certainly endorse your advice here, John, and I’d like to amplify a few points further, if I may.

    Some people do, as you say, just want to be upset. Some people also just need to vent, and those can be two different things.

    There are folks who want no solution and prefer the state of being indignant because it makes them feel justified. For them, no solution is possible. They are the ones you describe to a “T”. Any solutions offered are inadequate, and they usually grow angrier the more you try to find a resolution.

    Asking one of these people to suggest a potential solution they would find acceptable often results only in the suggestion of an action so outrageous that they are aware it cannot be implemented. In some cases, broaching the very idea that a resolution is possible is met with outright hostility. If a resolution is possible, they are deprived of their justification for outrage, and the goal for such people is the outrage itself and the opportunity to make someone else feel as uncomfortable or angry as they are.

    But there are also people who want a resolution or consensus, but first need to blow off a head of steam. Some of these have legitimate grievances and some don’t, but all of the folks in this category are aware (if just subconsciously) that they are in no shape to discuss things rationally until they vent their emotions.

    People who need to vent just get angrier if you try to throw a laundry list of potential resolutions in their face before the venting process is complete. It is better to let them get it out of their system. Don’t tell them to calm down, or deny them their moment. Any response at this point should just be confirmation that you are hearing them out and are interested in their situation. Many times, once they vent and know you are listening instead of trying to throw a quick fix at them so you can move on, they will bend over backwards to work with you toward a fair resolution or course of positive action.

    Which is which? It may be almost impossible to tell up front. That’s why in any sort of communication the first thought should not be trying to counter the other party’s message but rather being sure you have properly understood what they are trying to say.

    Listen first. Twitter gives you the opportunity to jump immediately in and push your point forward instantly. So don’t. Don’t immediately assume emotional reactions really reflect the communicant’s core message. Avoid playing “gotcha” by seizing on a statement and feeling you must refute it, ridicule it, or dismiss it instantly.

    Restate the message in your own words. What you are hearing (especially if emotionally charged) may not be what the person really wanted to say. Your terms may be different. A good first response may be “What I hear you say is… Am I understanding you correctly?”. Resist following this in the same post with “because if it is you are full of crap”. That may provoke an emotional exchange over something that isn’t even the real issue in the first place.

    Ask questions. Questions show you you are seeking information rather than just looking for a fight. They also may allow you to cut through emotional outbursts to find what really concerns someone. If nothing else, asking questions may help you discover if you are dealing with someone with a real concern rather than cranks who just want everyone to be as miserable as they. If they stop to actually address a question, they may have a real point to make.

    After this, if you both understand the terms and the issue, you can discuss possible action. If the person is just a crank, you’ll never get that far and will quickly know that this isn’t worth your time. If so, move on. Arguing with a crank is useless and just allows the crank to get his endorphin high from frustrating you and others.

    But don’t START by assuming everyone who says something you disagree with or who makes you uncomfortable is a crank. On social media especially, it is VERY easy to jump back with a response (even a well-meaning one) that ends any chance of any meaningful communication. Give them a chance to blow off the steam. If there’s real meat behind it, that crankiness won’t last very long if you remain nonconfrontational and positive. If there’s nothing behind it, don’t engage. Your time is valuable. Move along.

    Guy McLimore Twitter: @couchguy

    Sent from my iPad


  42. I was flying west coast to east coast a few years back when our flight was cancelled. The replacement flight was a red-eye (not my favorite), but it was summer and what the heck. We all lined up to get rescheduled and everyone was reasonable until the guy in front of me hit the desk. Shouting, rude words, general unreasonableness, etc. He was “someone important” and an elite frequent flyer, demanding a first class seat and other extra stuff. In general, I didn’t care except that it has been a long day and I was tired and hungry and he was holding up the process. The guy at the service desk was amazing, responding to him calmly without changing his expression, using simple and easy-to-understand words. Said “yes sir” frequently. A lot of key tapping, and I’m pretty sure he pretended to call his supervisor on the phone when the idiot demanded it (Bob Newhart would have been proud). The idiot walked away with a seat in back because “there were no more seats in first class” on that flight. When I got my turn, I started by telling the service guy that he did a great job and it’s too bad the idiot made his day harder. My only request was for an aisle seat if available, which he was able to do. It wasn’t until later that I noted he had upgraded me to first class…

  43. Spoon – I had exactly the same experience with an equipment-grounded flight. I didn’t know until the second leg of the trip that the clerk had upgraded me to first class, and I wish I had, because I would like to thank him for the very comfortable flight!

    After working day care in high school, I came to the belief that before anyone is allowed to have kids they should either have to work in some form of childcare or retail – some job where they are forced to deal with other people’s bad choices, and powerless to strike back directly. I get amazing customer service just about everywhere, and I’d like to think it’s because I recognize the human being working the job, and that I don’t just see them as the Corporation.

    And during four Christmases in a toy store, I got a lot happier when I realized that the customers weren’t really yelling at me. They were yelling at the fact that their mother-in-law was coming for dinner, and all the other holiday stress. Those customers were the most grateful when we did solve some of their issues.

  44. Shared this with FB – partly because I’ve been arguing with some friends of mine about politics (they support Hillary, and I support Bernie Sanders – and we all feel strongly about why the other’s The Wrong Choice!).

    Kind of felt like maybe, past a certain point, it’s not worth arguing about – let the dice fly high, and play the hand we’re dealt….

  45. I learned something similar while working in restaurants years ago–and in the years since then, observing others while I’m a customer in restaurants reveals that it hasn’t changed: A certain percentage of people don’t go out for a meal to have a nice evening, they go out specifically to complain, be angry and dissatisfied no matter what, and treat the restaurant staff like medieval serfs.

    Since those people can never be satisfied and ALWAYS tip badly (if at all), it’s not worth bothering to try to please them, once you have identified them, because NOTHING will please them–because they did not come to the restaurant to enjoy themselves, they came to the restaurant to be angry and behave badly.

  46. Oh, yeah – and as a retail manager, a “customer” who is abusing my staff is no longer a customer; they’re an unsub harassing a teenage girl, and I’m calling the cops.

  47. It took me some time to realize that when talking about people in general, I was part of that equation. Not intellectually, but viscerally. Yes, yes, buddhism had something to do with it, but basically when showing consideration to others, that includes ‘me.’ Self-bias is bias after all.

  48. @ Rick in OKC

    Sorry, your comparison of Black Lives Matter to what John actually wrote, that some people will never be happy, is way off base. Black Lives Matter actually just want cops to stop killing black people when there isn’t a clear imminent danger to the cops. That would satisfy the vast majority of the group.

    Comparing a political issue literally about life and death, to what an ombudsperson or other customer service person has to deal with, is rubbish.

    More on point, even therapy doesn’t help much for people who are heavily invested in being a martyr.

  49. I work in customer-facing positions at conventions a lot. There are two circumstances where I do the equivalent of giving the quarter. One is as you describe above, a person who just won’t accept any solution. The other is what I called the “professionally offended.” They examine every jot and tittle of everything around them until they misconstrue it into something that offends them. Then they raise hell, usually in an offensive manner.

    With the professionally offended, things got much simpler when I finally understood that they didn’t really want to be made happy – they wanted to stay offended. So I offend them by pulling their badge, refunding their money, and pointing them towards the door. They’re happy – now they’ve got something to complain about. I’m happy – they have to complain somewhere else.

    This is also great for dealing with people who say “I’m the customer, and the customer is always right.” I smile and say “You’re not our customer any more. Good day.”

  50. @Spoon: the arc of the universe bends towards justice!

    I’ve always been nice to the gate staff who are working as hard as they can to fix a situation they had no hand in causing. This has gotten me at minimum a grateful smile, and also gotten free drinks, meal vouchers, credit towards a later flight (woo-hoo! free fare at CHRISTMAS), and a delightful upgrade to first class across this entire country, with TWO first class seats to myself. I tried to stay awake to enjoy it, but after being awake all weekend at a con, and having a decent meal plus wine plus cocktails and apertif, I ended up sprawled across those seats asleep for a few hours.

    I ranted at a retail guy the other day, realized he literally had no discretion, and then apologized “I’m not mad at you, the company policy just seems totally unfair, sorry about the rant. But geez… and it’s not like you’re getting big bucks thanks to their policy either, it’s the executives.” He nodded and shrugged: “What are you gonna do?” “Yeah… well, thanks anyway.”

  51. How very timely. We had precisely this issue come up in our office, at a guess about two hours after you posted this. To be fair, it turned out that we were eventually able to supply the desired response. Also, to be fair, the client in question hadn’t provoked a restraining order. This year.

  52. I admire your ability to draw a line. I was in your kaffeeklatsch at Worldcon and was impressed when you cut someone off with a “my kaffeeklatsch!”. As a woman you frequently get interrupted or lectured at by men – I’m just waiting for the opportunity to use your example.

  53. Coming is to say, yes, I absolutely second @Todd Stull that this is NOT something to say about Black Lives Matter etc. Of course people are angry about black people being killed without trial by the police! Here in the UK, I’m white, and I’m furious about BME people being stopped for Driving Whilst Black, and I always will be while the evidence shows it’s not good policy (I’ve worked in spheres related to crime, I know the stats and evidence) – if we had things like the killing of Yvette Smith, which is just the case I read about today ( were happening here, I’d be marching in the streets too!

    Ugh. I really agree with this post, I’m just so depressed that it’s being applied to things like “don’t shoot us to death” as if complaining about something in uni is on a par….

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