Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sighing and Stomping

Being the internationally-connected family that we are, Sarah and I had several packages to send to other countries before Christmas. We mailed about twelve boxes total to England, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. If you have ever mailed a package internationally before, then you know it’s not as simple as just paying the postage. You almost always have to fill out a lengthy customs form that identifies, in an itemized list, the contents and their values. Not only does this spoil any surprise for recipients when they open packages, it also takes a considerable amount of time. You must print your address, the recipients’ address, the itemized list, and sign and date the form regardless of what information is already on the box itself.

So, a few weeks before Christmas, Sarah and I went to our local post office with about seven of our packages. We figured it would be a lengthy ordeal to fill out a form for each package and have the postage calculated and applied, so we went to the post office later in the evening when we figured it wouldn’t be as busy. What we forgot was that post offices are always busy around Christmas.

We got in line with our parcels, and the lady at the counter was sending a few internationally herself, and since only one clerk was working, this took a while. By the time it was our turn, a very long line had formed behind me. I didn’t realize it at first, but I started to get nervous. I didn’t want to hold up so many people for so long. Finally it was our turn. I apologized for my large number of packages and told the clerk that if she’d give me the forms, I’d start filling them out while other people had their turns. Unfortunately, she didn’t know what form I’d need for any package until she’d weighed and measured it and calculated the shipping cost.

So began a very long process that probably lasted more than fifteen minutes total. While this was going on, the line behind me continued to grow. And I continued to grow more and more nervous and sheepish. By the time there were about ten people in line behind me, I was really sweating in my winter coat as I frantically filled out forms.

Then, I was suddenly struck by something so unusual and unexpected. This whole time, I hadn’t heard a single sigh coming from the line behind me. No one stomped impatiently. No one stormed out of the building muttering expletives. No one complained about quietly to the person behind her in line. No one made a cell phone call loudly explaining the reason he was late for an event. I couldn’t figure out why none of this was happening behind me, and then I realized that it was because I was in Canada, not the United States!

Had I been in the US under the same circumstances, I’m sure that I would have observed all of the above. What’s really sad is that I might not have even noticed the sighing and stomping because I would have expected it. The silence behind me was what was most shocking in this case.

As I left the post office after mailing my packages, no one in the line glared at me. I wondered if the lack of visibly impatient people in the situation had been just a coincidence, as if every patient person in town decided to go to the post office that night. Then I decided that, no, Canadians are just different. They may not be more patient than Americans, but they appear more patient. This theory was confirmed a week later.

As you certainly know, Christmas season is often criticized for the ironic way in which it brings out the worst in people. This is never more evident than when shopping. So, here it was, two weeks before Christmas, and I, who usually pride myself on being the opposite of a procrastinator, am at a large chain store buying a few presents. There were only four checkout lanes open, and each one had about fifteen people in line with carts and arms full of items. I thought I could feel the stress and tension in the air as we shoppers were packed together in uncomfortable lines, but then I realized it was just my imagination. Once again the scene from the post office repeated itself. I didn’t hear a single sigh. No one rolled her eyes. No one stomped impatiently. No one threw his sweaters and bath salts onto the checkout gum rack and stormed out muttering expletives. To be fair, one or two people did leave the line, but they quietly slipped away. When customers did reach the cashier, they were polite and expressed empathy for the cashiers who were clearly frazzled.

Suddenly, there was a commotion in the line next to me. A supervisor had come by and instructed one of the cashiers to turn off her lane light and take a break. This meant that the people in line a certain way back would have to move to another line. A woman in line, in her thick Eastern European accident began complaining, “So, now I must svitch line? I af been in line for twenty minute! Vy vould they close register??!!”

“Aha,” I thought, “Canadians can be pushed to showing impatience!” Then I immediately realized the error of my thinking when another woman, in a very thick Canadian accent rebuked the other woman by saying, “Well, everyone needs to have a break sometime, eh? I’m sure that cashier needs a break!” The people in line around her nodded and murmured their agreement.

I know that many Americans feel that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but as I always say, the squeaky wheel gets the spit in the hamburger. Americans are not afraid to voice their concerns and impatience, especially related to customer service, but what they don’t realize that that their complaining so rarely changes anything. If no more clerks or cashiers are available, no amount of sighing or stomping will make more magically appear. If the restaurant is out of ingredients for your preferred dish, no amount of complaining or whining will make those ingredients magically appear. Every once in a while, an American does get his way from complaining, but this just encourages him to complain even when nothing can be done or changed.

Americans could learn a lot from Canadians about coping patiently with situations beyond their control.

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