One person’s joke, is another person’s affront

It was an unspectacular morning, the kind of morning that doesn’t usually stand out in one’s memories. The skies weren’t particularly clear, it wasn’t too cold or too hot, there were no rainbows, no starling murmuration’s, all in all, a “meh” in the day department. But a day in Northern California is still better than a day almost anywhere else.

On my “meh” way to the essentially opened local hardware store, cold weather and a slow to warm up car, led me directly to another essential establishment: my local coffee shop. A bastion of comfort in a world of discomfiture, sure to knock the meh right from the day.

The line was three people, not too long, and not too short. I ordered my simple hot beverage and moseyed over to an empty space by the espresso machine. A new barista was behind the plexiglass screen, and seeing how my beverage didn’t involve her services, she had decided to pick up a towel and wipe down part of that machine.

“Time to lean, time to clean, right?” I said. Not really thinking too much about it.

“What did you say?” she asked abruptly.

I was startled by the tone.

“Time to lean, time to clean?’ I repeated, emphasizing the inquisitiveness.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Everyone who has ever worked customer service has had a joke fall flat, or had a comment taken out of context, or had a simple question twisted around into a personal attack. It happens all the time. One person’s “Do you have any questions?” can easily be turned around into “Do I look like I don’t know what I am doing?”

People can be highly sensitive about things you might never suspect. Every bartender everywhere has listened to a 3 minute description on how to make a drink that omits the most essential part: the liquor. And trust me, if someone has taken three minutes to explain something in exacting detail, only to leave out the most absolutely vital part, they are not going to appreciate it when that is pointed out, no matter how subtly it is done.

However, it is exceedingly rare for the service person themselves to be that sensitive. And even rarer for them to be aggressively so.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was just trying to make conversation.”

“Was that some kind of joke?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I meant no offence.”

On the service side you often encounter the person pushing the injury envelope. If something goes wrong, or is perceived to go wrong, these people don’t just want an apology, or a correction, or even something free, they want the person they deem responsible to fall on their sword right in front of them. “How dare you!” becomes the mantra. And that mantra can result from anything, from asking someone to wear a mask when they are inside the building, to telling them that they are entering the wrong restroom. A simple “sorry” will never be enough for these folks.

But it is exceptionally odd to see it coming from the other side.

“Well, it wasn’t funny.”

“OK, I said. “I meant no disrespect.”

And it probably should have ended there. But it didn’t.

“I’ve learned that you’ve got to be careful with the jokes,” she lectured. “Because you never know how people are going take them.”

“OK,” I said.

“Jokes are only funny if everyone is laughing,” she continued.

“Look,” I said. “I have apologized twice already.”

She then still went on.

Rarely have I ever complained to a manager, and I didn’t this time either, chalking it up to someone having a bad day. Besides, I had gotten my beverage just the way I liked it, and that was enough for me. The experience did create some uncomfortableness though, and it took quite a few days for me to return to that coffee shop.

The new barista wasn’t behind the counter. She did emerge from the back room some moments later though, with her apron in one hand and an envelope in the other, being followed closely behind by the manager.

He held the door open for her to leave, pursing his lips the whole while.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-The service business is not for everyone

-“Exaggerated sensitiveness is an expression of the feeling of inferiority,” once wrote noted psychotherapist, Alfred Adler.

-Just because you don’t complain, doesn’t mean that someone else wont.

-Always being right is often a recipe for disaster, whether on the part of the customer, or on the part of the employee.

-Sometimes things just have a way of working themselves out.