One Weird Trick To Get Better Service From Everyone (and it won’t cost you a dime or get your name on any spam/mailing lists!)

I’m taking a risk with the title of this post. “One Weird Trick…” is a hook used by endless spam bots and shady malware/adware/click farms. You have surely seen these. Ads promise that you can win the lottery, learn to speak a new language, find true love, and have flawless skin, all by using one weird trick.

But I really do know one weird trick that causes me to receive much better customer service than most anyone I know. Well, I don’t think it is weird. It is just how I was raised. But it must be kind of unusual for some people, based on the reactions I get.

I treat everyone I meet as if they are important, interesting, helpful, and kind new friends. I don’t make class distinctions between my professional colleagues and the support staff that enable us to do our jobs. I have seen people look past the house keeper, server, or store clerk as if the person didn’t even exist… that is until they need something. Then, they deign to tell the person behind the counter “Yeah, I’ll have a…” Oh, you will, will you?  Hang up the cell phone, make eye contact with the person trying to help you, and ask them how their day is going before you start making any requests.

Like this: “How are you today.” (Stop. Wait for response. Genuinely listen and care about what is said. Respond appropriately. Then…) “Would you please give me a…”

I don’t go out to eat with friends who are stingy with tips or rude to wait staff, and sadly, a lot of people that I would otherwise respect fall into that category. It is not only embarrassing to keep such company, but I find that people get the service that they set themselves up to expect. They treat the people around them like vending machines instead of people, and that is all they get in return. Sometimes, the answer to a request is “No. Sorry. That isn’t possible. Our policy.” As unhelpful as a broken mechanism can be.

Those “No way” answers turn into “Let me see what I can do for you,” for me. I’ve even had people explain to someone that the answer for them is no, but yes for me. I don’t think that I am special… I just treat other people as if they are, and that makes all the difference.

Simple, human courtesy and basic manners must be more rare than I realize, because everyone in the service industry seems to fall all over themselves trying to help me when I display these archaic behaviors. I used to know the names of the people who cleaned my office, and what was going on with them. And so, my office was always spotless. I asked about the children of the women who rang me up in the cafeteria, and so I had to insist that they charge me for everything on my tray, so that they wouldn’t get in trouble. I get treated like a VIP when I go to one of my regular spots, even if I haven’t been there in a long time. All because of this one weird trick…

Treat the people around you as if they matter to you, and don’t act as if you are more important than everyone else. A little demonstrated humility and genuine friendliness goes a long way.

We are all in this together. All of us. No exceptions.

As a species, we have found certain artificial divisions to be useful.  Drawing lines in the sand has allowed us to take stands, to address injustice, to form aliances and work toward mutual goals. Having insiders and outsiders allows for group cohesion, for consensus building. But we have forgotten that these boundaries are not real, that the people on the other side of them are still people just like us. Our differences are far more superficial than they initially appear. They are all washed entirely away by the reality of our shared predicament, just as easily as drawings in sand are erased by waves. 

It has been very popular of late, more so than ever, to define a group of people different from oneself as enemies.  Then, the other can be hated, accused of harboring the vilest intentions, even stripped of any redeeming humanity. It is Us versus Them, in endless reiteration. They are what is wrong here.  They are the problem.  They are keeping the rest of Us down, or They envy what We have and want to deprive Us of it. They are poor, rich, middle class, urban, rural, foreign, domestic, overeducated, ill informed, of a particular ethnic origin or religious persuasion, and this is what makes Them the treacherous opposition. By contrast We are poor, rich, middle class, urban, rural, foreign, domestic, overeducated, ill informed, of a particular ethnic origin or religious persuasion, and this is what makes Us noble crusaders for Our righteous cause.  

 Enough. 

Enough racism, sexism, classism. Enough of 99% versus 1%. Our whole species has got to get it together and come to consensus on a few important matters, or else all of us, every last percent will suffer. 

100 percent of us have a set of problems in common, and squabbling over who has it the worst isn’t solving anything at all. 

100 percent of us are fragile, mortal creatures living in an environment that we cannot guarantee will remain hospitable to our kind… and we don’t have anywhere to escape to should it fail us.

100 percent of us share the air, the water, the ground from which all of our support is drawn. 

100 percent of us are members of a social species, biologically required to be interdependent and cooperative in order to attain optimal mental and physical health. 

100 percent of us have dreams and aspirations for ourselves, our loved ones, or our ideals.

100 percent of us have fears, misgivings, and regrets, whether we voice them to anyone else or keep them secret.

100 percent of us have the capacity to be so much more than we are now, to exchange complacency and excuse making for cooperation and progress making.

It all starts with dropping the pretense that we have to be devisive, that there have to be losers so that there can be winners. If we applied one tenth of the passion, the creativity, and the intelligence that we devote to zero or subzero sum games to alternative strategies that let everyone win, our Earth would be a paradise beyond our imagining. 

There is no they. There is only us. The sooner we spread that message and start living the truth of it, the better off we will all be.  No exceptions.

Breaking Bad Conjecture: as spoiler free as I can make it

So, Mr. Cat and I have been watching Breaking Bad. It is his second go through, but I have been so busy with test preparation and other professional chores that I wasn’t able to devote my attention to it previously. 

Last night, we got through three episodes at once. Something I saw in a season ending episode caused me to need to keep going a little further.  I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to ruin anything for the dozen other people out there who may not have seen it yet. However, I have been checking blogs and wikis and other social media to try to see if the audience has come to any conclusions about why one dramatic, perplexing plot twist occurs. I think I have an understanding of it that is different than anything I have seen.

I think it won’t ruin things too much to say that Gus kills someone in a rather dramatic fashion in front of Walt. Now, a lot of people are saying that he did that to scare Walt, or just to send a message, or because of some fault on the part of the person killed. They had made a few mistakes, had taken a few liberties, but nothing compared to the outrageous behavior Walt had exhibited.

So, why, why did Gus kill that person instead of Walt? Gus, who is usually so cautious, so poised, so distant from the savagery of the streets, or so it seems. For the purposes of the story, his choice is obvious. First, the show would be over if he killed Walt, but also there was a need to expose a secret, more vicious side of Gustavo. But beyond plot and exposition of character elements, it would have made sense to the character Gus, himself. 

The killing was a human sacrifice. Terrible things had happened, and someone had to die in order to set things right. Gus may have wanted to kill Walt, but finding his hands tied, his requirement for blood had to be satisfied in another way. He chose his victim for many reasons, but in carrying out the act personally and in the ritual fashion in which it was done, he made his victim a figurative scapegoat for Walt. Gus was not saying “Look what I could do to you if you crossed me,” since Walt had already crossed him. Rather, he was showing Walt “Look what I am doing to you. This man is you. This is your throat that I cut. I avenge myself on this living effigy of you.”

The victim’s actions just prior to his death made this even more obvious, since he had been emulating Walt in a very superficial way. Gus’s spirituality is not revealed in the show, but given his origins and the swirls of mysticism throughout the show, it is not unlikely that he has been exposed to some blend of Santeria and South American indigenous religious tropes, along with those of the prevailing Catholic culture. Imagery of human sacrifice and blood atonement would certainly have been part of his upbringing, however rational and businesslike his adult life. Even if he didn’t articulate this as a motive himself, the connotations are there in the actions themselves.

A final point is that, unlike the expiatory sacrifice of Christ, the death of this scapegoat does not erase the stain upon Walt. All is not forgiven. Rather, Gus intended to place the burden of this man’s death onto Walt’s ledger. Doing the deed directly in front of Walt is a way to tell him that it had to done because of him. It is a threat, but also an accusation. Walt has killed, has sinned greatly against Gus. In response, Gus has tried, judged, and executed symbolically Walt through the proxy of this other man’s death, and he wants Walt to know it and to be deeply troubled by it.

He explains none of this. Partly, he is too enraged to speak. He has nothing to say to Walt, because if he allowed his rage to vent through his words, he would lose control. Probably, he cared very much about at least one person whose death is attributable to Walt. But also, his actions have more effect if Walt is forced to contemplate their obscure meaning at length on his own.

Just as we viewers are compelled to do.

Breaking Bad is the single best, most coherent, artfully composed, brilliant work of television drama ever. It is the height of the medium, and its influence will span decades. It is so dark, but it stimulates so much more thought than any other show I’ve ever watched. Sometimes I feel guilty when I watch TV shows, like I am wasting my time on mental junk food. Breaking Bad is more like modern literature.

Pittsburgh’s homeless population as of Jan 2014: 1492

Almost 1500 people in my city are homeless, according to a yearly census taken by the local safety net agencies.

I have to say that I am astounded that the number is so low, given the economic environment and the limited resources for the mentally ill. Given that the weather is so brutal this winter, a majority of those folks were in shelters, but a substantial number are still living under bridges, on river banks, anywhere they can find or make shelter.

The article I read in the Post Gazette mentioned that there is a push to end homelessness for veterans by 2015, and for all people by 2020. That there are still homeless veterans here in 2014 is a terrible stain. I’ve heard about a group that goes out to offer medical care to the homeless of Pittsburgh in the places where they live, started by a doctor at Mercy back in the 90’s. They not only help people where they are, they help connect them to services to get them out of those situations. I’m a little ashamed that I hadn’t heard of them sooner, and I mean to get in touch and find out if there is anything I can be doing to help.

When we were recently in Philadelphia, we stayed in a Days Inn in Center City that was perfectly nice given its economy pricing. When we logged on to a travel website to recommend it to others, we were stunned to find it near the bottom of the list for hotels in Philly. The main complaint of people who had stayed there was that it was on the same block as a long-standing Catholic agency that provided food, shelter, clothing, and other support to homeless men. Some comments suggested that the hotel should have disclosed the nearness of “those people” to guests when they called to book rooms.  Really?  Really? 

I was so incensed. Poverty doesn’t go away just because you ignore it. If there wasn’t a place for people to go for aid, maybe they would end up desperate enough to consider crime. People should be grateful to know that there are resources that folks in trouble can turn to, rather than frustrated at having to see anything that disrupts their fantasy worlds. They can’t imagine that they, or anyone they love, could ever be in need, and they believe in a world where justice always prevails so that if someone is on the bottom, it is because they deserve to be.  If only.

We were on our way out of town, on a tight schedule, but we did manage to give a tiny donation as we headed to the train station. A little thank you to the City of Brotherly Love for its graciousness to travelers like ourselves, and for inspiring me to look around my own City to see what I can do to help.