Friday, March 19, 2010

Benefit of the doubt

As part of Wednesday’s fabulous biking excursion which I wrote about yesterday, Holly and I stopped at our local general store to buy sandwiches for lunch. Our general store is a genuine small-town gathering spot, and the people who work there are friendly, welcoming and familiar to us. Except that I usually just go to the register counter, not the deli counter, so I did not recognize the young woman taking sandwich orders.

Still, knowing the high standards of this family-owned business, I assumed she’d be pleasant and I greeted her with a big smile.

To my surprise, she was not pleasant at all. She scowled and muttered over my sandwich order. It’s always strange to smile at someone who does not smile back. It’s a little like asking someone a question when they don’t hear you. Like the question, your smile just sort of seems to hang in the air between the two of you.

Having not seen her at the store before, I wondered if she was always like this or if this was unusual. Maybe, I told myself, something awful had just happened to her. Maybe if I knew her from previous visits and thought of her as a friendly person, I’d be alarmed to see how downcast she appeared today. I thought about how sometimes at large supermarket chains you see a sign in the checkout line saying that the bagger is part of a training program for the mentally disabled and customers are therefore asked to show extra patience. When I see those signs, I bend over backwards to be extra patient, and I imagine just about every customer does too. We all want to encourage someone for whom a job particularly challenging when they have the courage to try it anyway. What if there was a sign at the deli counter that said “J. has just received some very bad news. Please be patient with her bad mood today.”?

Well, then of course I would have forgiven her the lack of smile. I would have gone out of my way to try to be kind.

On the other hand, what if she’s always like that? Why should I have to put up with my sandwich order – and my cheerful greeting – being met with a scowl?

I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone speeds past me on the highway or cuts me off in traffic, I tell myself that maybe they are rushing a passenger to the hospital. When a child behaves very obnoxiously in public, I consider that he might have severe behavioral problems that the parents are at their wits’ end trying to resolve, and I should just feel lucky not to have to deal with anything like that myself. Last week at the post office, when a woman I didn't recognize left her oversized SUV idling for twenty minutes in front of the "no idling zone" sign, I tried to imagine that maybe she had a feverish child inside the car for whom she absolutely had to keep the heat cranked up.

But sometimes it’s hard to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Surely not every single person who cuts me off in traffic is rushing to the hospital. Not everyone at the supermarket who brings twenty items into the express line needs to hurry home to meet the kindergarten bus. And sometimes being too willing to put up with other people’s unpleasant behavior just makes you feel like a pushover.

Still, you never know. I’ll go back to the general store’s sandwich counter at some point and hope to find the young woman in a better mood before I judge her as not up to the store’s standards of customer service. Maybe it was just a really bad day. And if so, I don’t have any wish to make it any worse for her by labeling her an unfriendly person.

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