We’ve all been in them; those uncomfortable situations when something is misunderstood and there seems to be no graceful way to recover. We’ve crossed some social boundary and may not even know exactly what happened. Add a characteristic that makes you different in some way from those around you and the opportunities for misunderstanding multiply. It’s important for us to remember in those moments that we’re not the only one who’s in an uncomfortable situation. More often than I would like, I wish I could go back and handle the situation better.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to walk to the Starbuck’s a mile from my house. I had just come off of an all-night software installation at work and wanted to stay awake and not get off-schedule. Maybe that is my excuse. The place was crowded. The line stretched around the back of the room, and I couldn’t find the end of it. That was my first interaction with the lady. I didn’t know her. She didn’t fit the image one might have of a typical barista at Starbuck’s, but because she approached me while I was near the front counter trying to get my bearings, I thought she worked there. I let her help me find the end of the line.
After I placed my order, I moved to the general area where pickups would be made and waited. There did not appear to be any place to sit and I was content to put off that quest until after I had coffee and breakfast in hand. They called the breakfast items out and I went up to get them. Again the helpful lady appeared and assisted me in finding the items I ordered. There were so many people I can only hope that I didn’t actually pick up items meant for someone who was ahead of me.
I kept waiting for the coffee order. I kept waiting for the coffee order. I kept waiting for the coffee order. Finally Ms helpful lady appeared again and asked me what I ordered. Still thinking she worked there, I told her, and then I kept waiting for the coffee order. When she approached me again, it finally became apparent to me that she was just another customer trying to be helpful. At this point I should have taken control of the situation, but she was trying to be helpful and rather than add to the awkwardness of the whole thing further I just let her go back up and ask on my behalf.
I eventually got my coffee, but then it got worse. There were no open tables. I didn’t know this for sure but I knew that if there were any they would not be easy to find, so I let the woman guide me to a chair. The trouble was, it was not at an empty table. The woman already seated there told us someone was coming to join her. At this point I am trying to bow out gracefully, but Ms helpful isn’t done yet. The table where she was trying to seat me was the high table meant to accommodate wheelchairs. The empty chair being spoken for, she grabbed one from another table, moved it to the occupied table, and insisted that since it was meant for handicapped people I could sit there.
This is where I messed up. Some people seem to be uneducable, but I should have at least tried. She did mean well. Instead, I bolted. I hit the front door and found myself a table outside. No one benefited from that exchange. Ms. Helpful was probably offended and confused. Who knows what the young lady at the table thought about the whole thing?
I tell this story for two reasons. I hope it serves as an instructional aid for those who really want to be helpful, but need a little guidance as to how to do it best. Put yourself in the other person’s place. Don’t assume you know what they need. Ask them. In this woman’s defense, she did ask at a couple of points during our interaction. Where she really went wrong was at the end. She was going to get me a chair regardless of what I or anyone else affected thought about it. The awkwardness of the situation for me didn’t occur to her.
There is also a lesson for those of us on the receiving end here. It’s easy to get offended by the presumption and disrespect we sometimes get from people, but these are often teachable moments. Why not rather be delighted that they mean well and help them to do better the next time they meet someone with a need? Make a new friend and help out those whom they will meet after you.