Our local post office is notorious for having especially rude, surly and unhelpful clerks. Earlier this week I saw it in action.
Ahead of me in line was a woman trying to send a package overnight. The problem was, overnight service -- although offered by the postal service -- wasn't available to the particular destination she needed.
An additional problem was, English wasn't the customer's first language. Nor was it the clerk's. And the clerk spoke really, really fast. The customer didn't understand the situation, and kept repeating her same request, while the clerk got more and more exasperated and rude, rolling her eyes and making comments that were dismissive and disparaging.
As an onlooker, this was extremely uncomfortable to witness.
My heart went out to the customer, who was not just frustrated and disappointed that she couldn't get this package to its destination in time, but also, I imagine, somewhat humiliated by the way she was looked at and spoken to.
I was angry with the clerk, who could hardly have been more unhelpful or disrespectful. I was angry that, for whatever reason, there was no one else there to help deal with the growing line of customers. And I was annoyed at the postmaster, the postal service, and government bureaucracy as a whole, for the dysfunctional organizational culture that makes this kind of behavior acceptable, even commonplace.
I took down the name of the postmaster, and started drafting a very powerful and articulate letter in my head to make him aware of the impact of this situation. I was halfway through that imaginary letter, the customer having already left, before I realized, with some embarrassment, that I'd completely missed my chance to actually be helpful.
I'd been thinking so much about what everyone else should and shouldn't have been doing to help the situation, that I completely missed the fact that I had agency too. That jittery fight/flight response I was feeling while standing in line? That was my body getting ready to do something!
It wouldn't have needed to be anything dramatic or heroic. What if I had just gone up to the customer and asked if there was anything I could do to help? Practically-speaking, there wasn't much I could do, but might the action have still made a difference?
Maybe it would have helped the customer feel more supported and less alone. Maybe it would have helped the clerk re-think her approach. Maybe it would have eased my sense of powerlessness, and soothed the discomfort of the other customers in line as well. Any one of those outcomes would have made it worth it to me.
I'm curious what other ideas you have about situations like this. Have you experienced similar discomfort in watching other people mistreat each other? What kinds of things have you done, or do you wish you had done? What was the outcome, or what might it have been? What other options can you think of for preventing and minimizing harm in situations like this?