This post has been updated for 2022.
You know how some people say that alcoholics have to hit rock bottom before they become committed to change?
It’s possible to hit the rock-bottom of stress. When I was 24, the company I had been running for five years failed and my office landlord sued me and locked me out of the building, causing my office plants to die of dehydration. Before, I had been a neurotic, shouting, stomping, panic-attacked stresspuppy. However, at some point during the breakdown of my company, the stress-producing part of my brain became so overloaded that it broke. Like I blew a speaker.
And now? I’m chill. More chill than I’d have ever thought I had the genetic capacity to be. Similar to what some people describe after a near-death experience, so I’m happy to have skipped that part.
Not everyone has this chill. After watching a series of boyfriends be rude to customer service people, then return home in a rage following a sojourn to the cell phone store, for example, I thought maybe I could share some tips for mentally turning other people’s incompetence to your own advantage.
It’s Probably Not Making the Other Person Happy to Frustrate You
There are very few people in the world who can survive on an emotional diet of pure spite. Anyone making you miserable is probably even more miserable, either because he or she genuinely doesn’t have the ability or power to do the job any better (few low-level employees are actually empowered to solve problems in the most logical way), or because this person hates the job so much that he or she has decided to be an asshole about it. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a descent into assholery makes everyone less happy. That’s sad.
Treat this seeming asshole as though you are, in fact, sad for them. It really defuses things, and it’s much better to walk away from a work situation or customer service desk feeling sad for someone than feeling angry.
You Don’t Want That Job
It has never once happened to me that someone I find to be incompetent – or, to be fair, incompetent at handling the particular aspect of their job I’m privy to seeing during a particular slice of time – has a job I covet. Sometimes it’s a job I don’t think they probably want very much either. Sometimes the job is selling software to businesspeople over Zoom, which they may enjoy very much, but which I do not want to do at all. I once used an app that sends a cleaning service to your home, and they sent a young man with a Swiffer who I don’t think had ever cleaned anything in his life. He was objectively incompetent at this particular task, which nobody had bothered to train him for. I imagine he took the job because, obviously, he needed money to live and it was offered to him.
A wave of calm passes over me when I consider the fact that I do not want this person’s job, and they may not either; the person pissing me off is often working in a situation that would also make me very angry, so I actually feel like that person’s anger and incompetence are a rational response to the situation and something we now have in common.
Frustration is a Form of Labor
If you are being frustrated in the course of obtaining a low-cost product or service, it helps to do a bit of math. I once was frustrated in a line to buy a bus ticket to Atlantic City, by a woman who had one job (sell bus tickets!) but could not operate the machine that does this function at anywhere approaching a useful speed. However, by taking the bus rather than another mode of transportation, I was saving at least $50.
Your mileage may vary, but if you do the math and discover that you’re enduring, say, half an hour of waiting or annoyance in exchange for a $50 savings, then that’s $100 an hour, which isn’t bad at all. If you do the math and discover that you’re standing in a line or on hold and making less than minimum wage, consider your experience an exploratory mission for future time and cost savings, and also consider that even a low pay rate isn’t that bad for a gig that entails no responsibility and that you can’t fail at. I can be annoyed in exchange for money at any time of day, even when I’m really tired, which is not true of other forms of income generation.
Fake Niceness Goes a Long Way, Even When Everyone Knows It’s Fake
In a cab the other day, I said “Here is good, thank you,” and the driver pulled over and I said, “Great, thank you,” and then he said “Cash or credit?” and I said “Credit, thank you,” paid, and asked for a receipt. He handed it to me and I said “Thank you,” and he said, “Thank you.” As I was getting out of the cab, I realized I had said “thank you” at least five times, and the driver at least three. And it was kind of nice.
Were we really swimming in gratitude towards one another? Not really. But we had a mutual commitment to get the job done in a manner as free of friction as possible.
I feel free to offer fake smiles to people in boring, time-consuming, favor-involving business situations. People with good body language skills can tell a fake smile from a real one, and that’s fine. In fact, a real smile would be sort of pathological when complaining about how you didn’t realize Sleepy’s would be charging you retroactive interest if you didn’t pay off your mattress in full within 5 months and 29 days. A fake smile is just fine; it shows that you are committed to making the other person’s job easy. People like that. Fake niceness is the lubricant of unpleasant tasks.
Waiting is Called “Relaxing” If You Have Beer
“Peak performance” guru Tony Robbins (major caveats for that guy, but let’s proceed) tells a story in Awaken the Giant Within (side note: how many women really want to think about their inner “giant”?) about returning home from a trip and learning that he had over 100 phone calls to return, which made him angry and led him to ask “disempowering questions.” But then, in a more empowering question, he asked himself “How can I enjoy the process while I do what is necessary to make it the way I want it?” The answer turned out to be returning phone calls from the Jacuzzi (this story is so ’90s!) in his back yard.
As a stressed-to-the-brink young entrepreneur, I took this to heart, despite my execrable lack of Jacuzzi. I decided that waiting in line at the bank wasn’t so bad when you had a grande iced mocha, and that, actually, virtually any experience is improved by an optimal beverage supply. Recently, I had to sit through an online training that was totally stupid and pointless (“Is sexual harassment in the workplace acceptable if it’s just for fun? Click yes or no. You picked no. That is correct!”) I did so from my balcony (haha, I’m outdoors!) with a bowl of cereal (haha, I’m EATING!)
For non-work-related tasks, feel free to add booze. Banks, credit card companies, and places you ordered a defective blender from sometimes take calls in the evening and on weekends, times at which it is perfectly acceptable to be drinking champagne and eating strawberries while soaking your feet in a tub full of bath salts (seriously, doesn’t that make you want to call customer service right now?) Plan, say, 45 minutes of champagne/strawberries/soaking and then make your phone call. When you’re done early, you’ll hardly even know what to do with your new free time.
It’s worth a mention here that many people in customer service gigs or dead-end jobs of various kinds are disempowered by corporate structures that cause them to appear incompetent when they aren’t, and that, in a bad economy, plenty of people are legitimately dissatisfied to be working in jobs well below where they expected to be at this point in their lives. A lack of peak performance is a normal response to the brutalities of capitalism.
While the above has focused a lot on customer service situations, I find that, even in dealing with peers, I am often (initially) frustrated with the incredibly slow speed at which other people do things. At these times, I use the lull to get ahead on other things, and I just take a step back and feel gratitude: I do receive rewards in life for being fast, capable, and efficient. And for that to happen, other people must be slower, less capable, and less efficient. I am, in a sense, already being rewarded for my frustrations with others.
A big, deep breath and a beverage don’t hurt, either.