Human-to-Human Service

(This chapter is the heart and soul of the book.)

It shouldn’t take a snowstorm for people to be nice to each other. The Blizzard of ’78 was the mother of all winter storms. New Englanders of a certain age have vivid memories of that massive blizzard that brought life to a screeching halt. Ironically, the enduring legacy of the storm was not the devastation left in its wake, but the power of the human condition under duress. I was a senior in high school at the time, and here are a few things I remember:

  • No school for a week.
  • No electricity, no newspapers.
  • Huge snow banks and snow tunnels.
  • Candlelight and great fires in the fireplace.
  • Playing cribbage with my father.
  • Huddling around a 9-volt transistor radio for updates.
  • Shoveling off the roof of our house so it wouldn’t collapse.
  • Fallen trees on power lines.
  • Cars banned from the roads for days.
  • Taking a sled to the supermarket for groceries.
  • Cooking on a BBQ grill in the driveway.
  • The cars stuck on Route 128, and the people in them.
  • Deployment of The National Guard.
  • Shoveling, shoveling, and more shoveling.
  • The beauty and excitement of all that snow!!!

The Boston Globe ran a story the week of the storm:

“Punchy N. E. fights back”

In an article by Michael Kenney;

In Revere, the Beachmont neighborhood is gone, and downtown looks like the set for a war movie….

Officials estimated that as many as 10,000 Massachusetts residents had been evacuated from their homes on the coast in the 48-hour period that began about 10 p.m. Monday as the high tide crested and began washing over seawalls and into low-lying areas…

Despite the terrible loss of life and property, most people who lived through The Blizzard of ’78 reminisce about how friendly and helpful people were to each other, and how everyone pulled together to get through the storm and its aftermath. We spoke to our neighbors, shoveled each other out; we retrieved and delivered groceries by sleds; we said hello to strangers, and they smiled and said hello back. We had conversations with neighbors and strangers because we all had something in common. The storm truly galvanized the entire region.

From The Boston Globe Thursday, February 9, 1978:

By Mike Barnicle:

Storms do strange things: they destroy natural boundaries and human life and, in the wake of danger, they build a sense of community and sharing related directly to the number of inches on the ground. Two inches and people still snarl at each other, 2 feet and all men are brothers.

The Blizzard of ’78 was a great human equalizer that rendered everyone powerless, and left many people stranded. Job titles, net worth, egos and diplomas didn’t matter. Everyone was equally helpless for a few days. Some people relied on total strangers for survival, and some people died, regardless of their social status. The storm fostered a camaraderie and cooperation nearly everyone embraced . Eventually, the strong bond faded as ‘reality’ crept back into our lives.

I thought about the transition from a galvanized, inclusive community back to ‘normalcy’ a lot after The Blizzard of ’78. It bothered me that people could be so good to each other when the playing field was level and then gradually revert back to their old ways. I know it’s idealistic to expect people to act exactly the same way that they do during extraordinary times, but it sure would be nice if they could come close. Unfortunately, people have short memories.

It shouldn’t take extreme weather, music, disabilities, food, religion, nature, tragedy, common interests, politics, violence, art, babies, sickness, dogs, hardship, religion, ethnicity, death, sports, natural disasters, film, trauma, science, war, holidays, smoke breaks, cancer, or an attack on our country to unite people, and to remind us how amazing, fragile, and short life really is. Unfortunately it does. People slip back to their ‘old ways’ until the next shared celebration or crisis hits.

Great human equalizers, like natural disasters, make people reach out and take care of each other, and they restore your faith in people. They make total strangers realize that they have a lot in common, and that we truly are “all in this together.” I’ve been referring to this phenomenon as “The Blizzard of ’78 Effect” ever since the big storm. It shouldn’t take a snowstorm for people to be nice to each other.

As I immersed myself in this book, making hundreds of notes and receiving responses to my questionnaires, I realized how, beyond the customer-server relationship, that human beings interact and ‘serve’ each other every day. The concept of Human-to-Human Service emerged, which is about co-existing, communicating, interacting, and helping fellow human beings every day. I believe that we have an obligation and responsibility to be responsive to each other, and take care of each other every day, as we do during and after extraordinary circumstances that put life in perspective.

I’m not a sadist, but I actually enjoy a good funeral. Memorial services can be very cathartic. They can also expose the essence of our humanity, our mortality, and who we are at the core. Attending a meaningful memorial celebration of someone you love, can be an extremely powerful, life-changing experience. Listening to a well-done eulogy or tribute really helps to crystallize what’s really important about our existence.

I have indelible images in my head of packed funeral parlors, churches and synagogues attended by people from all walks of life, for one common goal, to honor the deceased and celebrate their life. A thoughtful, emotional and dignified eulogy can be a unifying force for everyone in attendance. I’ve often driven away from memorial services wishing that everyone, everywhere, could have been part of the experience. Nothing brings humans together like death. I’ve often surveyed the room during wakes and thought, Why couldn’t we get this group of people together when the deceased was still alive and show them and tell them how much we loved them? There are opportunities for all of us every day to make connections with fellow human beings, and we need to do it more often.

I scan the obituaries (the Irish sports pages) of the Boston Globe every morning. I’m curious to know how old people are when they die, what they die of, and what is said about them after they’re gone. It hits home when someone dies young, or before their time. On any given day you can read about someone who dies without a clue the day before that they would be gone the next day.  I kept track of the unexpected deaths mentioned in the Globe for one week from 3/21/08 to 3/27/08. The deaths during that week included the following;

A 57-year-old woman killed when she was riding in a boat in the Florida Keys, and a 75-pound spotted eagle stingray flew out of the water and knocked her over, likely killing her on contact.

  • A 61-year-old woman killed when she was sitting in her parked car and hit by a speeding police cruiser.
  • 5 children killed in a house fire.
  • 7 people killed in Manhattan when a huge construction crane collapsed.
  • 5 people killed in a tropical storm in Bangladesh.

Every single day we hear about people dying in unexpected and shocking ways. A lot of people act as if they’re exempt, thinking that could never happen to them, That’s something you see on the news, is a common response. My assumption is that these people have never lost anyone close to them, and as a result, their perspective on life and death hasn’t altered their perception about what’s really important.

John Haines is a former poet laureate of Alaska. In his book, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, John writes,

Now and then people disappear in the far north and are never heard from again…

…How easily I might be spilled and swept under, my boat to be found one day lodged in driftwood, an oar washed up on the sand, and myself a sack weighted with silt, turning in an eddy.

A drowsy, half-wakeful menace waits for us in the quietness of this world. I have felt it near me while kneeling in the snow, minding a trap on a ridge many miles from home. There, in the cold that gripped my face, in the low, blue light failing around me, and the short day ending, in those familiar and friendly shadows, I was suddenly aware of something that did not care if I lived. Or, as it may be, running the river ice in midwinter: under the sled runners a sudden cracking and buckling that scared the dogs and sent my heart racing. How swiftly the solid bottom of one’s life can go.

We are reminded every day how fragile and short our lives really are. Yet, most people still view death and tragedy as a foreign concepts. I think it would be fascinating to talk to people who survived near-death experiences and see how it has influenced their outlook on life, their perspective on the “small stuff,” and the way they treat people. Why not make things easier and more pleasant for each other during the short time that we are here?

People who have worked in a service industry can empathize with people who serve them, similar to the way that people who have lost loved ones can empathize with people who are grieving.

Here are a few responses to the question, “In your opinion, why is it that some customers just ‘get it’ and are very polite, respectful and courteous to employees in customer service positions?”

Doreen Doyle (Chambermaid, Tour Guide, Company Owner)

For some it is just good DNA, good family values (ie – good upbringing, manners, respect).

For others, it may be life experience – a job that shaped them, a partner who influenced them, or a life-changing event which affected their view of the world.”

Some of the negative comments and interactions I have had stick with me for years. A terrible snub or criticism (which may be undeserved), can cut to the core, and undermine your self-esteem, more than the offender can ever imagine.

Terri (Waitress, Receptionist)

These customers are individuals who are tuned into life, others, and their surroundings. They are typically educated, caring, good people who can readily acknowledge that the service they are receiving is coming from a fellow human being, an equal in terms of human rights, etc., deserving the same dignity, decency and respect that everyone has a birth right to!

So much of it comes down to education. Very early on little ones need to learn discipline, boundaries, common courtesy, manners, decency and social responsibility. There is nothing cute about an obnoxious, spoiled child, nothing attractive about a fresh-mouthed, loud teenager, and not a thing appealing about an inappropriate and rude adult. I think as responsible human beings we should find the best way possible in each situation to make folks aware (in an approachable manner) when their behavior is unacceptable. This way, perhaps that person will think twice about their behavior before attempting it again.

Matt Nestor (Attorney, Judge);

  1. They’ve done those jobs.
  2. They like people.
  3. They were raised to respect everyone.

My favorite quote on this topic from a friend, I love retail, it’s the customers I hate.

I am always amazed that when you talk to someone very quickly you’ll happen upon a topic that they know a whole lot more than you do. Stupid examples; the bartender who speaks three languages, the cab driver who is an expert chess player. My point is that everyone can teach you or interest you in something – if you actually try and strike up a conversation.

Matt is a very good friend from college, and a couple of times a year we make an effort to get our old gang together to break bread and catch up on life. When I told Matt that I was working on this book, I knew I struck a chord. We were discussing the fact that you can learn a lot about people when you observe the way they interact with people in the service industries. Matt shared a story one night that I asked him to put in writing;

I had just finished interviewing a young Attorney. Great qualifications, excellent law school, good grades, and he came across really well. About an hour later, our receptionist, asked  ‘Are you going to hire that guy’? I could tell she wanted to say something, so I simply asked, Why?

She hesitated, but I encouraged her to talk. She went on and on about how rude he had been to her. She said, He can’t even even say hello. All he said was let Mr. Nestor know I am here for my 10:30 interview.  Apparently he proceeded to talk loudly on his cell phone while waiting,  and she felt as if he was giving her the once over when she walked past him.

Qualifications and the ability to work hard are, of course, the primary objectives in hiring someone. Having a bad  employee who is disrespectful to people  is like introducing a cancer into the workplace. He or she eventually harms everyone. I later learned that this attorney went to work for a small law firm and created real dissension with some long-time, loyal employees, and eventually left on difficult terms. After this, I always tried to get some read on people who entered the office from my team. It’s not a fool-proof system, but just one more way to evaluate someone’s character.

On a related note, I’ve always believed in the advice often given to people going on first dates; If you want to know what a person’s true colors are, pay attention to how they treat their servers…

Topics being researched and considered for this chapter;

  • Why are 19% of all customers impolite, disrespectful, or downright rude? (Psychology and Sociology behind the behavior.)
  • Pangea Day 2008
  • TED talk by stroke survivor Jill Bolte Taylor
  • Civil Society Project, The Civility Project, and Choosing Civility by P.M. Forni.
  • Softball sportsmanship: Mallory, Liz, and Sara.
  • Randy Pausch “Last Lecture” quotes
  • 20/20 “What Makes People Happy”
  • Narcissism studies.
  • Why Us? By James LeFanu (Our place in the universe.)
  • David Foster Wallace stories.
  • 20/20 “What Would You Do?”
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Steve Sillett-Redwood Ecologist
  • Ubuntu- Boston Celtics
  • Jeffrey Lockwood: A Guest of the World.
  • Ritz Carlton “Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”
  • Human Universals
  • Working by Studs Terkel. People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.
  • Every-day examples and studies of “Human-to-Human Service.”