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. And all without having to spend time being tortured in a third world prison (another way that people end up realizing that the little things don’t matter so much, although often at the expense of the normal functioning of important body parts).
After watching a long series of boyfriends end calls to customer service by telling a call center worker in Mumbai to fuck herself because she is a dumb bitch — or return home in a murderous rage following a sojourn to the cell phone store / a TSA screening / returning the cable box to the cable company — 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 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. Cock your head to the side and really look at this sad person acting like an asshole. Isn’t that sad? Treat the asshole as though you are sad for him or her. 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. I find that people who are incredibly incompetent and/or incredibly annoying are never, for instance, professional wine testers, or Lady Gaga. In other words, they don’t have jobs that I want. I recently agreed to take a short bus trip, despite a previous vow to never ride a bus again because, by god, I’m 30. However, this bus trip was brief and departed and arrived at exactly the times I wanted to leave and go somewhere. When I arrived to pick up my ticket, I was presented with a very long line that, as it turned out, was long in part because the woman at the desk had incredibly long fingernails and thus had to … t y p e … l i k e … t h i s…. It was exhausting to even watch. I clocked the name on her nametag (hi, Sarah!) and thought about sending an email to the bus company. And then I thought: dear god, I am so glad I do not work behind the counter at the Port Authority. This woman is going to sit in a bus station for 40 hours this week and come home with a few hundred dollars to show for it. Maybe staring at her own jewel-encrusted talons gets her through the week. A wave of calm passes over me every time I do this; the person pissing me off is living an existence 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: by taking the bus rather than another mode of transportation, I was saving at least $50. If you do the math and discover that you’re enduring, say, half an hour of waiting or annoyance in exchange for the 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.
It Is Possible to Experience Gratitude That Standards Are Low. In this video, comedian Erin Jackson tells of a cashier who claimed that she couldn’t make fifteen cents change because “We ain’t got no dimes.” When I encounter people who are utterly failing (possibly by choice) to live up to even the low standards of an open-admission sort of job, I feel a flush of gratitude that standards are so low that, if I ever fell on hard times, I would easily be able to exceed those standards. “As long as someone like this is employed,” I say, “I will always be okay.”
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 (whom I have previously quoted at some length and with some caveats here) 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 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 skim 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 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. I am in no way claiming that all customer service people are incompetent, and of course plenty of them have cool side projects, graduate-degrees-in-progress, etc.
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: if other people were fast and efficient and smart and competent, I would have a hard time competing! As long as a great many people around me are sort of lame, I am easily able to be successful! For you to be at the top, other people have to be at the bottom, so thank those people for putting themselves there! They are like the kneeling people at the bottom of your cheerleader pyramid.
Of course, if the person whose incompetence is causing your aorta to shred is your Actual Boss, while some points above may still possibly apply, I shall reiterate my perennial advice to consider excusing yourself from the 9-to-5 job world. TheGloss editor Lilit Marcus has advice aplenty on dealing with a hellish boss in Save the Assistants. Also see How Business is Like Dating and How to Quit Your Job With Your Career and Dignity Intact. Or, hide a flask in your desk.