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Gary Borders: On taking the high road in dealing with angry people

Gary Borders
Gary Borders
Gary Borders

An unhappy customer called me the other day. He had every reason to be displeased, because we had given him poor service. His approach was to use foul language, which I endured. I figured he would eventually settle down and then maybe we could reason together.

I don’t like getting cussed out any more than the next person. Sometimes that just goes with the territory. In my younger years, I might have bowed up and told the fellow to quit using words we don’t print in a family newspaper. But with age occasionally comes wisdom, so I generally let angry customers blow off steam. Eventually, they calm down and realize they have used some language and said some things they should not have said. Apologies follow. We try to figure out how to keep what went wrong from happening again, and move on from there.

Being in the newspaper business, as in any business that deals with the public, means one is going to deal with angry people. Being around angry people both fascinates and appalls me. It seems to me that public outbursts of anger are more common these days.

Last week, I watched a young woman with pink hair get in a screaming match downtown with her partner/boyfriend/husband. He was parked on the street, and she leaned in the window and unleashed a loud torrent of curse words and threats. After about 30 seconds, he sped off, nearly knocking her over. It was like driving by a car wreck — horrifying but impossible to turn your gaze.

My hometown of Longview several years ago was named the Angriest City in America ‑ a title unfairly bestowed upon it. Having lived behind the Pine Curtain over many years — plus stints in Austin, Kansas and West Texas — it doesn’t seem to have a higher quotient of trigger-tempered people than anywhere else.

However, it appears eye that many of us are far more willing to vent our spleen and use harsh language toward someone who has done us wrong, actual or perceived. I blame the Internet, which has loosened the bounds of what folks will say to and about one another. People get online and leave comments they would not dare say to someone’s face. After a while, that type of discourse becomes so commonplace that it somehow seems OK to tongue-lash a sales clerk with crude language, who is too slow in ringing up a purchase.

When films and television shows use foul language and portray folks pitching a hissy fit, cussing people out, and losing their tempers over small matters as normal, even accepted behavior, then it increasingly does become accepted behavior in real life. And our society ends up becoming a less congenial place in which to interact.

I receive poor service, I either attempt to get the situation resolved, or I quit doing business with those folks. I worked my way through college as a waiter, cooking steaks at Bonanza, as a pizza delivery driver, dog catcher, a movie projectionist and finally at the newspaper. I remember what a grind those types of entry-level jobs can be, and try to cut some slack to others working similar jobs.

Maybe they were up all night with a sick baby. Or they’re worried about how they are going to make next month’s rent. Whatever the reason, my yelling at them won’t make the service or the situation any better. A kind word of encouragement almost always gets a better result than haranguing someone, I figure.

That fellow I was talking about? After a few moments, he indeed calmed down and apologized for cussing. He promised to stop by and meet me in person sometime. I look forward to it.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.