“How are you doing, Mrs March?”
When I moved to Toronto to attend university, my first summer job was in the box office of a big theatre.
About once a week, usually at lunchtime, a woman named Mrs March would come in to pick up a batch of tickets. We all dreaded her arrival and would scramble NOT to be at the window serving her — she was grumpy, officious, and never satisfied. There was always something wrong with the order and she would unleash her considerable wrath on whatever hapless soul was on the other side of the glass from her.
Inevitably my turn came, and as Mrs March stood there huffing and blowing and looking at her watch, I became more and more unglued.
The computer system was especially slow that day (and this was in the very early days of computers to begin with) and the ticket printer was one of those clunky old dot matrix things that jammed frequently.
Predictably, Mrs March lost it.
And for whatever reason, instead of taking it to heart, I took a deep breath and said, “It sounds like you’re having an awful day.”
There was a pause, during which I confess I thought, “Oh shit. I’m in for it now…”
And then Mrs March blinked and said, “Yes. Oh my goodness, yes, it’s been a dreadful day. It really has.”
She told me that she worked for an incredibly demanding boss who didn’t treat her very nicely — whenever she picked up his tickets from us and took them back to him, he would find some fault (the seats were not to his satisfaction, Mrs March had taken too long on her lunch-hour [!] picking them up…) and then belittle her.
As she spoke, and as I listened, I could see the tension and anger drain out of her. By the time the printer finished grinding and rasping and I handed her the packet of tickets, she was actually smiling a little.
She put the tickets into her purse and as she turned to go, she said “Thank you, dear.”
And I replied that she was welcome, and that I would see her next time, and she smiled a bit at that, too. We never had another problem, and Mrs March became someone we all actually looked forward to seeing. I always asked how her day was going, and sometimes it was terrible and sometimes it wasn’t. But our exchanges over the ticket window became something she clearly looked forward to now, and truth be told, so did I. She was actually a very funny woman with a dry sense of humour that I came to relish, and sometimes we’d be laughing like old chums as we waited for that infernal printer to finish its grinding and buzzing.
That was, of course, many years ago, but I think often about that lesson — how simply asking someone “How are you doing?” and then listening to the answer, can be so incredibly powerful.