Two years ago this month I started a new job; 26 years old, 11 hours away from my friends and family, and scared of the change I drove south to North Carolina. It was time to build a life on my own, and though Michigan was the home and place where my much of my family lived, and friends that are basically family, it also didn't hold a lot of work options so when the job offer came to move 700 miles south I took it. Leaving felt like saying "goodbye comfort zone, hello, adulting."
Previous work history was varied. I had scooped delicious gummi bears and dusty cinnamon into bags and containers, took care of people in the throes of Alzheimers, worked briefly on volunteer projects in other countries, operated a local ferry (not as glamorous as it sounds though I did frequently read through books like "Phantom of the Opera" in a whole shift) worked briefly as a secretary and helped eviscerate chickens. How I lived that long without a steady job is mostly due to the fact that my parents didn't mind me helping out around our large Michigan place in exchange for rent and aside from car insurance, small incidental expenses and wanderlust I didn't have much incentive to get into a car and drive to work 5 days a week.
Welcome to the South, Hon
Then life changed and suddenly I found myself in a Court Square flat in North Carolina driving to work 5 days a week working exclusively with a rent-to-own company. The learning curve felt pretty steep to me, not because the work itself was that challenging, but because I had never had to work with people who say they will do something and then don't with a file attached of reasons why. The reasons varied wildly between deaths in the family to pregnant chihuahuas and at first it was intimidating, it was overwhelming, and sometimes flat-out hilarious. I had people tell me they had just been acquitted of murder, ate only cases of pop-tarts for weeks, that they loved me, that they didn't mind if I called them for a payment because I was a woman, and that I was their sweet angel. If I had a dollar for every time I've been called sweetie, hon, sweetheart and baby I'd be twice as rich as I am now.
I felt myself grow a tough hide in what I marked as possible cynicism. Their stories still interested me, but they didn't engage me. I learned to keep it calm and carry on, and keep the median conversation to a business level. I learned their probable histories and consequently to discern who might be telling the truth and who might not. It was sobering to realize that the people who were consistently 40 days late over a 4 year period of time with us due to illnesses, deaths, and hospitalizations in their family and friends probably weren't lying or exaggerating. Parts of the south are rampant with unstable family structures, drug addicts, disability and welfare programs and fixed income households living on impossibly little each month. In this business you could receive a call about a fathers, brothers, third wife's child from her second marriage in the hospital, possibly due to drug abuse, and a host of barking dogs, spouse and children in the background yelling loudly. Customers who live in utility buildings they are renting with only the barest in necessary plumbing and comfort. People who can afford to pay about $20 a week on their bill.
There are nicer stories, of course. Customers to whom you give a helping hand and listening ear only to have them dissolve into tears over the relief on one thing gone right for them in a difficult time of life. (Aside: I will never know what to do with a crying customer. One cannot hand out tissues over the phone) There are also the people calling that are some of the nicest, sweet and funny people. The ironic thing is that these are the people you end up talking to the least because they cause the least trouble. Therefore the worst 25% are the people that take up 75% or more of your time. Most of us in this business say the same thing; somewhere along the line we become skeptical of people. Coming from a sheltered background where people mostly stuck to their word to one where people constantly broke commitments was a shocker, and in this business it's only a matter of when you lose your belief in people, not if. You can only be lied to a certain amount of times before you begin to dig deeper and question people's motives. It's only a matter a time until you develop skepticism in some of the seedier conversations.
This is disconcerting, because as a Christian we center our lives around Love and Truth and to rub shoulders with people who place little priority on the real value of either feels like being constantly placed in situations where our wish to be compassionate and the need to stick to a median business line feels like it doesn't intersect.
To be compassionate and to give people what they want is not the same thing. To be empathetic doesn't mean that you automatically become a pushover. The best way I can think to explain this is parenting technique. You can give a kid whatever he or she wants all the time even if it isn't in their best interest and you can count on fostering wrong habits and bad patterns that will determine so many things about their life. Adults are different in that they have the responsibility of their life, but it's the same basic principle; you do the best you can on when to give grace and when to stay firm and dish out consequences, or let the consequences come to them.
This is the lesson I'm most grateful for in taking this job; I learned to listen before I came here, but to listen and stand my ground at this job. This could be Useful in just about anything I work after this. Anyone who has ever had to take responsibility (welcome to life, sweetheart) has to know that dealing with customers in any position of authority is the ability to listen. Hear them out, and this goes for anything in life: relationships, family, business, kids, and church. You won't have any shot at all with people if you don't learn to truly listen, and usually the only people who defy this rule are dictators. Not recommended.