By L Parker Brown on April 21, 2019
By L Parker Brown on April 19, 2019
I feel you. It is no secret that most people would rather have a root canal than go to the DMV or any other government agency and have to interact with a civil servant. Although numerous services are now available online, sooner or later you may have to travel that road to aggravation and visit a public service office.
Some folks try to avoid the visit by making a phone call. I assure you that calling and engaging in the press button marathon is often just as exasperating as going there. You dial an agency’s number and the phone rings. And rings. And rings. When and if an automatic answering service responds, a recorded announcement asks you to press or say this number and that number so many times that by the time the number to the extension you need is announced you’ve forgotten why you called. And even when on rare occasions you are lucky enough to get a live person on the line right away, you may be asked, “May I put you on hold while I pull up your records?”
“Sure” you answer knowing that your choices are limited.
Whenever that happens to me, I imagine that the person who leaves me hanging under the pretense of searching the computer files is chit-chatting with the person in the next cubicle about non-job related issues like her date or his score the night before.
A bad attitude seems to be the modus operandi for many civil servants whether they communicate with you over the phone or in person. Do you ever wonder what is wrong with them the reason many display such insolence when all we want to do is take care of business?
Before you presume that I am lumping all civil servants into one barrel of incivility, I promise you that I am not. And I admit that sometimes I am caught off guard when one of the “govies” displays a pleasant disposition.
Following the longest government shutdown in American history, I had a problem with my social security payment. Having no desire to visit the office, I made numerous phone calls to various offices within the department trying to resolve the matter. That futility went on for over a week. Each time I called the Administration an automated service answered, and, of course, asked me to hold on. I’ve learned to always check the clock whenever I am asked to hold. And then I imagine how nice it would be if agencies were required to pay callers a dollar a minute for hold time.
My time is as valuable as theirs, so instead of idling, I would press the speaker button, set the phone on a nearby table or place it in my pocket and go about doing housecleaning, computing, or whatever I needed to do, all the while listening to corny hold music and waiting for an agent to pick up. The longest wait-time I logged one day was 58 minutes, after which – you guessed it, I hung up. Fifty-eight dollars would have been nice compensation for my time.
On the days when a live person finally came on the line that person sometimes transferred me to someone else. I admit that I found at least a couple of the govies were courteous, professional and helpful. Eventually, I got the issue resolved without having to spend 3-4 hours downtown at the agency.
Flashback to the dreaded visit to the DMV. A few weeks ago, after my grandson misplaced his wallet, he had to go to DMV to get another ID card. Before going there, he prepared by heeding my advice. “Carry everything and anything they might ask for to prove your identity and residency so you won’t have to make a return trip.” Birth certificate, social security card, lease, utility bills, bank statement, official mail from any government agency. You might as well throw in the kitchen sink.”
I was flabbergasted as my grandson said he was when he later told me that the experience was “not bad.” No long wait time. No hassling by a disgruntled clerk. A young man who he described as “pleasant” asked for one – yes, only one – of the numerous documents he had brought with him. (Of course, we know that had he only brought one document, he would have been asked for everything that he didn’t bring.) My grandson was in and out of there within 45 minutes. Surely that must be record time for a trip to the DMV.
Unlike private sector businesses where dissatisfied customers have the option of going elsewhere for service, state and local government offices hold the monopoly for dispensing driver’s licenses, passports, and other official documents as well as administering various social services. Civil servants had a reputation for nastiness long before this country entered the “season of being mean.” The question is why are some bureaucrats so darn unpleasant?
Perhaps the answer lies within a study done by Gallup in the summer of 2009. It revealed: “The fact that public employees have stronger job protections, even in nonunion organizations than their private-sector colleagues, makes it more difficult to deal with poor performers.” Does that give government workers license to treat patrons like crap?
Another study I discovered was done by researchers from USC, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the Kellogg School. It was conducted to test how power and status determine behavior. “The results showed that when low-status individuals [i.e., customer service reps] are given greater power, they are more likely to abuse that power.” To the contrary, people who hold positions of high power and high status often behave more professionally than those in lower status position. (Of course, as has been evident in the political milieu during the last two years, there is an exception to every rule.)
My early job history included seven years of employment with the federal government before I decided I’d had enough and fled to the private sector. Because the offices where I worked did not involve direct contact with the general public, I did not see much animosity by my coworkers directed against callers. However, I did witness the arrogance that some upper-grade staff members levied against their subordinates, so I easily understand why lower lever workers might take out their frustrations on their clientele.
The next time you absolutely must interact with a civil servant who is providing customer service at a government agency (or any place of business) as soon as you perceive that she or he is about to cop an attitude, disarm the person. Instead of escalating the situation with a put-down, “If your brains were dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough to blow your wig off,” show your pleasant side. I know this may be difficult to do. The urge to give as good as we get is often irresistible, but it’s worth a try. Keep in mind that the person serving you may have nothing to lose, and all you want to do is accomplish what you came for, leave, and pray to God that you never have to return.
By L Parker Brown on April 6, 2019
For years, I’ve told my daughter about how, when my siblings and I were growing up, mother kept an indoor garden of beautiful house plants. When I was still in grade school, most of those flowers flourished year round on the windowsill in our living room.
The one plant that was too large to sit in the window occupied a place on the floor beside the roll-arm upholstered chair. Its sturdy, bright green leaves must have been at least three feet tall. It was a Sansevieria trifasciata. (“What the…,” you say. My thought exactly, that’s why I prefer to call it by it’s familiar nickname “mother-in-law’s tongue” or “snake plant.”)
The snake plant is native to the tropics of West Africa, and while its average lifespan is 5-10 years, some have been known to live as long as 25 years.
I’m not sure if that particular plant was my mother’s favorite, but it sure was mine. The beautiful flower thrived for years, even surviving the move our family made from the cramped apartment in LeDroit Park to our more spacious house in Petworth; but like all living things, it eventually died.
Some weeks ago, my daughter surprised me when she presented me with the snake plant pictured above. “Had she grown tired of hearing me share memories about her grandmother’s snake plant?” I wondered. No, she’s just that kind of thoughtful person. I almost cried because the plant resurrected old memories. I purchased a snake plant early last year, but it came to an early demise shortly after I brought it home, probably due to my overwatering it. I didn’t know then, but I do now; water is not the snake plant’s best friend. (I did say that I didn’t inherit mother’s green thumb, remember?)
I am not one of those eccentric people who name their plants. However, I made an exception and named this one Millie, after my mother, Mildred, because my childhood recollection of my mother’s beautiful snake plant is as vivid as if I were standing in front of it today. Isn’t it strange how things that some people would consider insignificant are, for others, a lasting memory?
Lately, whenever I walk past and look at that plant gifted by my daughter, I think of my mother nurturing her plants with the same tenderness that she bestowed on her children, all those years ago.
Next month, May 12, is Mother’s Day. When that day comes, mother won’t get flowers from me as she did for many years, because (as some of my readers know) she deceased four years, nine months and 20 days ago. But this year, I’ll look with gratitude at my daughter’s (early Mother’s Day) gift, and smile as I always do, because it rekindles pleasant memories of my mother and her fondness for plants.
Plant-lovers will tell you that plant tending takes root in our mind, and just like every pleasant moment in our life plants sow something sweet in our soul.
By L Parker Brown on March 9, 2019
Every cognizant person will agree that we are never too old to learn. Learning is even better when you enjoy it, and I do. I take pride in acquiring knowledge about new things. There are various ways to learn. Firsthand experience is often an excellent teacher. On the other hand, there is knowledge to be gained from articles, books, and films. Documentary films are high on my list of educational tools.
Some of the numerous documentaries I’ve watched over the years and recently include Time: The Kalief Browder Story, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, I Am Not Your Negro, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, Surviving R. Kelly, and The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.
While I prefer films about the Black experience, I don’t limit my viewing to presentations about a particular racial group or subject. Open-mindedness not only helps me to maintain a well-rounded base of knowledge; it expands my critical thinking and prevents me from stating baseless opinions and making irrational judgments.
Most recently I watched the documentary Period. End of Sentence. My first thought as I began viewing the film was that we take so much for granted in this country. You’ll learn why I thought that as you continue reading.
Period. End of Sentence is a 26-minute film that won an Oscar last month for Best Documentary Short Subject. It is about the stigma surrounding menstruation in a rural village called Kathikhera, outside Delhi, India.
I was surprised to learn of the level of naivety of the Indian women (and men) concerning a subject that rarely raises eyebrows in America. In the Delhi town (and some other resource-poor countries including parts of Africa and Southeast Asia) the subject of menstruation is rarely discussed among women and certainly not with men.
As one man in the film is heard saying, “Menstruation is the biggest taboo in my country.” Women on their period are believed to be unclean. Less than 10 percent of women use sanitary pads and lack knowledge about menstrual hygiene.
Few schools have adequate facilities to allow girls to perform proper hygiene during that time month, so there is an increase in school absenteeism and a high dropout rate among young girls. Like other menstruating females, school girls use old cotton clothing or whatever cloth they have on hand when they are on their period.
In one scene in the film, a man operating a crude machine developed to produce sanitary pads instructs his female employees on how to use the machine. When finished, the pads are boxed and then sold to shops in the village where merchants are willing to buy them (not all merchants do, because of the societal taboo). Women from the shop that manufacturers the pads also go door-to-door trying to sell boxes of pads, but some women upon learning what they are for refuse them. Some also questioned the safety of using the pads that are self-sticking to underwear.
The attempts to educate women about menstruation and the use of pads, instead of pieces of cloth that are washed and reused or discarded, are often rejected by women who are embarrassed to buy the pads or discuss the issue when men are around. Even more mindboggling is one apparently middle-aged man who, when told what the pads were for, said that he thought the women in the shop were making diapers for infants.
Perhaps you see now why I say that documentaries are high on my list of educational tools. The next time you decide to watch a documentary check out Period. End of Sentence.
The taboo surrounding menstruation which is still prevalent in some countries prompted the World Bank to create the following video on the subject.
By L Parker Brown on February 17, 2019