Walk Softly. Don’t Carry a Stick.

My ego roared in pain. I bit my lip to resist unleashing a string of technical jargon that would crush her –this, this, this girl that dared speak condescendingly to me. My reaction caught me by surprise because I didn’t know I had a computer skill ego, but there it was –goading me to break off a piece of my “stuff” for her. I could so put her in her place –if I wanted to.

An hour earlier I had finished my last three emails of the day. I clicked “Send All” but instead of flying out through my “full time” Internet connection, each message stalled out, stuck stubbornly in my e-mail’s outbox. Something was wrong. Apparently, I had just become a barber with messy hair –a doctor feeling ill; it was time for me, the technology consultant, to fix my own problem.

I dove under my desk to check all cable connections –they were fine. I checked my router –the lights were lit normally and it “talked” to me when I sent a keyboard command from the computer –that was good. While giving my computer a fresh restart I checked my cable modem. The light indicating a connection from my home to the Internet was off. After running a few more tests, I had my professional diagnosis: The problem was outside my house and it was time to call the 800 number of the cable company that provides my Internet connection.

After navigating through an exhausting automated touch-tone maze, and waiting on hold for 15 minutes, I reached a squeaky-voiced girl named Cindy. She introduced herself with a glee so intense that it disturbed me. I imagined a sign tacked above her phone that read, “Smile –they can hear it!” A second sign underneath probably said, “Remember to use the customer’s name,” because Cindy began every sentence with: “OK, Mr. Neil...”

Fixing Internet connectivity problems is one of the most popular reasons for a computer service call. Each week I have the unglamorous privilege of fixing “Our email isn’t working,” problems for my Internet-dependent clients. Sometimes the fix is simple, yet occasionally it requires a level of “geekosity” that goes well beyond asking a client to reboot his computer. I’ve attained this level of geekosity through heavy, mental sweat and many long hours of experience. I know what I’m doing, yet I’m actually humble about my skill –frequently remembering that some of my technical peers are innately brilliant. Such reminders have kept my ego well in check –so far. [scary music here]

As I expected, Cindy’s voice squeaked me (Mr. Neil) through every step I’d already completed before calling her, but much more slowly! With each redundant step I bit my lip harder, answering through clenched teeth, taking the pain like a pro. I consoled myself by thinking, “Take it easy, Geoff. Cindy is only trying to make a living here –let her do her job. It won’t help to rush or impress her. When she finishes her entire script she’ll bump you up to a higher level support person.”

Unexpectedly, Cindy led me to an obscure window on my computer that had a checked box I’d seen a thousand times, but never had to change. She said my service had been upgraded and that clearing the checkbox then restarting my modem would fix my problem. She was correct and immediately her voice sounded much better to me. The squeak seemed to magically disappear!

It was then that I realized how irrelevant my computer knowledge (or Cindy’s) was to the situation. Cindy had specific information I needed and was in control of whether and how quickly I got it. Belittling her to satisfy my ego wouldn’t have helped me at all. It would only risk hurting her emotionally, while hindering me practically.

Interpersonal gentleness from an angry, frustrated, technology victim is rarely seen by technical support people. But clinging to politeness can help tremendously. I’ve found that no matter how upset I am with a computer problem, directing my stress to a person I’ve called for help doesn’t bring a solution more quickly.

Somewhere out there Cindy is still gleefully introducing herself and clearing that checkbox for other frustrated callers while she remembers to smile because “they can hear it.” Her callers may take out their frustration on her, but I’m glad I left our phone call feeling good about the solution and myself.

Still, I wish Cindy hadn’t begun our conversation with that stupid question: “OK, Mr. Neil, can you find the ‘Start’ button?”

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