She was a little colorless wren of a woman standing behind the service counter at Sears almost thirty years ago. The queue of people waiting in line in front of her was excessively long and each person seemed to have an exessively large item to be returned or exchanged. Tempers were becoming more tattered by the moment and the gentleman ahead of me was visibly irritated. He’d placed his box on the floor in front of him and from time to time gave it a little kick forward.
Finally we reached the head of the line and he stepped up for his turn. He slammed his box on the counter and immediately began his harangue, complaining loudly that he’d been waiting for over half an hour and had other things to do with his life than loiter around hoping for some service.
The woman stood with her head bent, like a child receiving a scolding. She let him wind down and when he finally paused for breath, she said, very softly … “I’m so sorry for your long wait. We normally close the service counter for lunch hour, but today because we’ve been so busy, we decided to stay open. ” She paused for a perfect moment before adding … “ We drew straws and I got the short one …’” She spread her hands out helplessly and reached for his parcel.
Apparently mollified somewhat, the man calmed down and the complaint was registered. But as she handed him his money, she gave him a wonderful warm smile and said, “ On busy days like this, I sometimes feel like Ollie Octopus …” She wiggled her arms like tentacles.
And as he turned to leave, I could see traces of amusement hovering around his lips.
When I stepped up to the counter, the residue of the little clerk’s smile was still lingering in her eyes. I somehow felt I’d just witnessed her cast some sort of spell on the angry customer. I leaned forward and whispered, “ Wow that was some magic … ”
She beamed at me, her pale face suddenly radiant.
“It’s actually quite simple.” she said. “Pleasantness is like a virus … it’s contagious …”
Decades have passed since that incident at Sears. I have travelled all over the world, been involved in more social situations than I could have imagined when I first saw this drab little lady cast her spell and share its secret with me. But she gave me one of the most precious lessons I could ever have learned. It gave me a doorway to a life almost devoid of petty confrontations and those small irritants which sour so many people’s daily rounds. It taught me to diffuse unpleasant situations and to genuinely delight in making people smile and lifting spirits. And the rewards are immeasurable.
How did that receptionist recognize me over the phone out of thousands of patients who go to Walmart for eye exams and glasses? She told me because I was one of their favorite patients. Why did the clerk at the pharmacy offer to run all my other purchases through quickly with my prescription and save me the long queue at general checkout. How did I find myself with one of those coveted bulkhead seats on that overbooked holiday flight? Hey, my bill from my dentist suddenly has a “Professional courtesy discount” … whatever that is. The grocer in Chinatown produces perfect mangos from somewhere behind the counter and insists they’re the same price as the small bruised ones in the bins outsided his store.
Everywhere there is kindness and smiles. And for every favor I respond with appreciation. And it’s real and it’s from the heart and reminds me each time how connected we all are. And how much joy we can share in little daily transactions.
Because that clerk was right. Pleasantness is contagious …
And it is magic!