For four years I managed the behind-the-scenes operations of a summer camp. Dealing with difficult parents was integral to the job. Most parents were, at worst, endearingly irrational; a select few were aggressive, deceptive and occasionally outright crazy.
My favorite was a father who was all three. Year after year, he'd send his son, and year after year he wouldn't pay. Think Norm Peterson without the iconic entrances.
His tab was my fault, because I allowed him to run it. He'd call at the last minute, and I'd get suckered by his latest sob story. One year our director had had enough, but I pushed back. I explained that this father had been trying, that he'd been making payments and was promising to make more. This time would be different, I assured.
It wasn't. The second his kid stepped off the bus was the second his credit card was full. His voicemail, too. I felt foolish, and I felt used, and throughout the winter I imagined all I'd say to the man if I could get him on the phone.
The following June I got that chance, when, as expected, he called to register. In retrospect, the few minutes we spoke were not my finest professional hour. My bitterness blinded me from the fact that he was still the customer. I didn't cross any lines, but I didn't sugarcoat, either. I explained how I'd trusted him and how I'd gone to bat for him, and how my generosity had netted me nothing but a dunce cap.
And when I was finished, after I'd unloaded nine months of resentment, I wondered why I didn't feel any better.
I still remember it clearly. I was in fourth grade, sitting at the dinner table as my parents and brother argued. Again. He was struggling with algebra, they wanted to get him a tutor. 60 Minutes-worthy stuff, I know, but given our family's Pollyanna-ness, these altercations registered as war.
As the voices around me rose, the voice in my head found clarity: I would never talk back. Ever. This logic felt as irrefutable as a math equation. Talk back, get in trouble. Two plus two equals four.
Hindsight, though, reveals I was guided not by logic but by fear. I feared upsetting my parents. And soon, I came to fear upsetting everyone with whom I came in contact. One decision made by a 9-year-old created a lifelong people pleaser.
The strategy worked, though. I don't think anybody hates me. Why would they? I almost always agree and seldom offend, morphing my opinions to appease. Sure, it's pathetic, but I've been doing it for so long it's become second nature. I've learned to harness my emotions so that they don't bother anybody else.
Until a father wants to register his son for summer camp.
Like George Costanza's "jerk store" comeback, when I delivered my well-crafted retort to that camp dad, my victory proved more Pyrrhic than prideful. There was hollowness and regret, as if I'd said the things you think but never say aloud. Maybe it would've helped had the guy gotten defensive, but that would've only turned the exchange into a spitting contest.
In those situations, my motivation often is to not only make myself feel better, but to make the other person feel worse. This spite fuels an initial surge, but it ultimately proves to be like eating off-diet -- it tastes great at first, but when it's over, the reflection in the mirror is of a person you don't want to be.
The adage "kill with kindness" is an adage for a reason. People like kindness. People respond to kindness, and people accommodate kindness.
My issue with the high road is that oftentimes it leads back to my childhood dinner table. I have things to say, but I lack the vocabulary to say them without coming off like a jerk. So I keep quiet, pushing my peas around until the impulse subsides.
This is especially difficult when the other person stoops to the lowest common denominator. You want to fight fire with fire, but you don't want to hit below the belt. You don't want your message to get lost in the harshness of your words.
There's a visceral release that comes with speaking up, as if you're literally getting something off your chest. But when you bite your tongue, you're left absorbing punch after punch, like a boxer's speed bag. That surging energy has nowhere to go but in.
There has to be a balance. There has to be a way to fully express yourself that doesn't automatically lead to regret. That's what I keep telling myself, because I haven't found it.
Several months ago, my wife and I ordered patio pavers for our house's exterior. When the delivery driver showed up, he realized he'd packed the wrong pallet jack. Fine. It happens. But the next day, after I raced home for the second time, the driver again told me he couldn't complete the delivery. He had the correct jack, but now he didn't know if he could get the pallets up our driveway and into our garage, even if I helped him.
For the record, our driveway is so flat it barely qualifies as an incline. But quashing my frustration, I called into the delivery company, determined to employ a balance of respect and resolve.
You can tell how helpful a person will be by the tone of their first few syllables. The woman who answered was not going to be helpful. Still I pressed forward. I recounted what had happened, and was clear that I expected a resolution. I also made it clear I knew it wasn't her fault, but that I hoped we'd fix it together.
With a palpable tough-s*** attitude, she offered no solutions and showed no interest in finding any. I wanted to ask her how a delivery company lacks the capacity to deliver, but I refrained. Instead, I asked her what the next step was.
"They can drop the pallets in the street," she replied.
In the street? On property we don't own, where cars have to park, where anyone could steal the stones, use them to break into my car and steal that too? That's what your delivery fee covers?
"Yeah, in the street."
Like I'd done with the camp father, I'd said what I wanted to say, only this time I'd done it in the politest way possible. Yet there I was, with no satisfaction, no progress and no pavers.