Okay, the people yelling at me weren't really idiots; but they were angry. It is just that after an extended time of steady abuse, they all seemed like idiots. Or ingrates.
But they really weren't. Many of them were pretty pleasant, despite the issues they encountered. The angry ones were just people who were rightfully frustrated, had little control over their situation, and did not understand the full challenges that had contributed to their angst. Does that sound familiar to any of you in workers' comp?
Last Sunday I spent the day volunteering with members of my local Sertoma Club, managing parking for a huge Classic and Antique Car Show that is held annually in the Sarasota/Bradenton area. While the show is free for attendees, they do charge a $2 donation for parking. While the car club gets a small portion of the take, our group gets the majority of donations to help fund our local children's' speech clinic and other causes related to kids with hearing loss. Thousands of people attend this show, and last year we raised over $5,000 for just a few hours work.
This year, however, we faced some challenges that were beyond anyone's control. The show is held in a large collection of pastures in an area known as Lakewood Ranch, and heavy rains earlier in the week had left significant portions of the grounds flooded. By Sunday morning less than half of our available parking area could be opened. Additionally, we lost one of our three access gates due to mud. To make matters worse, after just a couple hours, muddy areas and full lots forced a second gate to stop allowing cars in, requiring all cars to pass through the last remaining gate; the gate where I was stationed collecting the $2 parking fee.
We had Sheriff's Deputies managing the traffic in the road, which was backed up for miles. We came to learn that people sat in that line for over an hour before reaching the gate. Compounding our problems, parking areas were becoming muddy and rutted with heavy use, and some cars, most driven by people who did not follow directions, ended up sinking in the mud. The road beyond our collection point became backlogged as vehicles attempted to traverse the gooey quagmire. Twice, several hours in, we had to close the gates to wait for enough people to leave so that we could allow more to enter. This left cars in the road in both directions as far as the eye could see.
And you thought your job sucked.
Needless to say, while the majority of people were pleasant despite the frustrations, some chose to unload their sentiments on the first person they got to speak with. Therefore, as one of the two collectors at the gate, I was a lucky recipient of their rage. One guy sarcastically asked me if we've “ever done this before”. A woman who thoroughly berated me because of the interminable wait and the lack of current updates on the car show website (over which we had no control), did so while she was getting out of her car to get her wallet out of the trunk. Another paused his tirade to put his car in park while he answered his cell phone. He spoke to someone for over a minute while traffic sat behind him.
Okay, those last two WERE idiots. Morons. Imbeciles. I was tempted to direct them to the mud soaked sections and let them sink their vehicles up to the axles; the claims equivalent of waiting until the absolute last minute to cut a check or forgetting to confirm a doctor's appointment for a pissy injured worker. But I thought better of it.
The real fun began at 1:00, when the Sheriff Deputies on duty left. The car show had only paid for their time until one, and as one deputy told me before she bid adieu, “you can't run this gate without traffic control”. With that, they were gone, leaving us with hundreds of cars in line and no way to manage them.
With that action we made the decision to close the parking lot.
What followed was a lesson in the myopic potential of the human species, where people only view the world and act accordingly commensurate with their immediate perceptions and needs. People started exiting their vehicles to see why they could not get in. One man demanded we let him in because he had two veterans in the car. He specifically declined my apology over the matter with a rather spectacular gesture. Another pointed at an available space within view and insisted we could let him in for it. The fact that hundreds of other cars were waiting to be accommodated and there was no safe way to manage their ingress did not seem to concern him.
Ultimately, we were tasked with doing a job that was heavily influenced by factors we could not control. The people we were serving did not understand the system or the challenges we faced, and could only approach the situation with a perspective they understood. It was slow, it was confusing, it was inconvenient, and for a few of them, even arriving after the long delay only meant more stress when they got further mired in the muck.
Seriously, does that sound like any industry we might know?
It is a difficult thing to stand there and take abuse when you are doing everything possible to work for a positive outcome (It is even worse when it is an entire Sunday that you have volunteered away). Still, I found that by quickly informing people why the situation had been so chaotic, most of them seemed to calm down a bit. When they understood the underlying reasons it helped some cope with the issue. Information in the form of an explanation was a salve that could treat the festering wound of impatience and anxiety.
Bottom line, clear and concise communication, combined with empathy and honesty, soothed frayed nerves and frazzled attitudes. It didn't work on everyone, but it did impact most. Some people seemed intent on venting regardless of what they were told. I get it. They were inconvenienced and frustrated. They were angry.
And some of them, it turns out, were idiots after all.