The true test of a man’s character is to give him the moral high-ground and watch how he defends it. It is one thing to be right. It is quite another matter to be right graciously. This morning I passed the test.
It was with some dismay that I discovered yesterday evening that there was a leak in the water main outside our house. The anxiety was not so much a result of the fact that I might be facing a larger water bill at the end of the month; rather, it was the sinking feeling one gets when one realises that an encounter with the municipality is unavoidable.
I girded my loins and phoned them this morning. It really should have been a routine call; it should – in theory, anyway – not have taken more than a couple of minutes to report a leak and request that a municipal worker come out to repair it. In theory.
It started annoyingly, but relatively promisingly. A prerecorded voice welcomed me to the municipal line, and assured me that by selecting the correct options by pressing the appropriate numbers, my inquiry could be more efficiently addressed. In retrospect, I shudder to think about what would have happened had I opted for the apparently less efficient option of waiting for the first available operator.
As it was, I selected the appropriate numbers from a seemingly endless list, and the prerecorded voice informed me that in order to facilitate quality assurance, my call would be recorded. That would appear to be a sign that my complaint would be taken seriously – at least if things go wrong, I would have a record that my complaint was lodged. But the municipality has come up with a cunning way of circumventing this potentially problematic protocol: they simply never answer the phone. If there is nothing to record, then there can be no accountability for shoddy service.
As the first hints of impatience began to manifest, another voice interrupted the tinny rendition of a forgettable ‘80s song to assure me that my call was important to the municipality and I would be attended to the minute an agent became available. I found this claim strangely implausible, but at least it temporarily quieted the dreadful arrangement of sounds that was being passed off to me as music.
After another seemingly interminable cycle of the metallic composition (the same track is repeated until you are on the verge of homicide), a voice interrupted to apologise for the inconvenience and once more assure me that as soon as an operator became available, my concern would be addressed.
O got to wondering what would happen if people had to always tell the truth. The voice would have been compelled to say: All of our agents are currently eating their Kentucky Fried Chicken, and could not be bothered to attend to your petty grievances. Please take the hint, hang up and leave us alone.
Just then, a real person spoke. I almost fell over. Now I have long believed bureaucracies the world over choose their customer relations people on the basis that they have no interpersonal skills. This person validated that belief. She simply said: “Yes?”, but the tone contained a mixture of complete apathy and latent hostility (probably as a result of having her chicken meal so rudely interrupted) that is difficult to convey with words. I began to explain my problem. I was midway through a sentence when she said: “You need Sanitation. Please hold”, and the tinny music began again.
I devised a sneaky plan to speed up the process. You have, I am sure, heard of Murphy’s law: If anything can go wrong it will. I am a believer in Ruddock’s law: Murphy was an optimist. I could see that Murphy had indeed taken control of the situation, and I would have to invoke Ruddock. Putting the phone onto speaker, so that I could hear if by some miracle somebody answered, I made myself a slice of toast with peanut-butter. Surely that would be irresistible to the capricious forces of fate? What could be more embarrassing than taking a mouthful of peanut-butter toast and, at the point when it is sticking most ardently to the palate, having the operator pick up?
I underestimated both Murphy’s and Ruddock’s laws. My woefully optimistic ruse failed. I finished my toast, made and consumed a cup of coffee, and still nothing. At this point I had been on the phone so long that was easier to go forward than to start again. I deliberately avoided trying to tempt fate by worrying that I would be disconnected at this point.
Eventually, after I had left Frustration far behind, strolled through the streets of Resentment and Regret, loitered in Desperation, and was just entering the outer suburbs of Resignation, a young male bade me a good morning. It was not quite as cheerful as it sounds, but it was an improvement on the three women who has shunted me from department to department during the previous 44 minutes (yes, I timed it). Perhaps his mood had been bolstered by the chicken meal and the siesta, which (I am inferring from the time taken to answer my call) had followed. He listened with only minor disdain, gave me a reference number and promised that somebody would be in touch.
Ten hours later, nobody has called, but that is tomorrow’s battle. Today, I got the year off to a good start. I refused to be discourteous to civil servants – and I use both words in the loosest possible sense – when many would have, and still made myself heard. And so, in some small way, I made a difference by rejecting the impulse to yield to my baser emotions. I’ll probably still get shoddy service, but maybe – just maybe – when the young man who logged my call dispatches a repairman, he will remember my courtesy and, in his post-poultry-engorged euphoria, will do so a little less sluggishly than he otherwise might have done.