The Breast Rule

Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can
All the same old clichés, is it a woman or a man?
And you always seem outnumbered so you don’t dare make a stand

— Bob Seeger, “Turn the Page”

I consider myself a student of customer service, both as a consumer and as one who has supervised employees for a couple of decades now.  Experience has taught me that providing incredible, amazing customer service (the “wow” factor) involves more than sustained effort; it requires the right attitude.

When I began studying the FISH philosophy years ago, I was surprised to learn that one’s attitude can be chosen.  It was with mouth agape that I watched a video showing businessmen showing up at the Seattle fish market at five in the morning in suits to help the fishmongers shovel ice.  The fact is that a positive attitude is contagious.  Once demonstrated, everyone wants to be a part of it.

I used to believe that one’s attitude was fixed as a matter of personality.  I thought that, like one’s profile or shadow, attitude pretty much follows you around and there’s not much you can do to change it.  I would hear coworkers say “Ooh, don’t mess with her, she’s in a bad mood today.”

What I learned is that it is possible to adjust one’s attitude rather than resign one’s self to the vicissitudes of fate.  So, you had a fight with your significant other, your kids are a bunch of unappreciative no-goods and your car is in the shop for expensive repairs.  With so much going wrong in your life, the last thing you want is to have a crappy day.  The good news is that you don’t have to.  I like to think of work as a sanctuary where I can arrive with a smile upon my face and forget my troubles for a while.  Work can be escape from the less than wonderful aspects of life.

In the customer service world, we expect people to call in because they want to complain, because they have problems that they would like us to solve (immediately, if possible).  I like to treat those problems as challenges.  I encourage my staff to dig into their mental toolboxes and determine what resources are available to make the customer happy again.  This means that you need to have sufficient tech skills to research the issue, but more than that, it means soothing those who would just as soon take out their frustrations on you.  Success requires listening skills and being “fully present.”  It is so easy to set yourself on autopilot by making assumptions because, after all, you’ve heard it all hundreds of times before.  There are few ways of losing a customer faster.

Remember, for the customer, this is the first time.  This is the only time.  The attitude of the customer service rep, whether at a call center or in a retail store, will be the number one factor in determining the customer’s image of the business.  And there are no second chances.  Blow it and not only will the customer not be back, but the customer will tell everyone he or she knows to do business elsewhere.  I myself will not step foot inside certain businesses as a result of poor customer service that I received years ago.  Customers have long memories and, really, that’s the way it should be.

In light of the above, I will proceed to gripe about one of my all-time customer service pet peeves.

There are two words that need to be eradicated from every customer service representative’s vocabulary.  Those words are “sir” and “ma’am.”

Yes, we wish to be courteous and deferential.  But those terms are so loaded that they need to be banished to the trash heap.  Forever.  You may think that these words express respect, but in many cases they do not.

I have had more than one experience with women being offended when I call them “ma’am.”  Not only does it sound phony, but they have told me in no uncertain terms that it makes them feel like old ladies.  “Only my mother gets called ‘ma’am’,” one customer told me.

And that’s not even the half of it.  When speaking to a customer on the phone, can you really, truly tell me that you can be 100% sure of the person’s gender?  I assure you that you cannot.  I know of few ways to make a customer angrier than referring to him or her by the incorrect gender.  I cannot blame customers for taking offense at such misidentification.  Our gender is a part of our identity and getting it wrong can make an already unhappy customer unmanageable.  This gaffe can unnecessarily turn a little problem into a big problem.

If you deal with people in person, misidentifying a person’s gender is still an issue.  I know this from unfortunate personal experience.

I refer to this issue as “the breast rule.”  Some women have low-pitched voices and some men have high, squeaky voices.  So retail staff often decide whether to refer to a customer as “sir” or “ma’am” based on the presence or absence of breasts.  I realize how preposterous this sounds, but I am not kidding.  To make matters worse, it is often an unconscious process.  The way our brains are wired, we make split-second connections based on past experiences.  Hence, the breast rule.

You can see where I am going with this.  Many men, myself included, have breasts due to obesity, hormonal problems, genetic issues or some combination of the above.  Androgyny has often been ridiculed in the media, perhaps most memorably by the old Saturday Night Live sketch “It’s Pat.”  These days, I hear talk of “moobs” (man boobs) and even the “bro” (a support device that I am told is the male equivalent of the bra).  I have been referred to by many hurtful names, one of the worst being “she-male.”  It goes on and on.  But if you’re after a customer’s business and wish to provide truly exceptional service, it is necessary to stay as far away from this sort of thing as possible.

Yes, I become totally annoyed when shop or restaurant employees misidentify my gender and refer to me as “ma’am.”  I usually fight back by deliberately referring to the employee using the incorrect gender.  Sometimes they apologize; sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes they don’t get it or just play dumb.  My poor wife has been known to pipe up “He’s a man!”

Ironically, this is a customer service error that, unlike a lot of things, is so easy to fix.  The obvious first step in this process is to scrap “the breast rule.”  Make no assumptions.  The next step is to excise the words “sir” and “ma’am” from your vocabulary.

Whatever happened to just donning a big smile and asking “How are you today?” in your most cheerful voice?

No gender identification required.

California’s AB 1266: Equality, Respect and Peeing

rest room

So I’m still trying to help the niece get through quadratic equations.  Factoring some of these babies is like wrestling with a grizzly bear, I tell you.  Particularly the ones with fourth powers and such.  Just remember to rationalize your roots and use integer factoring before resorting to the quadratic formula.  Oh, and get rid of the variables in those denominators.  Simplify your expressions.  Show your work.

I’m so glad I’m not in school anymore.

My niece loves her psychology class but is stumped on choosing a topic for her final paper.  It has to be a current issue and she must introduce it by expressing her position in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.  The instructor wants her students to stay away from topics that are “redundant.”  Whatever that means.  “Not gun control” was the example offered.  My guess is that this teacher doesn’t want to see any topic that has been debated to death in the news.

I asked my niece whether she had anything in mind.  She told me she’d like to gripe about why 18 year olds can die for their country in a war but can’t drink legally.  I asked if she’d Googled the topic and she said she had, but found nothing.  I suggested this could be because 18 year olds who are active military can drink legally.

So now we’re back to square one.  I suggested doing something on bullying, a topic that has returned to the news in the wake of last week’s murder/suicide at Sparks Middle School.  But we couldn’t decide whether or not this falls within the purview of the “redundant.”

One topic that interests my niece is California’s AB 1266, the recent law that modified the state Education Code to grant transgendered students the right to use their choice of the school’s boys’ or girls’ rest rooms and locker rooms, even before sex reassignment surgery.  Massachusetts and Colorado already have adopted similar laws, so our Golden State legislators are not exactly being mavericks here.

I rather like this topic, because it exposes entirely unreasonable societal fears for the warrantless cultural bugaboos they really are.  Tell me how this goes now?  As long as the student in the skirt still has male equipment, that student needs to stay out of the ladies’ room?  But as soon as she (yes, I said “she”) has her junk removed, it will be okay?  After all, we wouldn’t want any transitioning male-to-female transgendered people committing rapes in the women’s.  (Say what??)  Preoperative female-to-male transgendered people we don’t really care about, as they haven’t the equipment to rape anyone with.  Does this sound as insane to you as it does to me?

Of course, the conservative right and the evangelicals are up in arms.  That’s okay, go ahead and withdraw your kids from the public schools.  It may reduce the state aid available to our district, but at least it will improve the student-teacher ratio (until they start laying off teachers, that is).  Besides, home schooling rocks.

I went a step further and suggested that the whole issue of who is permitted to use which rest room is little more than a tempest in a teacup.  I am thinking in terms of all public rest rooms, not just those in schools.  Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that rest rooms were segregated by race.  Why should they continue to be segregated by gender?

If rest rooms in airports, stores and public buildings were not segregated by gender, the idea wouldn’t seem so radical in the case of schools. And when is a better time to teach gender equality, respect and human decency than during the formative years?

One thing that all of us of both genders have in common is that, sooner or later, we gotta go pee.  Standards of common decency should be no different in a rest room than elsewhere.  Like so many things, this goes back to how children are raised.  In the home, the bathrooms are not labeled “men’s and “women’s.”

I had to tell my niece a story about the rest rooms in my freshman college dormitory.  Each floor of the dorm had two wings, one for men and one for women.  Each gender had a large rest room and shower facility in the center of its wing.  In the men’s wing, the problem was that many of the guys had girlfriends who liked to stay overnight and didn’t want to have to trudge all the way over to the other wing to go pee in the middle of the night.  The residence assistant called a meeting to take a vote of the men living in our wing as to whether women should be permitted to use our rest room and shower facility.  The “yes” vote would have been unanimous if not for the fact that yours truly took the coward’s way out and abstained.

As I saw it, I no more wanted women walking in on me than the women in the other wing wanted men walking in on them.  So what terrible things happened?  Absolutely none.  I became accustomed to exiting a rest room stall to find a woman in a bath robe coming out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her hair.  It occurred to me that this was not that different from what I experienced with my sisters back at home.

I think the increasing popularity of “family rest rooms” is a baby step in the right direction.  This solves the problem of what Dad should do when his four year old daughter has to pee during a shopping trip to Wal-Mart.  The naysayers point out that family rest rooms are “single occupancy;” if the parent locks the door, no one else can walk in.  As I say, it’s just a step.  But it’s better than nothing.

A rest room should be just that, a rest room.  A neutral location divested of political and religious issues, an equal opportunity place where anyone can go pee.  I suppose there will always be those who obsess over who is a woman, who is a man, and who may legally step into a particular rest room.  I think those people have bigger problems.


On Friendship


I’ve been thinking about friendship a lot lately, and I have a few questions.  What does it mean “to be friends with” another person?  And why is it that men and women seem to have vastly different concepts of friendship?

I ask these questions because the whole friendship thing remains a mystery to me.  I’ve always been more of a loner type, like my father.  The idea of willingly spending large amounts of time in the company of someone of the same gender has never really rubbed off on me.

In my Jewish elementary school, I had a few friends, but my mother urged me not to call them that.  “They’re not your friends, they’re playmates,” she’d insist.  In third and fourth grade, my favorite playmate was Chaim, but the next year we had a fight over some trivial thing, started pulling each other’s hair, and that was pretty much the end of it.  It would never have worked out anyway.  I hear he became super Orthodox, while I defected to the secular world.

Back then, it seemed that friendship was a kind of bargaining chip, coin of the realm that could be spent to purchase favors.  “I’ll be your best friend” was often the whining refrain when one kid was trying to coax another to do his bidding.

I had what I thought was a good friend in sixth grade, but then came the macrocosm of junior high and we drifted off in separate directions.  Even in high school, a year seemed to be the statute of limitations on anything approaching friendship.

I guess I’ve always done my own thing.  I never wanted the kind of commitment that friendship implied.  It was just too much work.  Why would you want to waste hours of precious time allowing another to cry on your shoulder?  Get a life, I would think.  If you need to unburden yourself of your problems, find a good therapist.  At least they get paid to listen to your insipid whining about your evil boss and your even more evil mother-in-law.

I do realize how fortunate I am.  I have a wonderful boss and a delightful mother-in-law.  I’m sorry that you don’t.  Sucks to be you, but I really don’t want to hear it, certainly not when it’s the same dumb thing over and over again.  I don’t mean to sound cruel and heartless, it’s just that I have problems of my own and I lack the emotional energy to deal with yours also.

I must say that, despite how cliché this has become, my wife really is my best friend.  She understands me on a level that no one else does.  She knows what I’m thinking almost before I think it.  I don’t feel comfortable making any decision without consulting her — not because I feel the need to ask for permission (although it doesn’t hurt!), but because she consistently has insights that never would have occurred to me.

The funny thing about my wife, though, is that, unlike me, she has many friends.  Some of her friendships stretch back to childhood days while others are of more recent vintage.  Either way, she has the knack for the proper care and feeding of a friendship so that it stays healthy and matures over the years.  I am envious.

The gender stereotypes surrounding friendship are many.  Men friends watch sports together; women friends go shopping together.  Men friends pump fists, arm wrestle, borrow each other’s tools and go out drinking together.  Women friends gossip about mutual acquaintances, swap kid stories and meet at Starbucks to get away from the house and console each other regarding their mean ol’ husbands.

Aha!  It’s obvious now.  Male friendships are largely physical, while female friendships are largely emotional.  No wonder women’s friendships are more sustainable.  The physical can only last so long.  The emotional, on the other hand, is much deeper and has the potential to continue indefinitely.

The problem with stereotypes, however, is that they are usually false, even when accepted to the point of becoming conventional wisdom.  Lately, I seem to keep running across guys who serve as emotional support for one another.  You see this on TV all the time, from the 1980s show thirtysomething to the current Mad Men.

Perhaps I am just a sexist old fart, but despite the feel-good man buddy stuff on TV, I believe that women tend to have longer, stronger friendships because they are often better communicators.  Even in this modern age, there are still plenty of men out there who don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings.  In my experience, it is more common for women to be willing to share openly with others and to have the kind of empathy that is the stuff of which good friendships are made.  A lot of men could take a lesson from this.

As for myself, I am forced to conclude that my lack of long-term friendships is a product of self-centeredness.  Any type of relationship is an equation in which the two sides must balance.  In terms of quantity, you only get out of it as much as you put into it.  Or in terms of quality, the GIGO rule applies (garbage in, garbage out).

On the other hand, I don’t feel as if my life is in any way diminished by a lack of close friendships.  Between our extended family and my many acquaintances at work, there are more than enough significant people in my life already.

But I still admire those who cultivate friendships early and then nurture them for decades.  Somehow, that seems like something special.