There’s this one cashier at our grocery store that helps us sometimes. He’s disabled and has to sit on a stool while he slowly rings up our items. He’s very talkative and friendly, but his conversation is a little awkward.
I’ve noticed a lot of people avoid him. They know checkout will take longer and the topics will be weird, so they find a different line. More convenient, more comfortable. I caught myself avoiding his lane and felt awful.
He definitely notices when we recognize him and awkwardly shuffle away, as if we realized there’s a shorter line somewhere else. He can feel our impatience as he clumsily shoves our groceries into the bags. He knows we think his small talk is awkward. He can hear us thinking that employing a faster worker would be better customer service. After all, we’ve got important things to get to.
And he carries all this home with him every single night.
He’s a good sport and he makes the best of it. He tries to connect and he makes your day if he can. He knows some people like him. He’s proud of his work ethic and he’s a very sweet person. He’s got some friends and family who love him.
But sometimes he feels the hurt. Some days it really bothers him that people don’t want to see him. He wishes he could move faster so his customers would be satisfied. He replays the awkward comment he made to be funny, and hears again and again the pitying chuckle. He falls asleep to the impatient drum of your credit card on his counter. If he were more coordinated, he’d be more likable.
And he falls asleep with the same big feelings that I have when I’m embarrassed in front of my friends, the same big feelings you have when your boss makes you feel stupid.
“I can’t stand the IT guy. He’s super rude. Really unfriendly.”
Cassie always said what nobody else would say but everyone was thinking, so I knew that the rest of my team probably felt the same way about Ryan, who was there for the day installing new computers.
“Really? What happened?”
“I don’t know, he just… always looks really angry, and he seems annoyed when I tell him something’s not working. He never even says hi.”
I always encouraged my employees to speak freely, so I wanted Cassie to feel understood. But I’d worked with Ryan a lot, and he was a good guy.
“Have you gotten to talk to him much? He’s actually pretty nice once you get him talking. Maybe he’s a little shy, but he’s always been really helpful to me and he’s one of the hardest working people I know. You might like him if you get to know him.”
“Nope, his attitude sucks.” Cassie’s mind was made up.
Ryan is often misunderstood. He is very quiet and can be very serious. Focused, direct, and professional. Not exactly a social butterfly.
When people think and talk about Ryan the way Cassie did, it hurts Ryan. It’s not always to his face, but it gets around to him. Dirty looks, “feedback,” conversations overheard.
Cassie doesn’t know what has made Ryan who he is. Ryan served in active duty and saw some pretty dark stuff while trying to protect his country. Some of the stuff he had to see and do, he won’t talk about. “It just changes you,” he says. “You can never unsee it or undo it. And nobody back home will ever understand.”
Some nights he startles awake, ready to fight, only to find he’s sitting in a bed drenched in sweat. He has been through so much, sacrificed more than a lot of us can imagine. And it has left scars he carries with him to work every day–scars that rub people the wrong way. He’s seen more than just rainbows and butterflies, and you can see it on his face. But if you don’t know him already, it may just look like “unfriendliness.”
Ryan is a complete softy deep down. He’s head over heals for his wife and would give the world for his kids. He loves to serve. He has big feelings, just like the rest of us. It’s easy when we’re in Cassie’s position to forget that.
When I was about 7, I knew this girl named Bridget. She had a couple lively little siblings with cute curly hair–picture perfect. But she had plain black hair and lots of freckles. She was quiet and kept to herself. Shy.
Bridget brought me a picture that she drew of me as a gift. She had given me freckles, too.
“That’s so ugly! I don’t look like that at all! You’re so bad at drawing!” I yelled at her as I tore the picture down the middle and crumpled it up.
Tears welled up in Bridget’s eyes and she hurried away to hide. All alone.
Billions of people share this earth with you and me. Each one is unique. Each one has his or her own struggles and fears, insecurities and soft spots. But each one shares our humanness.
Look with compassion at the next person you see today, at the next person that bothers you, and the next stranger who interacts with you. They have feelings–big feelings–just like you. Good feelings and bad feelings. And you are going to have something to do with those feelings.