Unintended Consequences


I am a complainer. I have complained to managers about bad service in stores and restaurants. I have complained to customer service reps about being put on hold on the telephone. I have complained about the music that I have had to listen to while on hold.

Not long ago, after being put on hold for what seemed like hours (it was probably about 25 minutes), I told the hapless customer service rep who finally answered that had I had a gun, I would have shot myself because of the stupid music, and my blood would have been on her head, or on her supervisor’s head. I could tell she found the hysteria in my voice alarming. I told her they should give people the option of muting the music or at least of picking a genre. They were playing rock; I might have enjoyed a bit of jazz.  She deftly managed to seem as though she was on my side by agreeing with me that the music was terrible. We chatted about different tastes in music and the horror of having to listen to music you don’t like. She promised to pass my suggestion along to her supervisor. I thanked her and felt good about getting it all off my chest

After I thought about it for a while, I imagined the supervisor, who had been monitoring the call, cautioning the young customer service rep that when dealing with a crazy person, she should really defer to the supervisor. She shouldn’t herself have been critical of the music. I imagined the customer service rep being offended, deciding the job wasn’t worth it, and quitting. Who knows in this economy if she would get another job? Maybe she would get caught up in a vortex of unemployment, fall in with the wrong crowd, and become a drug addict. I ruined her life.

I felt terrible. I vowed to give a commendation to the next person who gave me good service. I didn’t have to wait long. I went into the electronics department of a large drugstore to buy a replacement battery for my cordless phone. I had the phone with me to make sure I bought the right type. The young man at the check-out noticed the phone and asked if I was sure the battery was compatible, explaining that he had bought the wrong battery for his cordless, and it had completely ruined the phone.

I went back to the electronics division for assistance, and sure enough, the battery I had selected was the wrong one. I managed to buy the correct battery, and on the way out asked to see the store manager. I gave a commendation praising the young man in glowing terms for saving me a lot of trouble and money. The manager seemed pleased and assured me it would go into the young man’s personnel file and, of course, he would be told. I felt great. I imagined the young man getting his commendation and maybe even getting some sort of employee of the month award. Perhaps he would get a promotion, maybe to the electronics division.

Then I started thinking. Suppose the young man had taken this job as way to save money for school. He could be very bright academically with long-term plans to go to university and major in physics. But because of the promotion, he decides to put school off for a year. In the meantime, he meets a young woman in the electronics division, and they start to date. She gets pregnant and they marry. He works hard and eventually becomes manager of the electronics division, where he stays for the next 40 years. But for my commendation, he might have become a brilliant physicist. I ruined his life.

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