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Responding to Cheap Shots and Personal Attacks

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a frontline supervisor of people from all different walks of life and from several different countries. A term we use and teach our staff is cultural diversity. It is part of our everyday lives, as we constantly interact with customers and staff who are “not from here.” We try to be courteous of their customs and make them feel comfortable in our society.

Unfortunately, it seems we do not receive the same treatment. Instead, we hear berating of our culture and beliefs. As a proud American, I have a hard time with people who ridicule my culture. But as a frontline supervisor, I have to tell my staff to be courteous regardless of what is said. How do we best deal with these people who are hostile toward our staff while maintaining respect for their cultural differences?

Thanks,
Red, White, and Blue

Dear Red,

First, on behalf of all of us who frequently run into belligerent, defensive, and uncaring customer service, let me congratulate you and your team on your desire to serve in a caring and professional way. Your efforts are particularly notable given that you often serve under hostile circumstances.

When you work with a clientele that seems particularly bent on pointing out our country’s weak underbelly, it can indeed be annoying. With time and repeated exposure to unrelenting, unsolicited and often irrelevant criticism, you feel as if you need to speak up. After all, it can feel disloyal to just sit there and take it. Saying nothing is the same as agreeing—or so it seems. So out of a deep sense of loyalty to all that you hold dear, you finally speak up, set the record straight, or otherwise wave the flag. But due to the emotional nature of the topic, you come across as defensive and risk offending your customer.

I have personally found a way to come to peace with this challenge. First and foremost, I realize that America has broad shoulders. She can take whatever is dealt her. I don’t need to defend her because she does fine on her own. Second, one of the freedoms we hold dear is our freedom of speech. When I hear people making fun of something—sometimes something I value greatly—I try to see it as a fine display of free speech. This makes it a good thing. Of course, when the verbal attack is part of the daily discourse between fellow citizens, I do respond to the criticism and do my best to engage in what I hope is a healthy discourse.

I also play an important message in my head every time someone takes a shot at something I value. I ask myself, “Am I going to solve this problem by picking up the argument?” That is, will I either (1) fix the problem or (2) get others to understand why they’re wrong?

For instance, a student from Australia who took a class from me last year approached me during the break and stated, “You know what’s wrong with American food and particularly American restaurants?” I wasn’t sure so I took the bait.

“I give, what’s wrong?”

He told me. “Every restaurant has the same menu—you’ve got your filet, your obligatory mashed potatoes, and an overcooked vegetable.”

While there are actually many restaurants with very different menus, there was some truth to what he said. And I quickly realized that nothing I would say in defense would change the restaurants he was referring to. So I smiled and said, “You got that right.”

Occasionally you’ll have a lengthy and caring relationship with someone who constantly takes cheap shots at something you value, with no intention of having honest dialogue. Under these circumstances you might want to speak up. For example, as I got to know the Australian student better, I cared about him enough to say something about his unrelenting attack on the U.S.

One day, after he made fun of snow cones, I said, “You know, when I traveled in Australia, people would often ask me what I thought of their country. At first I thought they wanted to know the whole picture. I’d tell them how much I enjoyed X, Y, and Z, but didn’t care for A, B, and C. I soon learned they wanted to hear what I liked. Nothing more. We were making small talk, not setting a national political agenda. So I learned to focus on the good. It made me feel better, it made others feel better, and it didn’t grate on the relationship.” He smiled at me, said “I hear you,” and from that moment on stopped ridiculing America in front of me.

But he was a friend, not a customer. With customers, take comfort in knowing that your quiet smile, friendly service, and lack of defensiveness is part of what makes you and your organization great. You offer up a particularly fine gift when you allow others to speak their concerns openly and freely. Your silence doesn’t imply agreement. It demonstrates your confidence in a system that largely works. So meet with your team and thank them for doing the right thing—serving their customers, even when they make it hard. Praise them for their patience and mature attitude. Continue to take the high road.

One final point. If someone is personally abusive of one of your employees, that’s simply unacceptable and needs to be addressed as a separate problem. Customers have responsibilities too, and one of them is to treat others with respect. But I’m assuming that most of the sharp-tongue comments you referred to aren’t aimed at any one person—just the country, and well, she can take it.

Respectfully yours,
Kerry Patterson

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more