Pretending that you care

I spent part of the day in New York yesterday.

First stop, an expensive sporting goods store that prides itself on service. I bought some skates, paid and then asked the security guy (the one with all the shelves behind his desk, where people check stuff they bring in) if I could leave my stuff there for ten minutes while I ran an errand.

"No, I’m really really sorry," he said, "but we can’t take responsibility and I’ll get in big trouble if I do. I know it’s a hassle for you…"

I left and did my errand. A little later, on my way back to the car, I had one last street to cross. Suddenly, a motorcade of 20 police cars, sirens roaring, whizzed by, blocking the crosswalk and making me miss the light (if anyone knows why NY City cops are suddenly doing this a lot, please let me know. Where are they going? Why? If it’s an emergency, why don’t they go faster? [Ari knows]).

As I waited for the cops to go by, I watched a meter guy walk up to my car and slowly start to write me a parking ticket. I was being penalized for being a good citizen and waiting for the endless motorcade!

I ran up and begged.

He turned to me and said, "I’m so sorry. I know what a hassle it is, but once I press this yellow button here, I have to finish. But I bet if you go to court and complain, they’ll waive it." Then he reached into his pocket and handed me a lollipop. "Thanks for coming to New York, and I’m sorry."

Except this story isn’t true.

The guy at the sporting goods store just grunted at me. Explained it wasn’t his job and just dared me to return the skates I had just bought. And the meter guy didn’t even bother to acknowledge me or make eye contact.

No, you can’t always hire exceptional people for these jobs. No, you can’t always invest enough time to train them sufficiently. But yes, you can make, "pretending you care," a barely acceptable alternative.

It doesn’t take much to take the edge off an encounter.

[Boy does this sound cynical. How inauthentic! How manipulative! Isn’t it better to just hire people who actually care? Of course it is. But as far as I can tell, that’s a lot harder than it looks–because so many organizations are organized around policies, not caring, and because so many employees have been trained not to care.

So, the essence of the lesson here is this: if people start out pretending to care, next thing you know, they actually do care. They like the positive feedback and they like the way being kind makes them feel. It spreads. It sticks.]