I found myself waiting in line at a U-Haul store one morning a few days ago. I had emptied a storage space I no longer needed and was waiting to close out my account.
I was behind 9 or 10 other people, all waiting to be helped by one of three clerks. Most of the people in line were waiting to rent moving vans and likely had busy days ahead of them. None of us wanted to be wasting time standing in line, but we were being polite, giving each other space, waiting patiently. It was already 85 degrees and muggy—the warmest day of the year so far, and I think we were all grateful that if we had to wait, at least we were waiting in a cool, spacious room.
The peaceful atmosphere changed, however, when two more people—a middle aged couple—entered the room. The woman immediately began to complain. As the pair got in line behind me, she said, “Are you serious? I can’t believe they don’t have more clerks working! This will take forever!”
I noticed the shoulders of my fellow “waiters” rise and tighten ever so slightly.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the woman survey the room. Then I heard her whisper to the man, telling him to go to the clerk at the end of the line, who was seated at a desk partially hidden by a rack of packing supplies. Apparently the woman thought her partner might be able to sneak in there ahead of the rest of us. He skulked off obediently, but came back a minute later in defeat, having been told he’d have to wait in line with everyone else.
The woman then inched forward until she was standing about six inches behind me and I could feel her breath on my neck. (Apparently she is one of those people who believe that if you crowd the person in front of you, you’ll somehow get your turn more quickly.) I shifted my stance a few times, hoping she’d get the hint and back off, but when she didn’t, I turned around and politely asked if she would please give me a little room. She didn’t seem surprised or offended, which made me think she’d received similar requests before.
The tension that this impatient woman introduced into the room was obvious. I could see it in the posture of the other people in line. Backs and shoulders had tensed. Wary glances were made toward her—I think we were all watching to see if she’d try another sneaky maneuver to jump ahead of us. Where before we’d been “all in this together,” now a combatant had entered the mix, putting us on guard, making us edgy.
As I stood there, my mind went back a few years to a similar—yet very different—situation. I was waiting in line at the post office. It was about ten days before Christmas and the line was long. Two people actually had piles of packages waist high—I kid you not. We were all doing our best to be patient, but the waiting area was stuffy and so small that we had no choice but to invade each other’s space. There were only two clerks working and the wait seemed to be endless.
And then a phone began to ring. The owner of the phone had her arms full and it took her a while to juggle her parcels to get to it. It actually played out and stopped ringing before she found it, and she appeared embarrassed to have disturbed us. But no one seemed to mind because of her choice of ringtone: the opening bars of Play that Funky Music White Boy by Wild Cherry. That happens to be my all-time favorite party song—it energizes me. When I hear it I can’t help but jump up and start dancing. It seems that everyone else in the post office that day felt the same way about this song. In an instant, faces lit up with smiles, shoulders relaxed and bodies began to move to the beat.
Even after the music stopped, the improved mood in the room remained.
We began to chat with each other. We laughed at how infectious the song is. As the line progressed, we helped each other move our piles of packages. When the phone began to ring again, its owner silenced it quickly, but the room erupted with laughter once more.
The woman with the phone probably didn’t start her day planning to change the mood of a roomful of people. And yet—quite inadvertently—she did. It is very likely that she changed the direction of the rest of the day for some of us. Unfortunately, the very same statement can be made of the bristly woman at U-Haul.
I’ve come to realize that each of us has an effect on every environment we enter.
I cringe to think of the times when I’ve been the person who brought tension into a room. I can only hope that the times when I’ve been the “funky music bringer” far outweigh the times when I’ve been the impatient, bristly woman.
I’ve come to realize, too, that just being neutral isn’t good enough. As the saying goes, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”*
Even if the only positive things I bring to a room are a readiness to make eye contact and share a smile, and a determination to go with the flow without complaining: I’m doing my part.
(Oh—and bringing a “Let’s-get-this-party-started” ringtone never hurts either!)
*1967 VISTA recruitment slogan by Charles Rosner
Photo by Andre Hunter via Unsplash