I heard him before I saw him; a tall man speaking loudly on his cell phone. He got in line directly behind me at the airport Chipotle, and I muttered a curse under my breath. As he continued to discuss plans with his business partner, I realized I was too hangry to deal with this. Just a few more minutes and this will be over, I reassured myself.
As the line progressed his conversation became even more animated. The palpable tension of all the customers confined to such a small space with him continued to grow.
When it was time for Mr. Cell Man to say the type of meat he wanted, he hollered at the employee. “You were asking me what kind of meat I wanted on my burrito, but you were looking at him” his arm shot out pointing to another airport employee, who had called out a greeting as he passed by. “Do you know how rude that is?”
I felt badly for the Chipotle employee as this was an overreaction to the situation. I wanted to speak up, but I was already frazzled from the long travel day. We were all going to have to put up with this necessary evil. Or so I thought.
The next employee in the assembly line asked Mr. Cell Man what toppings he wanted on his burrito and he busted into a hearty laugh. It was as if he knew we all felt uncomfortable around him now and was trying to show us what a laidback guy he was. She gave him some side-eye and plainly stated, “Ain’t nothing I said that was funny.”
I guffawed and several of the other customers began chuckling. But Mr. Cell Man hadn’t finished yet, “Well, a restaurant employee needs to show people respect. He should be aware of how he’s treating others.”
Irony, party of one, your order is ready.
I was concerned he was going to talk his way out of this. But she was having none of it.
“Honey, are you from New York?” her voice dripped with so much southern sweetness I could practically taste the syrup. “You sure sound like you’re from New York City.”
I choked back another laugh. Say something again, my mind begged him. Oh, please, say something again.
But he didn’t. He knew he’d been beat.
I walked to the nearby fountain to fill my water bottle. But really, I was just waiting for him to pay and leave. When I returned, she was surrounded by a posse of customers congratulating her for handling that situation. I made eye contact with her over the adoring horde and said, “That was incredible. Thank you. What’s your name?”
A smile lit up her face and she simply replied, “Angel.”
In my interactions, it’s not uncommon for me to be compared to a bull in a china shop. Subtly is not a characteristic I regularly practice. When I believe I’m right and someone else is wrong, I tend to smack them upside the head with the truth. I’ll not only list off the fallacies of their ideas but will often do so with an underlying tone of how obvious this all is. It’s as if I expect them to have all the same thoughts and experiences I’ve had and hold others personally accountable when they fall short of this.
She had a grace that I clearly lack. She didn’t back down from her convictions, but she also didn’t feel the need to directly call out his inappropriate behavior. Instead she handled it with a professional level of diplomacy and wit that everyone in that line immediately recognized. She held firm to making him stop disrespecting her colleague, but in such a beguiling manner that she was the epitome of customer service. Though I’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate it, I can absolutely admire it. I had the rare opportunity to watch a master at work. That day I got to bear witness to an Angel in action.
Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here.