I travel quite a bit and I must admit that I’m a bit of a customer service snob. It’s not that I expect to be treated like royalty, you knave. It’s just that if I’m paying for a service, I feel I should be treated as if I matter.
Recently, I was renting a car in Las Vegas. I won’t say the name of the company but it rhymes with “hurts.” I had not rented from them before so I wasn’t familiar with their particular routine at the airport. As I waited in line to check in, the agent, in a somewhat frustrated tone, instructed the people in front of me to move ahead to one of the check-in kiosks. So, not wanting to clog things up for the people behind me, I moved too. Apparently, though, it was not my turn. As I walked towards an open kiosk, the agent was clearly annoyed and yelled, “Sir, stop. Please listen. You can’t go there. You need to use the Number Six kiosk.”
Before I go on, let me share a little bit about my physical response to this situation. First, there appears to be a bundle of nerves that runs up my spine and attaches to the hairs on the back of my neck. These nerves shot electrical impulses up my back, down my arms, and then told the neck hairs that it was time to wake the hell up. Second, I suspect there is this gland in my head that’s responsible for facial heat and coloration. It was also activated. My cheeks went royal flush, which was appropriate since we were in Las Vegas. I’m sure that all of these physical reactions have something to do with the flight or fight response that served our Ice Age ancestors quite well. But I wasn’t in danger of being gored by a unicorn so my physical reaction to the rental car agent was just a tad bit extreme (there were unicorns back in the Ice Age, right?).
Anyway, back to my customer dis-service experience. My first inclination in response to the harsh agent was to tell her where she could put her Number Six kiosk. Luckily the part of my brain which prevents me from engaging in extreme verbal or physical behavior was fully intact so I didn’t do or say anything disrespectful. But even though I didn’t respond inappropriately, I did shut down emotionally. I retreated to a place where I used short verbal responses and made no eye contact. I felt as if a dark cloud had moved over my head and the feeling stayed with me the rest of the morning.
This is an example of an ineffective zag. Had I zigged instead, I would have experienced a much better outcome. Let me explain.
Two of the fundamental principles of humor are surprise and incongruence. The element of surprise catches us off guard and incongruence makes us look at things differently. Humor zigs rather than zags.
For instance, this hot dog walks into a bar. The bartender says, “I’m sorry, we don’t serve food here.”
I know, it’s a horribly stupid joke—but still funny. The unexpected punchline and the play on words create a surprise incongruence, or a zig when we expect a zag. It’s an alternative ending.
I have found that just about every time I react to a tense situation with a zig instead of a zag, I succeed in changing the outcome. In other words, I also create an alternative ending. When the rental car agent was upset with me, I zagged with an expected reaction—I got upset. But I could have zigged with something like this, “I’m so grateful you saw me heading towards the Lamborghini kiosk and steered me back to the Hyundai kiosk. I’m much more of a Hyundai kinda guy.”
Would she laugh? Maybe. Would it create an alternative ending? Definitely.
Here’s another example.
My son and I played golf while we were in Las Vegas. The starter at the golf club told us that he could send us onto the course earlier than our scheduled tee time but we would have to skip the practice range. We said that was OK. He then challenged us and asked if we were sure we wanted to skip the practice range. I said, “Absolutely…we’re not that good.”
He started laughing and sent us on our way.
Now, granted, this situation was not as tense as the one in the rental car facility but the principle still applied—it helped us to zig when he expected a zag.
If you’d like to zig rather than zag, there are really only two rules to follow. First, don’t do what is expected. Second, take the high road.
First, when you surprise someone with unexpected positive behavior, you give them a gift. You give them the gift of another perspective—and if what you say is funny, you give them the gift of laughter as well. Too often, we just do what everybody else does. We complain about the weather. We gripe about being inconvenienced. Or we whine about being mistreated. And yet, we could zig instead. Once, in high school, another kid tried to pick a fight with me. Instead of fighting, I complimented him on his shirt. He thanked me and walked away. It was a brilliant zig that made him forget why he wanted to fight me and saved me from getting a broken nose.
Second, when it comes to taking the high road, we just need to do what’s honorable. Today, a lot of people are being what my mother called, “ugly.” She wasn’t referring to their looks but their behavior. Ugly behavior is when someone uses a disrespectful approach to others. Taking the high road means maintaining dignity for ourselves and for others. We use courteous language and never go on the attack. It’s just the right way to act. It’s more humane.
We all will encounter challenging situations from time to time. But if we respond with anger, frustration, or aggression, it will only lead to more anger, frustration, and aggression. If, on the other hand, we choose to zig rather than zag, we’re likely to find an alternative ending that not only makes our day better but puts a positive vibe into the world.