Telling Someone Off: Short-Term Impact; Permanent Damage

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My teenage daughter works at a local diner and usually comes into our bedroom upon returning from what are usually very long nights, aching feet and not much to show in the form of wages/tips for her labor. While most conversations consist of, “I’m tired, going to bed, love you all,” a recent visit was significantly more dramatic. She entered our bedroom in tears.

She told the story of an irate customer who was less than pleasant. Not only did the angry customer scream, yell and use foul language, she called the owner on the way home and insisted they terminate my daughter. Needless to say, she was very upset. Naturally, this led to my wife and me getting upset as well. Our anger intensified and concern for our daughter’s emotional state grew.

And while it’s never a good idea to “tell someone off,” we’ve all probably been guilty of crossing this line. But while we’re “giving it to them,” making our point, there’s someone’s day we’ve just ruined. Maybe even ruining their night, their weekend. Additionally, we’ve negatively impacted families, assuming they share their hurt feelings with others as my daughter did with my wife and me after her encounter.

We’re not talking about delivering constructive feedback to a service provider regarding expectations not met, services not delivered. We’re talking about losing our composure, creating a scene and damaging someone’s self-esteem. And it’s not just service providers we should avoid “telling off.” It’s that person in our office, a friend, a colleague, a family member. What might seem completely justified could be devastating to that other person. And it’s not just the tone and volume of one’s voice. The words we use can be equally if not more damaging.

A former Sunday school teacher of mine made the point of how damaging our words can be to another person. She distributed a small piece of wood, a nail and hammer instructing each student to hammer a nail into each piece of wood. The nail represented a word(s) that may have hurt someone. The hammer was then used to remove the nail representing the forgiveness one seeks. But even with the acceptance of an apology, the hole in the piece of wood, representing the memory of the hurt remains.

“Telling someone off” is not only a bad idea, it rarely delivers desired results. I remember witnessing an airline gate agent getting an earful from an angry passenger. The unruly passenger ranted and raved, he huffed and puffed and used profanity. The gate agent kept her composure, responded in a professional manner and eventually managed to get the passenger on another flight. After the angry passenger moved on, the passenger in front of me approached the counter and immediately complimented the gate agent on her cool, calm and collective demeanor in dealing with the previous customer. Her response, “Thank you for that feedback. That gentleman is going to Denver, his bags are going to Detroit!”