Do You Work With the Public?

You Need to Know The Magic Phrase

Roz Warren
· 3 min read
Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash

You’ve taken a wrong turn at the museum and ended up in a gallery that’s closed to the public. A security guard approaches.

“Can I help you?” he asks.

That’s not what he really means. He’s not actually offering to help you trespass. He’s telling you that you’re not supposed be there, and that he’s going to make sure you leave.

He’s saying, in fact, just the opposite of “Can I help you?”

What he’s saying is “I’m going to stop you.”

I love this kind of Coded Language — where you say one thing but you and the person you’re addressing both know you mean just the opposite.

I work at a public library, and while most of our patrons are wonderful people, a few of them can become downright rude if they don’t get what they want.

No matter how annoying or even abusive they are, we, as public servants, cannot respond in kind. We must remain pleasant, courteous and respectful, even as they’re screaming insults at us.

We’re thinking “How dare you? I hate you! Drop dead!” But the worst we can say to them is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

I always found this hard to endure. Enormously frustrating. Close to intolerable. But then I learned the Magic Phrase, which I will now pass along to you. If you work with the public, you’ll find it comes in very handy.

A while back, Sam, a new employee, started working with me at the circulation desk. One day a patron demanded that Sam waive the large fine on his account. Sam, friendly but firm, said no.

The guy insisted.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said, “but no.”

At which the guy went ballistic. Red-faced, he ordered Sam to get rid of the fine. When that didn’t work he began to insult Sam personally. Sam stood there impassively as the guy called him any number of rude names, culminating in angrily telling my co-worker that he was a #$%@ moron.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Sam said calmly.

Finally, Mr. Jerk stormed out, threatening, as he left, to complain to the head of the library system. “I’ll have your job, young man!”

At which Sam called after the abusive patron in a loud, carrying voice, “Have a nice day!”

The guy stopped in his tracks and whirled around. They both know that even though Sam had said “Have a nice day” that’s not what he meant.

Why? Because context is everything.

If they’d just had a pleasant interaction, “Have a nice day!” would mean just that. But after the guy had just been abusive and Sam had resisted?

It obviously meant “Fuck You!”

Mr. Jerk glared at Sam. You could see the gears turning in his head. He wanted to challenge Sam. But he couldn’t. Because although they both knew that Sam had said “Fuck you” Sam had actually said “Have a nice day.”

Just imagine Mr. Jerk complaining to our boss: “Fire that employee! He told me to have a nice day!”

What kind of complaint was that?

Mr. Jerk finally made a strangled, frustrated noise and left.

It was brilliant! And, for me, it was a valuable learning experience.

“What a great response,” I said to Sam. “Thanks so much. In the future, I’m totally using that.”

Sam grinned. “Be my guest.”

Sam has long since moved on to a different library, but I’ve had occasion to use the Magic Phrase several times since then, and every time I use it I think of Sam and hope that, where ever he is, he’s having a nice day.

(If you liked this story by Roz Warren, you’ll probably like this one too.)

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Roz Warren

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Roz Warren ( writes for everyone from the New York Times to the Funny Times.

The Startup

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