Burning With Excuses


We all know what it’s like to be frustrated with someone else when that person isn’t being as responsive as we would like. It’s especially easy to do when our own work or responsibilities are on the line. In this tale from Naomi Karten, she shows that a lack of response doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of care and explains how very important it is to have the full story before you get too worked up.

When people are unresponsive to your needs, it’s wise to refrain from jumping to conclusions, because sometimes there’s an explanation for their behavior that’s altogether different from anything you might have imagined.

I came to this realization when I was trying to reach a fellow who had invited me to give a presentation to a consortium of managers. I had sent him some material in advance, and I wanted to make sure he had received it and duplicated it as he had offered to do. I sent him an email. No response. Another email. Still no response. I called his office, reached a switchboard, and was transferred to his line. The phone rang maybe 20,000 or 30,000 times. I waited a while and tried again. And again.

I was annoyed but, more than that, I was disappointed because this manager directed a customer service area and responsiveness should have been second nature to him. I wondered if he’d try to make excuses for letting his calls go unanswered.

The meeting I was to speak at was being held at a hotel in his city. When I arrived, I told him I had tried calling him several times, unsuccessfully. “Oh,” he said, “we had a minor problem.” Here it comes, I thought. The grand excuse. The alibi. The passing of the buck.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to take your call,” he told me, “but our building burned down.”

The building burned down? Indeed, it had, the day before I called. Up in smoke. Poof. Because this city was more than 1,500 miles from my front door, it wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t heard about it. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Then, who answered the switchboard phone when I called?

He explained that it wasn’t a switchboard phone. At the first sign of disaster, the company set up an emergency phone service to receive calls and route them to the temporary whereabouts of all key staff, as prescribed by the company’s disaster recovery plan. But, buildings rarely burn down according to plan. And, because everyone was busy attempting to restore order and keep the company in business, some calls went unanswered. If I had tried a day later, I would have reached him and would never have known what had happened.

He had, by the way, received my material and had had the psychic wisdom to pass it along to a colleague from another company the day before the big burn.

The lesson? When you don’t receive an acceptable level of responsiveness, try to refrain from assuming the worst. Maybe the people involved really are unresponsive. But, sometimes—and maybe more often than you might expect—there’s a perfectly reasonable (if sometimes scorching) explanation.

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