Thank You for ‘Just’ Doing Your Job

A long anecdote and how it changed me

Image: Oiled bird being picked upI was raised to be polite, to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘you’re welcome’  of course.  It was just something you were supposed to do as part of average-to-good manners, automatic phrases.  This changed about a decade and a half ago, and I’m glad it did.

Back when I lived in a small coastal California college town, the local university had proudly built a marine wildlife care centre to respond in case of environmental emergency, and particularly oil spills.  The facility was brand new and suddenly we did get an oil spill!  (They’re not that rare.)  Like many others, my husband and I immediately reported to volunteer; he was an undergrad in the wildlife management program, and I was an environmental engineer trained for response to hazardous material spills, so we were well qualified and immediately found ourselves handling oiled birds from dawn to late, late at night for several weeks.

(Continued after the cut.)  The centre was headed, at the time, by a man who had been instrumental in getting it built.  He was a professor at the university’s wildlife department; we’ll call him Dr. A.  I knew him in passing, as a man well-qualified and respected in his field, a bit arrogant but then a lot of university professors come across that way, especially when you don’t know them well, so I didn’t think much of it.

Well, we had lots of volunteers that helped with bird handling; lots of donations from the community, from used towels to supplies to suitable foods (did you know oiled birds are rehydrated with Pedialite and fed Ensure?) to money to swimming pools (for recovering birds).  We had too many people giving instructions (several different people thought they were in charge, or should be), and too many inexperienced volunteers, so there were a number of snafus; for example, wrong supplies bought then returned, then bought again because they shouldn’t have been returned after all, and the business folks in the community were incredibly helpful and patient through it all.

As the emergency was winding down, Dr. A’s long-suffering, saintly assistant, one of his grad students, made a list of all the people we should thank.  But Dr. A reviewed it and decided was too comprehensive; he removed most names from the list.  Did you get that?  I even butted in and told him (as others did) that thanks were free, that thanking more people in the official press release was not using up any extra effort or resources, but he sneered and said most of these people were just doing their job.  Yep, doing your job in a helpful, patient, and constructive way did not deserve thanks.

As a point of comparison during the whole time, I came to change my opinion of another person, we’ll call him Dr. B.  He too was a professor in the same department, fairly close to his retirement, but he was known primarily as an administrator.  He was not as well respected because he was considered less up-to-date in his field, a desk jockey if you will.  Without questioning it, I had absorbed that view of him and I was thinking of him dismissively.  But all through the emergency, while Dr. A was consistently being a mean self-important pompous jackass to everyone, Dr. B was kind, polite, helpful, solicitous, and generally a nice person to work with.

As you might guess, the community reaction to the “thanks” at the end was quiet and sullen.  It didn’t make any difference… until we had another oil spill a couple of years later.  Then all the doors closed, and instead of donations we got charged for everything, and businesses made little effort to accommodate weird requests.  Dr. A was rapidly brushed aside this time, when the NOAA incident commander just took over.

What I learned from this is to appreciate people’s efforts on my behalf.  I don’t just say ‘thank you’ anymore, I think it and feel it.  I think of all the ways somebody can just ‘do their job’ in ways that are less helpful or pleasant, and I appreciate, really appreciate, people being nice and resourceful.  When they are courteous, when they give me that extra time, they don’t owe me anything, and I receive it as a pure gift.

The beautiful part of it is that people generally react very warmly to thanks, probably because they can hear in my voice that I mean it, that I understand that they made an effort and gave me something valuable.  I love to see people break out in a big smile because they know their time is appreciated.  And the best part is that they usually pay it forward, as do most of us, by being extra nice to the next person they see because they are in a good mood.

Fuck being stingy with gratitude.  Thank you for ‘just’ doing your job.

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