I confess. I was at McDonald’s.

I don’t go to McDonald’s often, but it was a nice summer evening, dinner was over, and I was in the mood for a treat. I left the house, and walked the several blocks to a McDonald’s near my house for an ice cream. I used their new fancy shmancy kiosk, I ordered a McFlurry, and waited for my order to arrive.

Then I saw a man walk in with his young son. They went up and ordered ice cream, too. The dad was very patient with his son as he took time to decide on flavor, toppings and delivery system (he got a cone.)

I kept looking up at the screen, waiting to see that my order number was being prepared. I waited and waited. I noticed the father and his son were waiting and waiting too. At McDonald’s, every one minute seems like ten. Fast food…it should get to you fast. Right?

I looked at my watch, and seven minutes had gone by. An eternity at McDonald’s! I asked one of the young people working there if my ice cream would be ready soon, and she told me, very matter-of-factly, that they were out of ice cream. I was a little annoyed at having to wait for ice cream I would never receive. I was a little angry at having paid for something I would not get. Honestly, I was a little relieved that I would not be getting the ice cream treat I absolutely did not need.

The boy waiting for his ice cream was sad too, but I think he was more confused than sad. The dad, however, was angry. The dad demanded that the young person working behind the cash register tell him why they took his order and money if they didn’t have ice cream. A fair question, to be sure.

The dad demanded a refund. Certainly, a refund should be (and was immediately) offered. A quick scan of the charge card, and the money was returned.

The dad demanded to know why he had to wait five minutes only to find out that they did not have the food he ordered and paid for. “Too bad, buddy…” the Dad said to his son, loudly enough for the entire restaurant to hear, “now we have to go to another McDonald’s to get ice cream.” He continued to yell at the McDonald’s staff, and hurriedly walked with his son to their car as their quest for ice cream continued. The son just held dad’s hand as they walked back to their car. He looked up at him confused.

I get it. Being a parent is tough. Maybe dad spent the whole day at work in city, had to rush back in time to get his son from day care, had to get dinner on the table, and then was hoping to get him a treat at the end of the day only to be disappointed with no ice cream. Maybe he is a single dad. Maybe mom is at home taking care of other kids. Maybe he was just having a bad day.

I found myself feeling badly for the McDonald’s employee. Due to a chain of events that probably began days before and had nothing to do with her, she found herself the brunt of Dad’s anger and frustration. I did my best to smile at her as shy doled out my refund, and I told her everything was OK as she continued to apologize.

I found myself thinking about “The Generosity Test,” as explained by John Stepper, author of Working Out Loud. The challenge is to do something for someone else, and to reflect as to whether or not you are doing something from a purely altruistic place, or if you expect something in return. Stepper quotes LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman who writes “It seems counterintuitive, but the more altruistic your attitude, the more benefits you will gain from the relationship.” I think this speaks to anger, too.

Watching the dad get angry, I think he lost so much more than he got, and he could have given so much more. While he may have felt a sense of satisfaction at being able to express his unhappiness, I don’t know if anything else was gained.

His son saw that the way to respond to disappointment is with anger. Through his anger, the dad lost any opportunity to express a sense of empathy or understanding. Maybe the young person behind the counter was having a bad day, too. And though the dad and the young person behind the counter would most likely never see each other again, dad’s anger would certainly prevent any possible chance of a deeper connection or more conversation.

Anger is a wall. Once we begin yelling at someone, or about someone, it is difficult to allow anything else through. We lose all chances for meaningful conversation or deeper connection.

I couldn’t help but to wonder what the dad could have given.

Could he have simply said “Thanks for the refund. Do you know where we could get a cone nearby?” This way, the young woman behind the counter can now be a helpful part of the conversation.

Could he have said “Really? You’re out of ice cream? Sounds like you must be having a much worse day than I am!”? This way, the young woman behind the counter would feel supported, and would feel a connection, and might also feel some appreciation.

Could he have said “Well that’s too bad” and then to his son, “let’s keep going until we find that ice cream!”? This way, his son would not have to see him yell at the woman behind the counter, loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear. And, his son could feel like he was helping to resolve the situation. He would have felt involved and appreciated.

I am not trying to be “pollyanish.” I know that things go wrong, and I know that people get angry. Anger is a very natural response, but maybe by taking only a very brief pause, evaluating the situation, and considering different ways to respond, we can find ways to move forward in a way that feels good for everyone involved.

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