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Asking the right question

I lifted the tray off the counter at Panera and handed it to Charlie. Then I turned to reach for my own food when Charlie said, “Dad, this macaroni and cheese looks like soup.”

He was right. In addition to it being ten thousand times the price of the macaroni and cheese we make at home, the noodles in his bowl were floating in what looked like cheesy water.

I took his tray back and placed it on the counter. “Excuse me,” I said. “There’s something wrong with this macaroni and cheese. It looks more like soup.”

The employee on the other side of the counter glared at me. Gave me the stink eye. Threw me a dirty look. Appeared genuinely annoyed. And she waited for what felt like an eternity before flatly saying, “Did you want me to make you another one?”

I really didn’t get it. The macaroni and cheese did not resemble macaroni and cheese. It wasn’t just a little wrong. It was a different species of food entirely. Not something I’d ever allow Charlie to eat.

Annoyed, I said this in response:

“I’m sorry. Did I do something wrong to engender the response that I’m receiving right now?”

“You didn’t ask me to replace the food,” she said, still less than politely.

“When I worked in food service,” I said, “and a customer told me that something was wrong with their food, I always made the cognitive leap and assumed that the food needed to be replaced. Perhaps I should just be more explicit next time and not make any assumptions about your powers of deduction.”

I was proud of this response. Completely unprepared but deliciously pointed. I braced myself for her inevitable retort, but at that very second, someone said, “Are you Matthew Dicks?”

I turned. It was the cashier with whom I had placed my order minutes ago.

“Yes,” I said.

She held out her hand. “You left your credit card in the machine,” she said, handing it back.

I thanked her, took the credit card, and turned. The less-than-polite employee was already back in the kitchen, preparing the new meal.

The moment was over. Dummy me forgot his credit card. I was so annoyed.

But I liked my initial response a lot:

“Did I do something wrong to engender the response that I’m receiving right now?”

It’s a question that explicitly but subtly calls out your opponent’s rude behavior while also forcing them to provide an answer. And by answering the question, they are forced to acknowledge their rude behavior.

I’ll be using it again, I’m sure. And not only in customer service situations. Whenever someone treats me passive-aggressively, which is sadly most people’s primary mode of expressing displeasure.

Why be courageous, mature, and direct when you can be cowardly, infantile, and indirect?

Also, don’t leave your credit card with the cashier. It’s a great way to look stupid in the midst of a verbal confrontation.