Why Do People Act That Way?

You can try all you want, but you never really figure people out.

Take Brendan.  He spent a good few minutes chewing out my front desk staffer Linda.  “You’re incompetent!” he shouted at her.

Linda tried to explain.  “We can’t administer the Botox for your sweating today,” she said, “because it hasn’t come in yet.”

What Linda did not say—there would have been no point—was that the reason his Botox hadn’t come in was that Brendan had ignored several calls from his pharmacy, asking for the information (and co-payment) they needed to release the Botox. 

No, Brendan certainly didn’t want to hear that.  Nor did he want to hear that we had called in advance to ask him to wait till we let him know that the Botox was in.  But here he was, hyperinflating his lungs.

“You’re just damned useless!” he explained.

OK, we all have unreasonable patients from time to time.  But what I’m describing is behavior that’s not just aggressive and unpleasant but incomprehensible.  Would you like to know why I call it incomprehensible?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Because Brendan has been coming in for axillary Botox injections every six months for five years!  He knows the drill.  He knows the staff.  He’s always pleasant as punch.  Just not today.  Why?  Who knows?

What’s true for patients can of course also be true for employees.  Model workers, superb team players, reliable folks who show up in snowstorms, who come right back to work after major surgery, who deliver heartfelt speeches at holiday parties about their good luck in overcoming adversity to be able to work.  Contributors who share their pleasant disposition and can-do energy year after year….

Until one day they don’t show up, send a text to say they quit, no warning or explanation, then apply for Workmen’s Compensation, and at the magistrate’s hearing to which they’ve dragged my staff and our HR attorney, lie right to the face of the manager who was their best friend and confidante until the day before yesterday.

Get it?  I don’t.  Never will.

Two pieces of advice: 1) Don’t ever take things like that personally; and 2) Hire a good Human Resources attorney.


On the other hand…..

Jeralyn is 27.  She lists her chief complaint as “dark spots on my back.”

“How did you notice these?” I ask.  “Did you see them, or did you doctor point them out?”

“It was when I tried on my wedding dress,” she says.

I understand, or think I do.  Her dress exposed her back, her mother noticed the spots….

“When is the wedding?” I ask.

“The wedding?  Oh, the wedding already was.  A year and a half ago.”

“You saw the spots when you tried on your wedding dress, and you’re coming in a year and half later?” I ask, trying not to sound incredulous.  I’ve met enough nervous brides–and brides’ mothers– to find her account astonishing.  “You must be a very patient person,” I say.

“I am,” says Jeralyn.  “I teach kindergarten.  You have to be patient with little ones.”

“If you decide to have children, they’ll benefit from that,” I reply.

“That’s actually why I’m here,” says Jeralyn.  “My husband and I want to start a family, and we want to be sure my skin condition wouldn’t affect that.”

A bride so unconcerned with herself that she wears a wedding dress that reveals a rash she doesn’t go running to a doctor to fix?  Who only comes when the rash might affect someone else?

What is the matter with Jeralyn?  Doesn’t she know she’s a millennial?


Kidding aside, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone acted like Jeralyn?  Wouldn’t it be nice if no one acted like Brendan?

That’s not how it is, though, is it?  As professionals who deal with the public (as patients, co-workers, employees), we take all comers and roll with them: tolerate the annoyances and celebrate the (much larger, if less individually memorable) group who are pleasant, often delightful, sometimes inspiring.

And every once in a while, someone like Jerlayn comes along, upending all those negative expectations and reminding us that even if you can never really figure people out, it’s still worth the effort to keep trying.



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