Thursday, March 24, 2011

Was I On the Roof?

I’m the kind of person who likes to deal with things openly and frankly. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a little softening of a big blow, as in the old joke about “Mom was on the roof.” You remember that one, don’t you?

A long-married couple is reluctant to take a vacation, because they are worried about the health of their elderly parents. The brother encourages them to go, saying, “I’ll look in on Mom and Dad, don’t worry.”

The couple goes on the trip, and when they return the brother is there to greet them. “How’s Mom?” the woman asks. “She’s dead,” says the brother, sipping his coffee.

“Whaaaaaat??? Mom’s dead, and that’s how you tell me? Couldn’t you even break it to me gently, ease me into it—you just blurt out MOM’S DEAD?”

“Well, how should I tell you?” the dolt asked.

The woman, flustered, said, “You know, if Fluffy had died while we were gone, you might say, ‘Gee, there was an awful accident… Fluffy was on the roof… He lost his balance and fell. I rushed him to the vet, but there was nothing they could do… Fluffy died.’ At least it would soften the blow!”

The brother nodded, and went on sipping his coffee. “Now,” the woman continued, “how’s Dad?”

“Dad was on the roof…” he began.

So, yes! –it’s wise to consider the feelings of the person you’re interacting with, whether face-to-face, on the phone, or by e-mail. I’m not talking about sugar-coating the truth, just a respectful and considerate regard for how your news, comments, opinions or information will be received.

So combine this viewpoint with the (nearly) universal disdain, dislike and abhorrence of the telephone answering menu. You know—“For business hours press 1, for directions press 2, for our fax number press 3, for complaints, hang up and dial our competitors.” Doesn’t everyone hate those? When I dial my doctor’s office I spend so much time listening to the announcements and the choices that I sometimes forget why I was calling. Oh yeah, it was about my short-term memory problems, but that’s not important right now.

Here’s where the two points I have been trying to make come together. I have had numerous occasions recently to help my father-in-law clarify some retirement issues. In so doing, I placed calls to his benefits office in the giant, well-known, Fortune 500 company he worked for. When I got through the first couple of menus, and reached the line for retirees’ benefits, I got this, “If you are calling to report a death, press 1.” Holy smoke, talk about a smack in the face! It took me aback, but I was really grateful that my 88-year old father-in-law wasn’t listening! I wondered how discouraging that must be if one of their retirees who might have serious health problems or be severely depressed placed that call and heard that as ‘option number 1’. I’m not all that old, and my health is good, and I frankly did not take kindly to hearing that. In fact, in the process of clearing up the questions we had, I reached the same recording several times in the course of the week, and each and every time it felt weird to hear those words said out loud.

So here’s my advice to you, if you happen to work in human resources, or public relations, and you have any influence whatsoever when it comes to scripting the phone recordings: think of how your message might sound to the caller.

Maybe you could try, “If you’re calling to report a retiree on the roof, press 1.”


  1. You know, that joke about the roof is really more than a joke, considering how often we think back on it over the years. I've thought about it quite a few times myself. It's kind of profound!

  2. Hey Leah! Yes indeed, I think "If you're calling to tell us of a bereavement, please press #1" might be a better approach. And train the people who are answering your call. You just KNOW they'll suck at it, right? Indigo

  3. You are funny! I'm glad I met you Saturday.