Something happened at work a few weeks ago that I still can’t seem to shake from my mind. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering. It wasn’t something that would normally make any kind of long-lasting impression. And yet – for some reason – it has stuck with me. And for a writer like myself, that means I probably better sit down and let my fingers and the keyboard figure it out for me. So here goes.
First of all, I’m a real estate paralegal. Not sure if I’ve ever mentioned that in this blog before, but there ya go. That’s what I do in my real life. You know, so I won’t starve. Basically, I do the legal paperwork for people as they buy, sell, or refinance their homes. Now, I’ve always worked for attorneys, but I haven’t always specialized in real estate. My first job right out of the gate was for an attorney who handled a variety of practices, including domestic relations. That was the department I worked in. I would sit in and listen to the depositions of people who were going through divorces. I would field the phone calls of irate exes who wanted this, that and the other and wanted it no later than yesterday. I would see tears fall as people came by to pick up their final divorce decrees.
In other words, it was depressing as crap.
So, as soon as I started working more in real estate, I decided that was the way I wanted to go. There were MUCH less tears shed over the transfer of ownership of a building than there was over the transfer of people’s children and marital statuses. So, a real estate paralegal I became.
Now, for the most part, I made the right decision. There was definitely less drama here in this side of the legal field. People selling a house were usually happy. They got money. People buying a house were usually happy. They got a house. People refinancing a house were usually happy. They lowered their payments and got a better rate. So yes, the real estate field was a relatively calm and happy place to be.
But then? *sigh* Then, there was the real estate crash a few years ago. And things just aren’t quite so black and white anymore.
Refinances? A nightmare. To get a loan to go through, people have to give everything shy of a pint of blood from their oldest offspring. I’m not exaggerating much, trust me. And sales? A lot of times we have sellers who are actually bringing money to closing in order to get their property sold. Yep, you read that right – they have to pay to sell their house. We see that way more often than you’d think. And don’t even get me started on the foreclosures… Just take my word for it, this real estate stuff is not all sunshine and lollipops anymore.
Why am I telling you this? Well, here’s why.
In the course of a normal business day, I try my absolute best to maintain a friendly demeanor. I really do. (Well, with clients, that is. Not with my co-workers…I’m not that good of an actress…) But sometimes? Well, sometimes it’s just hard not to slightly snap back when I’m on the phone with people who are getting snippy with me. Especially when the person on the other end of the line happens to not even be our client. When doing a purchase transaction, oftentimes the buyers and sellers will retain separate attorneys to represent their interests in the sale. Most of the time, I’m handling the buyer’s side of things since I’m doing the closing paperwork (the buyer’s attorney is the settlement agent – meaning we conduct the closing). Now, I’m telling you all this boring mumbo jumbo because it’s important info for you to know in order to understand this particular incident that won’t leave my mind.
So, here I am, in the midst of working on a closing that is scheduled for later the same day. As is par for the course these days, I’m down to the last minute working on the stressful details to try to wrap things up so the closing can be completed. I’m waiting on a signed document from a seller who, like I explained above, is not our client, when an email pops up from the realtor representing said seller. The email states: “Melissa, there may be a delay in receiving the settlement statement from the seller today. Her husband just passed away this morning. She will get you what you need as quickly as she can.”
Wow. Her husband just died? What a tragedy. Knowing the circumstances now, of course, we are very understanding and will accommodate in anyway possible. A delay in receiving her signature? No problem at all. Totally understandable.
And then, the phone rings.
No sooner had I clicked off of the email than I heard the seller’s voice on the on the other end of the line asking for me. Now, although she introduced herself, she did not once mention what had happened to her this morning, and probably didn’t realize I knew. She just immediately started…how do I put this?…complaining. Every single thing on the settlement statement that she needed to sign was wrong. I didn’t do this right. I didn’t do that right. Her property taxes were already paid and I was showing that they weren’t. (FYI – They weren’t paid.) She went on a tirade about all the things that was wrong and that I needed to fix IMMEDIATELY.
So, let me tell you how the Melissa who had not just received that email might have responded.
“Ma’am. Your taxes are NOT paid. I called the county tax office to confirm and they told me so themselves. Would you like their number? I’ll be glad to give it to you. Any and all other concerns will need to go directly through your realtor or your attorney – we do not represent you.”
The end. (And you can rest assured that there would probably be a little snip to my tone of voice as well.)
But the Melissa who had just read that email? The Melissa who now knows that this poor woman has just lost her husband this very morning? Well, here’s how she responded.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry there are so many problems. Let’s deal with them one at a time. As for your property taxes, I understand you’re from Florida and the way Florida and North Carolina pay their taxes differs and may be what is causing the confusion….” And so on, and so forth.
Because I knew what she was going through, I softened my tone (and my attitude) and helped her to understand what was wrong. Together, we went through each issue item by item and came to an understanding and an agreement. By the time we hung up the phone, she sounded much more pleasant and even somewhat relieved to now understand what she had perceived as issues. She never told me what had happened to her that morning. Not once. She provided no explanation whatsoever. She was just a somewhat frantic, understandably distraught woman trying to take care of necessary business that had to be attended to in the midst of unthinkable sorrow. And I knew that because I had received that email just prior to her call.
But what if I hadn’t?
And how many times have I spoken to people just like her without receiving an explanatory email beforehand?
Yep. Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?
Now, believe me, I’m preaching to the choir with this one. I need this lesson as much as you do, probably more. But I’m asking you to do what I’m going to try to do from now on…treat everyone as if they’re fragile. You know? Sure, maybe the hateful person you’re dealing with has no excuse whatsoever to be acting the way they’re acting. Maybe they’re just a jerk. Maybe there’s no sad, heartbreaking explanation for their horrible attitude.
But, then again. Maybe there is.
Maybe there’s more to the story than you know. Maybe they’re under a stress that you can’t even begin to imagine. Maybe they’re hanging on by a thread.
Maybe they just lost a loved one right before speaking to you.
We just never know, do we?
Something to think about.
If we knew each others secrets, what comforts we should find.”
– John Churton Collins