I am the first to admit that I’ve had a privileged existence. As a teen-ager in the late 70s and early 80s, my first jobs always involved a keyboard in a cubicle or an office. I learned to type in a junior high school classroom filled with manual typewriters, a skill that ultimately spared me from the fast-food and other typical service-oriented, part-time jobs available to teens of my era. I’ve never had a name tag, a paper hat, or a uniform.
I became fascinated with the emerging personal computer industry, learned programming as a precocious 13-year-old, and found a series of relatively well-paying temporary jobs. When programming jobs were unavailable, there were always clerical opportunities for people who could type 100 words per minute and use Lotus 1-2-3 and Word Pro on a PC, or a dedicated Wang word processor. These days, first graders can text faster than I type but, back in the day, it was unique skill.
Thus, now in my mid-40s, I find myself for the first time at a window serving the public one at a time. A few weeks ago, as I waited for my number to be called at the Ottawa City Hall to register my car and to obtain my Ontario driver’s license, I found myself watching the clerks behind the window. Although I’ve certainly been in similar situations many times before, it was the first time since I started working the other side of the glass.
The crew processing motor vehicle issues appeared to be under-staffed, with a large waiting room of anxious clients. Whether typical or not, I waited for the better part of an hour for my number to appear on the overhead monitors. It was a great opportunity to watch and learn.
All three clerks spoke French and English interchangeably. They dealt efficiently with a wide spectrum of clients: nervous young adults sitting for their driver’s tests with even more nervous onlooking parents, angry people who waited a long time in the wrong office, and confused elderly patrons who did not understand the particular process they were in line to complete. Through all the chaos, the clerks remained composed, patient, and helpful. Most importantly, they each kept their sense of humor and smiled.
I’ve tried to embody these traits in my daily work from the other side of the window. My clients have been in the Embassy — submitting forms, paying fees, and giving fingerprints — for an hour or more before I see them. They are typically nervous about being judged during the interview. Sometimes my brand of humor, sprinkled heavily with sarcasm, doesn’t always translate, particularly for the very nervous applicant. For those clients, I have to work a little harder to reach beyond the memorized speech describing their work history and why they want to visit the United States.
My goal, which I think I achieve in most cases, is to ensure that the client feels they received a fair hearing. The vast majority of my applicants will laugh, or at least give me a polite smile. For those that receive a refusal, I try to spend a little time explaining the basis for the decision. In many cases, I try to describe what they could do to improve their chances the next time. I can be blunt, but that’s reserved for the relatively rare case in which the applicant has several prior refusals, when they are clearly lying in an obvious manner, or when they appear completely unprepared despite numerous instructions to bring key documents.
After the interview, I have little patience for those who continue to argue after I’ve rendered a decision and returned the passport. This is as much for my own sanity as for the other applicants that deserve to reach the window. I’ve quickly developed a good sense for discerning those that believe they can succeed by not taking no for an answer from those that have legitimate questions. For some cultures, a civil servant’s no is simply the first volley in a protracted negotiation. Without yelling, I definitely raise the volume a bit, cut them off quickly, and make my decision’s finality abundantly clear. The applicant then typically makes an extremely slow effort to gather papers, apparently hoping that the longer they remain in front of me, the more likely I will change my mind.
After a sip of tea from my thermos to wipe the slate clean, I greet the next applicant with a smile. “Welcome the United States Embassy.”