It's funny where you pick up life lessons. In my case, it was this past weekend as my partner and I were out camping. While it's still early Spring and relatively chilly and damp in Western Washington, we thought we'd take advantage of a little "adult time" and head out into the wilderness for a little nature and relaxation. Who would have thought we'd experience a lesson in "missed opportunity."
This time of year, most of the National Park campgrounds are active yet. We were aware that there might be issues with closed campsites, but my partner, being the son of a renowned nature interpreter, author and long-time member of the Forest Service, decided he would call the National Park Service directly and inquire about the possibility of occupying a camp site in a closed campground. You see, we didn't want to run afoul of the authorities...
Well, we were told that, while the campsites were closed, it is possible to "pack in" our gear and stay at the site, but that we might be subject to some questioning or even a potential fine, depending on our conduct, trash left behind, etc. With that knowledge, we set out. As luck would have it, we found a terrific campground we'd never visited, and while the road to the campground parking spaces was closed, there was no sign anywhere that said the campsite was off-limits. In fact, there were other people already there, having set up their campers and tents. We learned later that this was part of a "work party," and even offered to assist in the campground cleanup if help was needed, but the gal we spoke with was not the organizer of the work party. We were going to have the joy of meeting her later...
We set up our campsite, completely at the other end from where the others were camped out of respect for their privacy. We had a nice dinner over a campfire, hung out a bit and then turned in early, having properly extinguished our campfire, of course!
The next morning, we were just near the bottom of our first cup of coffee when "Jamie" showed up. As she walked into our campsite, you could already tell she was coming with an attitude. She was puffed up, defensive and abruptly launched into an explanation of how she was "with the Forest Service" and this campground was closed, open only to her and her friends who were here to cleanup the campground. We, apparently, would have to leave. When my partner asked her to clarify how she was with the Forest Service, she responded brusquely, "well, I'm a volunteer." My partner tried to explain how he had checked with the Forest Service before we arrived to see what the rules were about camping at the campground currently, she cut him off with the classic line: "Well, I'm telling you that you have to leave. Are we going to have a problem here?"
At that point, I jumped in and tried to explain that we weren't trying to argue with her, we were just trying to explain that we had previously checked with the Forest Service and they indicated it would be "ok" to pack into a site...we even tried to offer to help with the cleanup, but Jamie would have nothing of it. This was, she explained, a "private" work party and as a "reward" to her friends, they would get the entire campground to themselves. Even though there were 18 campsites, with only two occupied at the very far end by her group, there was, clearly, no room for us to be anywhere within the boundaries. She repeated that we would have to leave. When we asked for an hour or so to finish up our breakfast and break camp, she begrudgingly "gave" us that.
So, here's the lesson, it IS about how you treat people. Jamie had no reason to approach us with an adversarial attitude. Regardless of why she was there, last time I checked, our tax dollars are paying for the campground as much as hers are (I assume she is a lawful taxpayer). She was also not actually with the Forest Service, but was a volunteer; I work with volunteers all the time and realize they are the lifeblood of how a lot of critical work gets done, whether it's for the environment, a not-for-profit charity, schools, or more. If we had been allowed to help as we offered, we would have been volunteers, too. We had heard it was a "private work party," but didn't hear "you can't be in the campground," just that this was independently arranged.
Jamie could have handled this so differently and made it a positive interaction rather than one that becomes a study in how "like begets like." If she had, for example, maybe even greeted us with a friendly "good morning" rather than her "what are you doing here, you don't belong, you'll have to leave" attitude, there might have been a way to find common ground. It was already "me vs. you two" from the moment she stepped into our campsite. When someone is trying to explain a situation to you, don't assume they are being argumentative. Hear them out. Maybe there's a misunderstanding. Jamie wasn't interested in explanations; she wanted us out of HER campground. When we offered to help pick up nasty trash like the globs of toilet paper lying around the outhouse, she could have accepted; why not have someone else do the really ucky jobs, particularly if they are offering? She could have made it an inclusive moment rather than an exclusive one. Instead of helping "build" community, camaraderie and volunteerism, she decided to be officious (without authority, by the way) and unpleasant. The Forest Service is, in my experience, one of the nicest government agencies you'll encounter. "Jamie" wouldn't have fit in with her attitude.
I don't know, maybe she had a bad night's sleep in her comfy trailer. Maybe her campfire coffee boiled over or something else happened to irritate her that had nothing to do with us. But, if we are trying to get along with one another and "treat others the way YOU want to be treated," then assuming you are dealing with"the enemy" for a simple personal encounter isn't setting you up for success.
In my last post, I issued a challenge: "Be nice and tell the truth all the time." I guess it's the Jamies of the world who might want to try that. If she had even just made the initial approach with a little kindness and courtesy, things might have gone differently. It didn't have to be a sour point to the day, but you are more likely to get negative energy back if you start with negative energy. A smile and a little positive tone in your voice can make all the difference, if not to you, then to the people you deal with.