The sun was shining brightly in Herndon, VA. I stopped into my favorite cleaners to drop off a green cloth for pressing. I was preparing to make a series of short videos on race, conflict, and inclusion, subjects that have been getting lots of traction since Election 2016.
An Indian man had entered seconds before me and was being helped by the Korean owner.
“The pants are too short.” He told her.
“I measured thirty inches!” She replied in broken English and with rising agitation.
“I wore these pants here.” He pointed to a second pair stretched on the counter. “You were to fix the blue pants just like these, but they are too short.” By now, he was controlling his frustration.
“I measure thirty!” Her voice scratched the tense air.
She added: “Why are you complaining to me?” She threw down her pen and walked towards me.
Exasperated, she looked at me, ignored him, and said: “I will help this customer.”
The Indian man, with fury in his dark eyes, threw down his keys in anger.
“Am I not a customer?!” He asked incredulously.
All of a sudden, he became a Black man to me. He was my brother, one of my sons, a nephew, my husband. Too many times, even I had been on the receiving end of this type of rude and dismissive customer service from a person different than me. I assured the shop owner I was not in a hurry and could wait. I smiled at both of them hoping to thaw their locked grip of conflict. As I watched them verbally jab each other, my mind traveled in time.
Involuntarily, my mind popped up a picture of the incident that split Black and Korean communities in my home city of Los Angeles in 1991 when a Korean convenience store owner gunned down an unarmed Black girl, Latasha Harlins. Harlins was a customer in the Empire Liquor store, a student at Westchester High School in Inglewood, when Soon Ja Du shot her in the back of the head because she thought Harlins was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. Du saw Harlins slip the juice in her back pack but did not see the money in her hand. A scuffle ensued and Du fired from the back and killed Harlins instantly. Du was fined $500 and given five years of probation. There was no one to intervene.
The open wounds between Black and Korean communities still drip.
The Best Way to Deescalate Conflict
I looked in my knitting bag and pulled out a tape measure. Stretching it, I said: “He is saying the measurement is incorrect.”
She then pulled out her own tape measure to confirm she measured thirty inches. Whether she did or not, one leg was at least five inches shorter.
A Korean man came from the back with the air of a manager.
“What is the problem?” They begin speaking rapidly in Korean. He must have said something she did not like because she waved him off and approached me, again.
At the moment, I said: “You have a wonderful business AND when a customer has a problem, you might want to listen and smile.” I smiled at her. I gestured to my ear and pulled it, hoping it would help her understand.
“He does have a problem and he needs your help.”
The “manager” smiled as if to say “thank you.” The Indian man also smiled.
The “manager” then invited him to try on the perfect fitting pants behind the curtain. He retakes his measurements to solve the problem.
The Korean woman looks at my green cloth and asks if $20 is a fair price. Given its size, I agree.
As I leave, I turn and touch my ear. She smiles and touches hers. The Indian man steps from behind the curtain. His eyes thank me. His smile assures me he will be made whole.
It did not take a degree in psychology or human behavior. It took courage to act from the heart.
When have you taken the courage to act from the heart?
What is the best way to deescalate conflict for you? Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to deescalate conflict? Did you let your heart take the lead?
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