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The Tollbooth Lady – II

Last month I shared my friend’s story about the old lady at the tollbooth.  You may recall that Craig Ruben, a former Ringling-trained clown, had challenged himself to make the sour tollbooth lady crack a smile. After weeks of persistence, he finally broke through and became a smile in her day.  Now for the sequel…

About 3 weeks ago, I went through lane 2 on the north bound side of the Everett Turnpike tollbooth in Bedford, NH.  As I approached the booth, I was delighted to see my old friend — the tollbooth lady I once despised. Sadly, she did not look over or notice me when she took my dollar. This time, I wasn’t bother by her bitterness, but knew that if she had seen my smiling face, she’d have smiled too.

I wanted to tell her about my new job that would eliminate my daily compute.

The following night, determined to share my news, I drove through her tollbooth again. Again, she didn’t notice me. I took a deep breath, and said “Hello” as loud as my soft-spoken self could muster. At first she seemed startled, but when she realized it was me, her face lit up and she said “well hello.”  I quickly explained about my new job. She replied kindly, “it was nice having you as a customer. You have no idea what I have to go through as a tollbooth operator. People can be very difficult. Not everybody is nice like you.”

On the last night I when drove through her booth, she remembered about my new job. She wished me well and said, “I’ll miss you.”  We both smiled as I drove off.

Questions to ponder

Craig’s story raises so many questions about respect, customer service, kindness, and training:

  • Why do we let ourselves be so affected by others moods?
  • What makes the Tollbooth Lady so miserable?
  • Why are random acts of kindness so powerful, and yet too rare?
  • Why does pessimism seem more contagious than optimism?
  • How can we help Tollbooth Lady be happier and more pleasant to her customers?
  • Who’s responsibility is it to bring a positive attitude?

As I contemplate these questions, and applaud Craig’s ongoing effort and kindness, I also think about Maureen.  Maureen is the polar opposite of Tollbooth Lady.  She’s the crossing guard at our local elementary school.  Every single morning, rain or shine, Maureen welcomes every child and parent with a cheerful, “Good Morning,” or “Have a wonderful day.”  She knows every one of us and greets us by name. Her energy is truly infectious. She can make us feel good, even if we’ve had a morning of yelling, in our effort to get teeth brushed, breakfast eaten, shoes on, and bags packed without being late for school.


I think we get out whatever we put in. Responsibility rests with all of us, to show respect and appreciation whether we are serving others or being served by them.  Let us all grow more aware of our own moods and the impact we have on others.  Let’s make eye contact with each other, listen, smile, and make this world a better place.



2 thoughts on “The Tollbooth Lady – II”

  1. I firmly believe attitudes are choices… and in a gross over-simplification, the choice is how we react to events, people, etc.

    On a personal level, I certainly try to create positive interactions and make people smile. But I think we need to be careful as managers (or trainers) that we don’t assume responsibility for peoples’ attitudes and feelings.

    I recall a training director who was frustrated because her customer service training wasn’t working. Part of the problem was that she was trying to teach employees to act “the way you’d like to be treated if you were on vacation.” Her faulty assumptions were that her employees took the sort of vacation under consideration (most didn’t) and the idea that customer service is about “being nice.” If that’s the case, the employee gets to define nice and their definition might be very different than the customer’s.

    Consider the talkative toll-taker who wants to have a long-term relationship with the customer who is running late. That customer defines nice as pleasant and efficient–not a personal relationship that extends much past a few seconds.

    IMHO, customer service training needs to be about behaviors. When we look at Maureen as a positive role model notice… she welcomes every child (customer) and calls each by name. Those are customer service behaviors. Perhaps they come to her instinctively, but in crossing guard school we need to teach those behaviors. And as managers we can expect those behaviors regardless of how that crossing guard “feels” on any given day.

    Notice that Craig did not much change the old lady at the tollbooth. It’s wonderful that he made friends with her, but unlikely that she’s a better toll-taker as a result.

    1. Susan Landay says:

      You make so many great points! Thank you for contributing them.

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