Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Articles → A real person, a lot like you

My friend Sara has run a small online business out of her living room for 12 years. It’s her whole life. She takes it very very personally.

Last week, one of her clients sent her a 10-page-long scathing email, chopping her down, calling her a scam artist and other vicious personal insults, saying she was going to sue her for everything she’s worth as retribution for her mis-handled account.

Devastated, Sara turned off her computer and cried. She shut off the phones and closed up shop for the day. She spent the whole weekend in bed wondering if she should just give up. Thinking maybe every insult in this client’s letter was true, and she’s actually no good at what she does, even after 12 years.

On Sunday, she spent about five hours - most of the day - carefully addressing every point in this 10-page email, then went through the client’s website, learning everything about her, and offered all kinds of advice, suggestions, and connections. She refunded the client’s money, plus an additional $50 with gushing deep apologies, for ever having upset someone she was honestly trying to help.

The next day after sending the email and refund, she called the client to try to talk through this with her.

The client cheerfully took her call and said, “Oh don’t worry about it! I wasn’t actually that upset. I was just in a bad mood, and didn’t think anyone would read my email anyway.”

My friend Valerie was doing online dating.

She was half-hearted about it. She wanted a magic perfect man to sweep her off her feet through divine serendipity.

We were at her computer, when I asked her how it’s going. She logged into her account and showed me her inbox. Eight new messages from men, each one well-written, saying what they liked about her profile, how they have a mutual interest in hiking, or also speak German, asking her if she’s also been to Berlin, or have hiked in New Zealand.

I felt for those guys. Each one pouring out his heart, projecting his hopes onto Valerie, hoping she’ll reply with equal enthusiasm, hoping she might be the one that will finally see and appreciate him.

She said, “Ugh. Losers. I get like ten of these a day,” and clicked [delete] on all of them, without replying.

When we yell at our car or coffee machine, it’s fine because they’re just mechanical appliances.

So when we yell at a website or company, using our computer or phone appliance, we forget it’s not an appliance, but a person that’s affected.

It’s dehumanizing to have thousands of people passing through our computer screens, so we do things we’d never do if they were sitting next to us.

It’s too overwhelming to remember that at the end of every computer is a real person, a lot like you, whose birthday was last week, who has three best friends but nobody to spoon at night, and is personally affected by what you say.

Even if you remember it right now, will you remember it next time you’re overwhelmed, or perhaps never forget it again?
(Brilliant comic via XKCD.)