How customer service taught me to “be a lady.”

When I was little, sometimes I’d hear “that’s not ladylike,” or “be a lady.” I usually got a negative impression of that. I didn’t watch TV as a child, so I thought all “ladies” were like the women at church – rather timid, rather limited, and rarely doing anything interesting. I surely didn’t want to be that! It wasn’t till later that I discovered women really could do interesting things, as I learned about Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride and Joan of Arc, and eagerly read stories about Athena and Artemis. Still, these women weren’t portrayed as “ladylike” and so I still thought being a lady was for the birds.

In a way, I still do – but I’m changing.

Enter the wonderful world of customer service. I went from a completely clueless tech support rep who could barely clear cache and cookies and was awash in a sea of things I couldn’t control, to a competent CSR, and eventually a knowledge expert who was training other people. During that time I learned a lot about being a lady.

I learned that it was just as okay to let the door be held for me as it was to hold the door for others. I learned to accept help with nearly as much grace as I gave it. This kind of work drilled me to always, always, always say please and thank you. I learned how to be calm and polite, even friendly, no matter how loudly the other was yelling, and how much power that gave me. A true lady’s grace under pressure lets her overcome as many challenges as a true gentleman’s strength.

A wiser, older coworker of mine once said, “a lady can do absolutely anything she wants to. But that doesn’t mean she has to.”

Once rather uncomfortable with the courtesy that is traditionally given women, I learned that it was important to accept that courtesy – how else can we give men practice at being gentlemen? Being a lady doesn’t mean you are not allowed to do certain things, but it is a role that ultimately makes the world a gentler place to live in. I could get out of my airplane (I did eventually learn to fly) and walk to a door, smile nicely at the man who held it and thank him, then confidently go in to the hangar and ask the mechanics for a quart of oil and a red rag. There’s nothing unladylike about that!

I realized recently that my main problem with “being a lady” was connotations related to the word itself. Ladyship could be a position of grace and strength, much like being a gentlemen. Whether you are a lady or gentleman, it means you are strong, mentally and hopefully physically, can stay cool under pressure, are resourceful, keep yourself neat and clean, and know how to talk to people graciously. It means you have respect for other people and yourself. It has no bearing on what you do for a living. Being a gentleman or a lady is a state of mind.

We live in an amazing time. Women and men have more freedom than ever. At the same time, we can pass along old fashioned customs of politeness, not because they are a duty, but because they are a joy.

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