Squeaky Wheel

Critique and illustration by: Chris Talbot-Heindl

I hate to be a kicker,
I always long for peace,
But the wheel that does the squeaking,
Is the one that gets the grease.
– Josh Billings

I’ve always had a problem squeaky wheeling. I’ve always had a problem with people who squeaky wheel, as it usually meant problems for me.

Two days ago, I finally whined and I got exactly what I wanted. And then I felt a little guilty about it. How many people will not receive what they want because of my squeaking? How annoying was it to do what I wanted because I was making an awful racquet?

In my old job (I do like to use it as an example of all things bad employment situation, don’t I?), I had a squeaker – one that usually got me in heaps of trouble. She would squeak and howl to upper management without my knowing – things that were half-truths, some were complete fabrications, and I would eventually get a severe talking to. In response, I would produce a 10-page or longer document that proved that what she was saying was false, which would go unchecked. When I asked why this was happening, I was told, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

In my new job, I’m on the other end of that idiom. I provide roadside assistance to people who have been in an accident. I have customers explain to me why their case is more important than others – and usually the squeakers are wrong in if the cases were treated as a triage in a hospital.

The squeakers are usually the businessmen and lawyer types who begin the call hostilely, and continue to become increasingly upset with each minor setback. The one I had the other day was a lawyer who decided to tell me how important he is and how he needed to be on the road immediately to conduct his businesses – and didn’t I know that I was costing him businesses? And he might just write up an invoice charging us for every minute of time we wasted of his. He dismounted after a bunch of legalese and an implication that I was too incompetent to know what any of that meant.

Of course, the more time he spent explaining this to me, the less time I can spend finding a solution. And all the hemming and hawing does not make his case more urgent than anyone else’s. Truth be told, his case was not that dire as far as it goes.

I also had a case where a woman was in a pile up accident, and she was just getting the okay from the hospital to leave, the hospital was in the middle of nowhere and did not stay open 24-hours and she would need to leave soon – in the middle of a snow storm in Kansas. I also had a case where an elderly man who appeared to be slightly senile wasn’t sure where he was or what was going on, and I was trying to steer a taxi out his way while checking in with him to remind him of what had happened and where he was. The lawyer was already at a safe and warm place.

Yet our culture tells us, the more we moan (and in this case, the more we abuse the customer service representative), the better or quicker service we will receive. It causes a flow of weird emotions in me to be griped at – yes, I would like to get them assistance, because that is my job. Yes, I would like to do it quickly because I don’t like to be berated. No, I cannot perform miracles that cannot happen.  I can only do what I’m authorized to do, in the time that it takes naturally, and the deciding factor will be luck every time.

Our culture in the U.S. tells us that we are special snowflakes, and tells us that as special snowflakes, we deserve more than the person next to us. Our culture rewards the squeaky wheel and reinforces this idea.

If we don’t hear squeaking, we assume that nothing is wrong. An assumption that has been proven wrong to me several times – as the woman emerging from the hospital did not indicate that there was anything wrong until she up and walked (on the highway) to the hotel that I had arranged for her when I was having difficulty getting a taxi.

A healthier cultural archetype would be a one that coupled the Japanese proverb, “The stake that sticks up gets hammered down” (an idiom that values humility and patience more than bravado and arrogance) along with open and clear communications and asks. Of course, that would assume that here in the U.S. we were interested in anything except American Exceptionalism (as a country and as individuals in it).

But compared to being the squeaker or being at the mercy of a squeaker, I much prefer the Japanese proverb.