Is there an international school where they send border guards to study how to be rude? Because the rude ones are the same everywhere you go, from London to Delhi to Bellingham. They all wear that same bored look as they flip through your passport. They all have that air of being put upon. They all make you feel like some kind of small insect, barely worthy of their notice.
If there is such a school, the guard we got when crossing into Canada from the United States at Detroit this week must have come top of his class. He was a beefy sort, with tattooed forearms and a bristly moustache. As we rolled into his lane, he glanced up with the look of someone who had been interrupted while doing something more important.
We waited for him to say something. He didn’t. “Are you going to show me your identification?” he finally demanded, as if we were the world’s greatest idiots for failing to hand it over unbidden.
We passed him our passports. He looked at them as if he were handling a pair of mouldy sandwiches. “Where do you live?” he asked, in a tone that suggested he could not possibly care less. Toronto. “Where are you going?” Toronto. “Where did you come from?” We drove across Canada to the West Coast and came back through the United States.
Most people we met on our odyssey found this kind of interesting. The smiling American who checked our passports when we crossed from Alberta to Montana even asked about our trip and wished us happy trails. Not our Windsor guard.
“Bringing anything with you?” Just a few souvenirs. He gave us back our mouldy sandwiches. As he said nothing further, we took it as our cue to drive on. During this whole exchange he never met our eyes once. That would have implied that we were human and that he, lord of the border booth, was acknowledging our existence. His whole being – his body language, his tone of voice, his deliberate, I’ll-take-my-sweet-time way of moving – communicated his disdain.
Perhaps you think I am making too much of this encounter. It was just a couple of unpleasant minutes, after all, and then we were on our way. But life is made up of small encounters and there was no reason on earth this one should have gone the way it did.
Border guards are the first faces we see when we officially enter a country, whether it’s ours or someone else’s. We are often tired and nervous. A friendly face and a civil manner make a world of difference, leaving a first impression that can linger for years afterward. The poor impression lasts just as long.
Our border guard was a familiar and enduring type: the petty tyrant. You find them all over. The cranky bus driver, the officious flight attendant, the indifferent clerk at the government office – they all fit the mold.
Assigned to a job they don’t appear to like, they take their misery out on the rest of us. Making us feel small seems to give them some kind of pleasure, although you wouldn’t know it from the sour look they usually have.
What can we do about them? One is to teach them to clean up their act. Borrowing from the private sector, some governments have trained their frontline workers to treat the people they serve as valued customers instead of mere annoyances. The Toronto Transit Commission gave this a try under its former chief, Andy Byford, although in my experience with only limited success. Another is to reward them for friendly behaviour, recognizing employees who do their jobs not just with efficiency but with courtesy.
Yet another is simply to stand up to them. Most of us turn the other cheek when we meet a petty tyrant, too intimidated or too rushed to call them out. I usually think of a comeback about two hours after the fact, imagining the stern ticking off I would have given to the offending official if I’d only had the wit.
Just once, I summoned the nerve on the spot. It was at Pearson airport in Toronto. I was standing around a crowded, noisy departure lounge for my flight to be called. An older woman in a sari approached an Air Canada official.
In uncertain English, she asked if this was the gate for her flight. The official broke off a chat with her colleagues and gave the woman a look of weary exasperation. She had no idea, she said. Why didn’t the woman just read the signs? It must be posted somewhere.
The poor woman scurried away. I saw red. I asked the official, as politely as I could, what she thought she was doing. The woman was just asking for help. Why did the official have to treat her that way? If she didn’t like dealing with people, perhaps she should find another line of work.
I’m not sure it made any difference at all to her attitude, but, for a moment anyway, she looked a little abashed. I was glad I decided to say something. More of us should.