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The question

I called my doctor’s clinic and was told by the answering machine if I wasn’t willing to book online I’d be charged $5. I hit 3 to try to make my appointment by phone but wound up stuck in an endless message loop. I didn’t have the option of dealing with my need through the website because it was too complicated. I vented my frustration to my husband. If I hadn’t had that time to cool off, I might have said something that would’ve been against my best interests. I am going to pursue this but want to go about this in a dispassionate but interested and curious way rather than full nuclear.

The answer

First of all, please allow me to say, as a transplanted American, I find it ever-so-slightly risible, i.e. I smile quietly to myself, whilst shaking my head ruefully, to think some Canadian might go “full nuclear” at the thought of being charged a whole $5 for any service in the health care realm.

When I lived in the United States, I lived in mortal fear of, say, being hit by, say, a bus. Not because I was afraid of being hurt – well, that too – but more so waking up in a hospital room to a lab-coated doctor saying: “Phew, thank God, Mr. Eddie, you’ve finally come out of your coma. Alright, that’ll be $650,000.00. How would you like to pay?”

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So when my family moved to Canada, I was awash in disbelief at the health care system: “You mean to say if something happens to you, health-wise, you go in, get great care, and all you have to do is wave a health card around, and you never see a bill?”

Mirabile dictu! And yet so many Canadians seem to complain and grouse and kvetch about the health care system; radio talk-show hosts inveigh about how it’s “broken,” etc.

“Broken?” Compared to what cloudy, utopian realm?

Having said all that, I do understand one aspect of your complaint. It sucks to have a problem you’d like to resolve, or a question you’d like answered, and have to deal with a machine or a website, rather than a human on the other end of the line.

“Hello, you’ve reached [such and such an institution]. We are a smoke-free and scent-free environment. If you have a complaint about your bunions or any other foot-related complaint, please press one. If it’s corns, press two,” etc.

On and on. (For starters, do we really need to be told, at this point, any environment is “smoke-free?”) Five minutes of this before you can even begin to express your complaint/ask your question/book your appointment?

The human mind is plastic, reactive, subtle and can handle “fuzzy logic” (which, let’s face it, is a key skill if you’re dealing with the public) better than a machine. Human beings, I’ve found, tend to be more empathetic, thoughtful and less binary, than machines.

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But I think your instincts are right. Save your invective, vitriol and all strongly-worded e-mails when it comes to dealing with this situation, and your frustration.

Basically, “save your breath for cooling your porridge,” as they say, and/or for venting to your husband.

(Possibly the main service husbands are able to provide.)

Human beings are more empathetic than machines, as I say. But they have their limitations. They’re getting paid to deal with your problems, perhaps, but unlike machines or websites, ultimately humans also want to go home at the end of the day, relax, put on their slippers, maybe have a snack and unwind.

So if you flip out, get all emotional, have a hissy fit, and/or chew out the person on the other end of the line, they may transfer you to a machine that will play you piped-in elevator music until you either calm down or hell freezes over – or both.

Just do your best to get yourself in touch with an actual human being. Then subsequently state your purpose/problem/question as calmly and in as friendly a fashion as you can. You may be surprised at the results.

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Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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