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Don’t Speak Unless Spoken To

May 28, 2014

The US customs agent was spending a really long time studying my son’s Haitian passport. We were coming back from one of many trips to Haiti in the process of adopting a sibling group of 4. This son, the youngest had a heart condition that required treatment in the United States. He’d come in on a medical visa a couple months earlier. His visa was good for six months so we weren’t too worried about his right to be in the country.

The silence stretched on as people in other lines got a cursory glance and a “Welcome home” from the agents on either side of us. Finally, my wife, anticipating the reason for the agent’s confusion spoke.

See, we. . .

Honey! If he has any questions, he’ll ask.

The customs agent looked up briefly, glanced from me to my wife and went back to studying my son’s passport.

Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein is one of my favorite books. During a key scene, the main character Juan Rico, a military recruit is up on charges for failure to use his instruments during a simulated instruments-only exercise. While he’s waiting for his case to be heard, another recruit, Ted Hendrick presents his case. In attempting to explain himself to the Captain, Hendrick makes his situation worse.

Uh…well, we were ordered to freeze and I hit the dirt and I found I was on this anthill. So I got to my knees, to move over a couple of feet, and I was hit from behind and knocked flat and he [Zim] yelled at me — and I bounced up and popped him one and he –…

You…struck…your…company commander?

And just like that Hendrick is convicted of a hanging offense, but let off with ten lashes and a dishonorable discharge.

Next, it’s Rico’s turn to explain his case. Wisely he keeps his mouth shut, accepts the ten lashes and learns a valuable lesson.

Often the best explanation is to keep your mouth shut.

These are lessons we can also apply in business. It’s a hard skill to learn, when to keep quiet and when to speak up. Unfortunately I’m not great at either. But, I’m better than I used to be.

Early in my career I worked for WordPerfect Corporation. After “I Saved The EPA (Don’t Tell Pete!)” WordPerfect didn’t know exactly what do with me. They knew that they wanted to eventually figure out how to capitalize on this event, but in the mean time they stuck me back on the phones in support.

I didn’t take it well. In fact, at one point the EPA called and I vented to them that I wasn’t happy and I didn’t think they should be happy with this new arrangement.

Call centers record calls, “For training purposes.” Yup, I got nailed. I got pulled into a meeting with my boss, and her boss, and I think there might have even been a corporate attorney around.

Like Rico in Starship Troopers, I quickly realized that I’d screwed up and any amount of “explanation” on my part was likely to make it worse.

You’re right. I shouldn’t have been saying those type things to a client.

I don’t think we need to terminate you at this point. A note on this will go into your file. If the problem reoccurs there will be additional measures.

It’s been 25 years and so far, I’ve avoided screwing up like that again. Which is why standing in New York’s Kennedy airport in the no-mans land in customs I was content to wait for as long as the agent felt necessary.

Finally, after what felt like 15 minutes, he made a notation in our son’s passport, stamped it with an entry stamp and handed it to my wife.

Welcome back to the United States.

We didn’t dare crack open his passport until we were in our hotel that night. We realized that we had come one tiny pen mark away from leaving our son in no-mans land.

He had a medical visa all right. And it was good for six months. But, it was good for a single entry into the United States during those six month. This was his second trip through.

So, how did he get through the second time?

During his first entry, the customs agent had failed to mark his visa where it said

Visit __ of one

Our agent was confused because he could see that our son had come into the country before, he had an entry stamp from months earlier, and yet the visa wasn’t updated. Finally, the agent put a “1” in the space to ensure he couldn’t come and go again.

Had we verbally stated that he had already entered the US previously, I’m convinced the agent would have taken our word as evidence that our son couldn’t reenter the country.

Sometimes it’s best to not speak unless spoken to.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

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One Comment
  1. This also helps in that it gives the other person an “out”, as it were. “The field wasn’t marked the way it was supposed to be, sir. So I let them through after marking it.”

    People tend to want to be nice, but they won’t break the rules to do so, so giving them a way to be lenient while not getting in trouble is very wise.

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