A first job out of university is awkward, even funny, and a little challenging. Then a national epidemic and a heartbreaking call lends new gravity to the work at hand.

My first day on the job, and I could barely stifle my laughter. My desk. My phone. My PC. I wore a polyester tie and my lone pair of formal shoes. I nodded a lot and forgot everyone’s names. The very idea of me as a member of the business world was hilarious. What did I know about it?

I’d stumbled out of university straight into a government job (a government job!) offering businesses advice on start-up programs, employment law, tax codes. An alien world. With so much to learn, I found my pride soon overtook my amusement. I immersed myself in the differences between sole traders, Ltd. companies, PLCs. I studied how money sloshes around within business. I could recite the principles of the Data Protection Act 1998 by heart. Want to know which forms to fill in for your first tax return? Easy. Hell, I’ll even send you the PDFs.

Most callers were after free cash, of course. There wasn’t any. But occasionally we took inquiries about obscure topics that demanded a bit of research. I loved these challenges. I knew how search engines worked. I could sweet-talk a database into revealing its most intimate secrets. Armed with a keyboard and the witless arrogance only a young graduate can possess, I became the guy with answers. There was nothing I couldn’t find an answer to. A Master of Science intellect augmented by the power of technology. Just try me.

Shortly after I joined, the country was struck by an epidemic of foot and mouth, a highly infectious disease affecting livestock. An episode in the 1960s had paralyzed the country; now history was eager to repeat itself.

The government, initially slow to react, finally realized the gravity of the situation and announced an enormous cull. Ten million sheep and cattle were killed and then buried in lime. Politicians stood in front of piles of burning carcasses to give interviews, deciding that the need to assure the public that Something Was Being Done outweighed the negative image.

Although I lived in the city, our county was largely rural. Hundreds of nearby farmers were forced to sacrifice their herds and quarantine their farms to prevent infection. Yellow warning signs dotted the fields. Wellington boots were considered potential vectors of disease. The countryside was closed for business.

As expected, the government announced a large pot of money to compensate farmers who’d lost income. I found the details online and added them to my database. File > Save.

I took a call early one morning. An elderly voice, meek and sad. For several decades, she and her husband had ground out a decent, albeit hard living on their farm. Now her business was effectively closed, and she was worried about the future. I sprang into action, calling up my database with a single hand as she talked. Technology saves the day. There’s this fund, you know…

“Oh yes, we’ve applied for that. But they say they have such a backlog it will take a few months. It looks like we’ll be bankrupt before then, sadly. What do you think we should do?”

A squall of panic. The cursor blinked at me while I hesitated. I’d no idea what they should do. What did I know about business? I squirmed for the first platitude I could find: something about keeping their costs down and using up savings. The caller sighed kindly at my trivial advice.

We began to talk about her life on the farm and how it was changing. She was a hostage in her home, imprisoned behind the quarantine. She couldn’t see her friends, attend her societies. She couldn’t escape the daily reminder of a livelihood draining away. We discussed the happy past and the worrying future. At times her voice grew faint, but it never rose into anger at the hand she’d been dealt—that remarkable stoicism that only a lifetime can teach you. She paused occasionally to dry a tear and blow her nose. Quiet, resigned, heartbroken.

We talked for two hours. I seethed at my helplessness. I’d told her everything I knew, and it had been useless. A couple’s way of life was coming to a wretched end. As our call drew to a close, I wished her luck.

“So sorry I wasn’t able to have more answers for you.”

“It’s okay. I understand. Sometimes just listening is helping, you know.”

That night I cried for a while when I got home. My answers, my knowledge, my hubris had been useless because no reply would make any sense. I thought of her attitude and her words to me. She just wanted to make a connection with someone. To feel understood at her lowest point. To be promoted from a statistic to an individual.

Sometimes just listening is helping, you know.

Cennydd bowles

Cennydd Bowles is a design manager at Twitter in London and a columnist for A List Apart. He has over a decade of experience advising clients large and small on the benefits of customer-focused design. He writes for his popular blog and co-authored Undercover User Experience Design.

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