In August, chef Tory Miller of Madison, Wisconsin asked an exaggerated rhetorical question in a Facebook post: “Like how hard is it to be nice?” Miller, who owns two of the city’s restaurants, had just fired a front-of-house staff member, citing “toxic” guests as their reasoning. “The whole world is understaffed and you yelling about your table not being ready the minute you arrive doesn’t make it any different,” Miller wrote.
Her lament was picked up by the local news site Madison. com, who followed him for an interview. He told the publication that customers seemed to think they could “just be mean to whoever was there” when they were out spending money.
I heard about Miller’s protest from a friend who works at another Madison restaurant (not Miller’s). She had noticed the increase in customers misbehaving and was glad that someone had finally come out and said it. She is not alone in her complaints about her; for months on end I have been talking to retail staff and service people who often bring up the tendency of customers not to treat them like people.
Now that the holiday season is upon us, and so is all the pressure that comes with it, many customers perform even worse. It bears saying: As we head out into the world to buy gifts or gather for celebratory lunches or travel to visit family, it’s more important than ever to treat service workers well. Keep the spirit of the season or something. Be gentle.
In recent years, due to the pandemic and economic turmoil, consumers have been forced to deal with the idea that they can’t always get what they want when they want it, and they weren’t particularly nice about it. The pandemic has also led to a situation where many workplaces are severely understaffed. Dealers have struggled to hire and keep workers throughout the year, including the holiday crisis. This results in longer wait times and more difficulty finding staff to help customers. It is also an exhausting situation for workers who, in addition to feeling overburdened and overwhelmed, are also being abused for issues that are often completely out of their control.
Workstream, a hiring platform that helps companies connect with the “deskless” workforce — largely hourly, in-person workers often engaged in customer service — created a public service announcement ahead of the 2020 holiday season. 2022 asking people to be nice. “Of course, many of us have experienced less than ideal service lately, and most of us have reacted to these compromised situations like adults. But some of us, well, unfortunately we’ve turned into ‘Karens,'” says the PSA, referring to the meme and insult being a dude let me talk to the manager to minor inconveniences.
“As we spoke to our customers and our employees, we’ve heard some troubling stories, to say the least, about people who have less patience than ever before and treat all these workers like cogs in a machine,” Daniel Blaser, the content creator at Workstream behind the PSA, he said in an interview.
We shouldn’t need a PSA saying to be nice to workers during the holidays, but sadly we do. Take it as a reminder to relax the next time you’re tempted to yell at the person standing across the counter.
Vacation stress + economic stress = a potential recipe for disaster
It’s an annoying time to exist in the economy, and it’s been that way for a while.
Everything it was more expensive last holiday season; this year will be even worse. Not only does inflation persist, but the transitory history many economists said in 2021 – meaning high inflation was temporary and could go away on its own – has been largely debunked. People they are spending more than they were on everyday objects now versus a year ago. They will have to spend more to get the same experience as previous holidays, or they will have to scale back, which many say they are. The way the Federal Reserve deals with inflation it could push the US into a recessionadding anxiety to an already anxious moment.
The supply chain problems that haunted last year’s holidays they started to loosen up a bit. However, given what a mess getting things during much of the pandemic has been, it’s easy to worry about, not to mention the supply chain remains brittle.
At the same time, the labor market stays tight, despite the Fed’s best efforts to cool it. This means that businesses, ranging from resellers to airports and airlinesthey are still struggling to hire to keep up with the increased demand for vacations.
Combine it with the fatigue That normally accompanies the holiday season and it may not be a pretty picture. A 2015 survey conducted by Healthline found that 62% of people say their stress level is “very or a little” high while on vacation, compared to 10% who said it wasn’t stress at all. From money to travelthe holiday season takes already troubling issues and kicks the pressure up a notch or three.
Consumers aren’t cool because companies have trained them that way
At the beginning of the year, I did a little a deep dive into the mentality of the American consumerbecause – let’s be honest – we aren’t always at our best while operating in our customer-centric economy.
The long and short thing is that we are not used to having to think about the trade-offs we make for our economy to work the way it does. We want things cheap and fast, and it’s inconvenient to think about the costs to, say, the workers hired to make that happen. Companies have pushed customer expectations higher and higher over the years as they competed for our business and made available what one historian described as an “avalanche of stuff.” People expect deals to be bigger and better, and the consumer experience to be constantly improving, even at times when that isn’t possible.
“We’ve become a licensed company,” Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, told me at the time. Due to the pandemic and current economic conditions, some of that right has been taken away, resulting in “grumpy” audiences, he said. “The supermarket, the gas station, the department store, the mall, it’s kind of where it all ends.”
Workers often end up bearing the brunt of people’s frustration with the situation, even when the situation is completely out of their control. If your flight is delayed, you can’t get American Airlines on the line because it’s not sentient, nor can you call its CEO, Robert Isom, on his personal phone number to complain. So you find yourself yelling at a flight attendant or gate agent who is just trying to get through the day, get paid and go home and can’t, much to your chagrin, control flight delays, let alone the weather.
Melanie Morrison, a psychology professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, he told the BBC that people who work in services often become “easier targets” for consumers, in part because they don’t have much power. Consumers feel they have the upper hand (again, because they’ve been told for decades that they do), and it’s tempting to lash out at those below them. It’s part of the “scapegoat theory,” where people look for someone to blame, even if the person in front of them is largely innocent. “It will happen on the phone with a customer service representative or at the discount store or McDonald’s,” Morrison said.
Maybe during the holiday season, be calm
Whenever I talk to workers for stories, particularly in the service industry, I’m surprised how often the topic of consumer behavior comes up. It’s not because I’m not aware that it’s hard to deal with. However, of all the things to talk about with some random reporter, this one always takes me a little backwards. It’s an indicator of how much the experience of being the subject of a consumer meltdown weighs.
Ahead of Thanksgiving 2021, I spoke with Will Liao, the owner of Queens Natural Meats in New York, on turkeys and a potential shortage. He asked me to remind people to be nice to workers multiple times during our chat. “These are the people who took care of you during Covid, they went to work every day, I went to work every day, to make sure you could eat,” she said at the time.
Nichole, a convenience store worker in Wisconsin who asked me to withhold her last name to protect her job and privacy, asked in an interview earlier this year that I “maybe find a way to let people know we’re shorthanded so we don’t get yelled at.” To put it more succinctly, he added, “If you’re going to be an asshole, don’t come back.”
I’ve had minimum wage workers complain about how hard it is to get by when customers tip so little and when their employers charge them so much for such low pay. “You know the company is making X amounts of money, and for the amount of work they ask employees to do — arrive on days off, arrive early, stay late, deal with customers — I’m not doing it for fun.” a grocery store employee he told me this spring.
It went the other way too, as employees say a nice customer can have a measurable impact on a crappy day, especially in a world where those customers often look down on them.
Many people came to see themselves more as consumers than as workers, for a litany of reasons, and address their interactions in the economy as such, even though they often play both roles. Maybe this holiday season, before you lose your temper over something trivial you won’t remember in a month, it’s a good idea to take a step back.
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Holiday stress is no excuse to make a service worker’s day hell. Getty Images/Vox