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Sociopaths and their retail victims
October 5, 2006 10:00 AM   Subscribe

HumanBehaviorFilter: Why are some customers so nasty to the people serving them?

For lunch, I dropped by a nearby Quizno's and ordered a Cabo Chicken off of the menu. The manager explained that they didn't have the meat that goes on that sandwich, and if I'd be happy with chunk chicken instead. I had no problem with that, but if I hadn't been happy with the replacement, I would have simply ordered another sandwich.

While I was paying for my lunch, the manager continued, "Sometimes, when I tell a customer that we don't have that meat, they call me names and swear at me. And they come here every day! Who would do that to a store they use all the time?"

I accept that such people exist, the kind that will hurl expletives at service workers who can't fulfill their every whim. What I want to know is why?

1. Why would something as mundane as a sandwich being unavailable cause any anger at all?
2. Why would someone abuse employees over something so trivial?

I don't buy the "having a bad day" excuse, because it seems to me that some people are always "having a bad day." What do modern sociology and psychology say causes this kind of behavior?
posted by LightStruk to Human Relations (72 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know about accepted psych/soc theories, but from years of retail work, I have begun to realize it is about power. People who have (or feel like they have) no control of their lives will seek out opportunities to exert as much power as they can muster, and sometimes, their power as a customer over the guy making their sandwich (or cashing their check, or bagging their groceries) is all they've got, and they aim to get their money's worth. I usually feel sorry for them now, after the adrenaline-fueled anger fades.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:05 AM on October 5, 2006 [4 favorites]


Fantasies of self-importance based on class. The people making those complaints see themselves as the modern equivalent of 18th century squires horsewhipping clumsy stable boys, usually because they make more money than the people serving them (though not always).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 10:05 AM on October 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


It's a power trip for some people. They (foolishly) believe that they bolster their power or self esteem or social rank by belittling others, or making others feel inferior.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:05 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Fantasies of self-importance based on class

I agree with the first half of that, but not the second. Assholes are assholes, and kind people are kind people, no mater what class they are a member of.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:07 AM on October 5, 2006


Little people in their little world. I used to deal with angry people all the time at an old job. The best way I found to deflate these power complainers is to ask them straight up, what do you want? They don't know, they just like to yell.
posted by maxpower at 10:09 AM on October 5, 2006


Assholes are assholes

From my own retail experience, "assholes with money who think they are part of a higher class than those serving you" were a very large subset of the set of all assholes. Of course, some of this was in Princeton NJ and environs, which is full of professionals who can't quite hack it in Manhattan and have huge inferiority complexes.

While it's certainly not every case, class conciousness and prejudice is very real in this country and factors in these kinds of situations more often than our national myths make us think. Personally, I think it's a bigger problem than racism.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 10:22 AM on October 5, 2006


1. Why would something as mundane as a sandwich being unavailable cause any anger at all?

Because sometimes, people just snap over little stuff.

2. Why would someone abuse employees over something so trivial?

Honestly? Because they CAN. Does't make it right or fair, but that pretty much sums it up. They believe they have power over another and then use it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:22 AM on October 5, 2006


Sometimes, you just really feel like a Steakhouse Beef Dip or some other sandwich. But really, I think it's just frustration. If I knew they didn't have what I wanted, I would have gone somewhere else. But now, I've driven there, and parked, and waited in line, so I've wasted too much time to repeat the process elsewhere. Does that make it right? No.

Also, we've become a gotta-have-it-get-it-now type of culture. With the internet, 24 hour stores, globalization, etc. We're so used to getting what we want when we want it that we become pretty cranky when it's not available. What do you mean you closed at 11? Harry Potter comes out tonight and I wanted to start reading it right at midnight! (This was actually said by a relative of mine. She was pissed, mostly because she had the expectation that it would be available for her. At this point, why would she expect otherwise given the history of those books coming out and stores staying open, having tons of copies, etc.).

Just wondering though, are you sure he wasn't exaggerating?
posted by ml98tu at 10:23 AM on October 5, 2006


Yeah, when I worked for a mail-order company we learned that the easiest way to deal with an irate customer was to ask "what can I do to make you happy?" Sure, the true assholes would make all sorts of unreasonable requests. But then you'd be haggling and most people do enjoy that to some extent, especially if they feel like they are getting more than you are from the deal. But most people didn't ask for anything unreasonable, and then if you threw in a little extra on top of that... joy! The worst customers, of course, you have to fire. The boss did that once to a guy who called in and yelled at our receptionist until she broke down and cried.

Still, I have to admit I'm mystified at restaurants who say things like "oh, we're out of ketchup" when there is a grocery store two blocks over. I mean, if you're out of ketchup, send someone over to get some! But they never do.
posted by kindall at 10:24 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


For awhile, I worked as a convenience store clerk, nights. You get to be decent quick reader of people, by necessity. That necessity is born the child of instant internal terror, when a guy with a certian style of walk and a sneer on his face comes through the door, and you remember that, statistically, 1 in 4 people comin' in after 9:00 p.m. is strapped.

I learned that sticks and stones and 9mm's can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
posted by paulsc at 10:26 AM on October 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


Some people just can't control their tempers -- might not have much to do with power or class at all. I would bet the guy yelling about the Cabo Chicken would be just as likely to experience road rage when someone in a Jaguar cut him off.
posted by footnote at 10:27 AM on October 5, 2006


I also don't know about accepted psych/soc theories, but I have one of my own: it seems obvious that some people find little meaning in life other than as consumers. All they feel themselves to be is money aquirers and spenders and nothing else is real, nothing else matters. They define themselves by their bank accounts. And so, if they can't get something they want even though they have the money it threatens their very existence, like being unable to breath.
posted by scheptech at 10:27 AM on October 5, 2006 [9 favorites]



Still, I have to admit I'm mystified at restaurants who say things like "oh, we're out of ketchup" when there is a grocery store two blocks over. I mean, if you're out of ketchup, send someone over to get some! But they never do.

Some places will do that, but I'm not surprised that most don't - restaurants operate on such a thin budget that it wouldn't be cost effective to go outside their suppliers even for a day.
posted by agregoli at 10:31 AM on October 5, 2006


Fantasies of self-importance based on class - PinkStainlessTail

In my experience, there's truth to this. I ran a gas station in a poor area of town for 3 years. While of course there were assholes, generally people treated my like a human being. When I went to work at another station - same chain, same policies, same shift, same smile on my face - in a rich area of town, the customers on average were more impatient, more prone to yelling at me, more often expected to be the exception to the rule, and many of them looked right through me like I wasn't even there.

There were poor assholes and rich sweeties, but the people that thought they were more important and better than the gas jockey were weighted towards the 'upper class' side of the equation.

This was also the experience of a relative of mine who used to do power cutoffs for the local power company. He cut off all manner of people that hadn't paid their bills. The poorer people tended to be upset but didn't try to stop him, knowing it was his job. The people in the big fancy houses with 50,000 dollar cars in the driveway were the ones who chased him down, threatened him, and said "you can't do this to me".

Why would something as mundane as a sandwich being unavailable cause any anger at all?

A lot of times, people are taking out their frustrations about the rest of their lives when something mundane goes wrong. They hate their boss, but have to stuff it down all day at work, then they're looking forward to their favorite sandwich to cheer them up and when it isn't available, they blow their top. That sort of thing.
posted by raedyn at 10:33 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


kindall -

agregoli has part of the reason why the restaurant chain might not go down the block to pick up ketchup: cost. But also, many chains have suppliers stipulated in the licencing contract. So you can't sell XYZ pizza unless you get your supplies from ABC supplier. If you are caught breaking this, they can revoke your license and take the store away from you. Some retailers are willing to risk it, some aren't.
posted by raedyn at 10:38 AM on October 5, 2006


Relate it to happiness.

Seriously. If you're happy, you tend to be pleasant everywhere, even quiznos.

The problem is, seriously, that some people are having bad days, and some people are having bad lives.

Their spouse doesn't love them, didn't give them 'any' last night, or they're not getting enough sleep. They feel frustrated, guilty, angry, etc. And a stranger doing something wrong is easy to lash out at.

Frankly, knowing people, I'm suprised that the world functions at all.
posted by filmgeek at 10:39 AM on October 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


I want to preface my comment by saying several things:
1) It's a point of honor with me to be unfailingly nice to service people I have to interact with.
2) That comes from both a history of working in retail; and witnessing more than one scene that makes me sure that if anything the manager was probably downplaying the kind of thing that happens.

But...
Service fucking sucks, almost all over. People are lazy and they don't care and they don't take themselves or their jobs seriously. I understand many of the reasons for that, ranging across everything from salaries to education levels to opportunities to advancement and mind-numbing boredom. All of those reasons are the reasons that I cut folks a bread, but that doesn't change the fact that many, many service people do a shitty job. And that shitty job affects my day and if I have a lot of things to do, it may affect it over and over again. It turns a 10 minute trip to the post office into an hour long demoralizing mess because there's only one very slow person waiting on customers (although, mysteriously, they seem to have an endless number of employees willing to "just get you stamps or money orders"). Even at the independent video store or the music store, where the employees are there (at least somewhat) because they love the stuff they work with, they're so fucking superior to everyone that their service also sucks. (I've seen Berlin Alexanderplatz, you asshole, all 17 fucking hours of it, and I thought it sucked!)

I do think it's completely unacceptable behavior to yell at retail employees, I think it shows a deplorable lack of understanding and manners, and while it's always in the control of the customer, I'm not sure that the store doesn't bear some responsibility.
posted by OmieWise at 10:41 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I worked in restaurants for several years and I can unthread three observations as to why about this.

1) To impress: The person is out on a date, with friends, or business associates. They think it's impressive to assert control. Most often this happened with men on dates, but I've also noted it with businesspeople and people out with more than a couple of friends.

2) To hold sway: Service people are there to serve. Virtually the only thing to lose for a customer is actually getting their food. The service person can lose their job and a certain class of customer will be keenly aware of this and use it to feel more powerful. Where I worked these strangely tended to be at tables with pairs of women, where one would be the bad cop and the other would be good or neutral.

3) Screwing with you: This was almost always a teenage/college phenomenon. Try to get the service worker to get all sorts of unreasonable things and generally make a mess of things.

4) Boorishness: Some people are just uncouth savages and there is nothing in this world that makes them happy humans. They are definitely unhappy mutants.
posted by Captaintripps at 10:41 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I have also worked a gas station job and I would agree with basically everything said so far, but feel I should add this point in the form of a Simpsons quote:

Marge: Gosh, I thought he'd be happier in his true habitat.
Warden: Oh, I think he is.
Marge: Then why is he attacking all those other elephants?
Warden: Well, animals are not like people, Mrs. Simpson. Some of them act badly because they've had a hard life, or have been mistreated...but, like people, some of them are just jerks. Stop that, Mr. Simpson.
posted by utsutsu at 10:42 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


In the United Kingdom, I see the exact opposite of what raedyn describes above. It tends to be the lower classes that cause most of this sort of trouble. It doesn't appear to stem from self-importance though, rather than frustration and bad manners.

I'd love to be able to cite them but I read somewhere a few months ago about studies on children that show impatient children tend to, ultimately, be less intelligent. I'd argue that impatience, immaturity and intolerance are a lot to do with it.

I mean, if you're an adult and haven't got the maturity to behave properly in public, you probably have mild retardation or some other mental disability which fuels this behavior.
posted by wackybrit at 10:42 AM on October 5, 2006


Customers have been trained and conditioned to get upset over everything. If they're quiet and accepting then they get nothing, but if they're loud and obnoxious they get free merchandise and apologies. This isn't always the case, but at a lot of retail outlets getting angry and yelling is more effective than being nice.
posted by ODiV at 10:43 AM on October 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


re: diffusing it

If someone is being right outta control rude, I found it helped to remain (outwardly) very calm and to say "Do not speak to me like that. I won't have you in my store if you're going to be so rude." or something to that effect. It doesn't work if you yell, but if you are very controlled in contrast to their freaking out, and then just be clear and stand up for yourself, sometimes it snaps them out of it.

If it doesn't work, you've set it up so you can now ask them to leave. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave. We don't allow anyone in this store to act like that. You can come back when you're calm". That usually got them to leave. They'd be hopping mad, but they wouldn't be there freaking out at me any more.

In the most extreme cases, if I'd asked them to leave a couple times and they were still there swearing at me, I'd tell them that I wanted them out of the store, and if they weren't gone by the time I counted to 5 I was going to call the police to remove them. I only had to get to 5 once, but as soon as I had the phone to my ear they took off.
posted by raedyn at 10:44 AM on October 5, 2006


*cut folks a break* Sorry, it's lunchtime.
posted by OmieWise at 10:44 AM on October 5, 2006


We're so used to getting what we want when we want it that we become pretty cranky when it's not available.

In my case at least, that combines with crankiness at not being a target market: for example, when I see some great clothes, not available in my size, I snarl inside and start to get wound up at the cruel injustice of a world made for men under 6'2".

I don't take it out on the staff, but if some shitty salesperson gets snappy with me when I ask if it is available in my size, they'll probably get more anger back than they'd expect.
posted by bonaldi at 10:45 AM on October 5, 2006


I agree with PinkStainlessTail for a general explanation, but I also have to agree with everything OmieWise said. I do my very best to be polite and pleasant with people in the service industry, but there often comes a point when you just get so frustrated and angry about the inefficiency or stupidity you see on a daily basis that it can be hard to stay all Mary Sunshine. And that can build up into a feeling of "EVERYONE SUCKS" that overwhelms even the most neutral interaction.

(That said, I really can't see swearing at a guy making a sandwich. The worst I've done is sigh theatrically, roll my eyes, and walk out of a video store because their Byzantine bureaucracy was making it take 20 minutes and a $50 deposit to rent one DVD, but even with that it was more that I was so totally stressed out with work that I was having trouble coping with everyday annoyances.)
posted by occhiblu at 10:52 AM on October 5, 2006


ml98tu, I can't be certain that she wasn't exaggerating, but the story as she told it did not set off my bullshit alarm.

You made the statistically probable assumption that the manager was male - and I certainly didn't describe the manager at all. I didn't specify her gender, or her race - she's Indian.

Now this is starting to make sense. Combining the suggested answers of the hive mind:

A customer comes in, waits in line for several minutes, and has the expectation that he'll be able to order a Cabo Chicken.

His expectations are dashed when he finds out that the sandwich isn't available. (Urge to kill... rising...)

Not only can't he get his sandwich, but the person who won't give it to him is some "1st generation Indian immigrant who probably stole the job from a hard-working, red-blooded American."

He knows in his heart that he's better than her in every way, and she doesn't know her place (fantasy of self-importance). An empowering tirade ensues.

So, basically, our culprits are an inferiority complex, power-hunger, racism, classism, consumerism, and globalization. Did we remember to blame all of the whipping boys favored by the left-wing bleeding-heart conspiracy, or did we miss a few? :-)

In all seriousness, I think we're getting closer.
posted by LightStruk at 10:54 AM on October 5, 2006


I think it's also just plain stress, if you want to get back to psychological explanations about society as a whole. We're running around more than we have in the past, we're working longer hours, we're getting bombarded with more information, we're supposed to keep up with more news, and at a certain point it's extremely difficult to do all that and lead a sane, balanced, happy life. When you're stretched that thin, you're more likely to snap about petty annoyances because you've used up all your understanding and diplomacy dealing with the major stressors in your life. You can't snap at your boss, wife, husband, kids, or parents with impunity, nor do you have the time and space to really work through the problems you're having with them, so you take out your feelings of powerlessness and isolation on isolated powerless strangers.
posted by occhiblu at 11:11 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Because sometimes, people just snap over little stuff.

Some people just can't control their tempers.


I'd like to re-broadcast these two explanations, because they are -- and always will be -- less-frequently-given then explanations concerning class, power games, etc.

I'm not disagreeing with class and power games. I think those are factors for some people. But I think there are many factors, and sometimes it's just an issue of someone's (genetic?) makeup.

I have to work really hard to remember this. I'm a very even-tempered guy. So when someone else acts inappropriately, It's easy for me to feel (and act) superior. It's easy, because I think, "he had a CHOICE and he made the wrong one." And I look down on him, because it would be easy for me to make the right one.

Of COURSE it would be: I'm even-tempered. But not everyone is like me. And I'm not even-tempered because I worked at it. I just got lucky. I have no reason to gloat.

I'm not going to say that obnoxious people can't help being obnoxious. That opens up the Free Will/Determinism can of worms. But lets say that -- at least -- it's much more difficult for some people to control their anger than others.

I've sort of gotten over that. I don't judge people harshly if they lash out occasionally. But -- alas -- I DO judge them harshly if they do so an then don't apologize. But apologizing means loosing face, and some people seem constitutionally incapable of ever putting themselves in a beta-dog position. (Also fairly easy for me.)

In these sorts of discussions, it's rare to see "sometimes people just snap" arguments. I think that's because (a) that sounds like we're letting assholes off the hook (they can't help it!) and (b) threads like this allow people to air some of their own issues (perhaps anger at rich people or people who have mistreated them). And, of course, some people may just disagree with me and think it's always possible to control ones anger.

If you're able to take a mechanistic view of the mind, you can think of data going in (no chicken) and that triggering a response (anger). Maybe a better question is "Why doesn't everyone snap in situations like this?"

Presumably, this is because there are other factors (brain mechanisms, brain "software", brain processes) that mitigate the anger response: I'm upset that I'm not getting what I want and that makes me want to lash out, but if I do that, I might hurt someone's feelings. What happens if someone is missing the "I might hurt someone's feelings" mechanism (or they have it, but the "I didn't get what I want" mechanism is more robust)? I'm not sure of the exact nature of these mechanisms, but since the brain is a physical object -- a machine of sorts -- it can have parts missing or parts broken.

Also, most infants and small children lash out when they don't get what they want. Thankfully, most people mature. But what does it mean to mature? It must mean that we grow new mental mechanisms. Perhaps some people never grow these mechanism or don't grow them as well.

We are what we are due to a Darwinian process. There ARE reasons why kindness and cooperation should evolve (we're social animals), but there are just as many reasons why aggression and competition should evolve. There will always be tension between the two.

If you populated half the world with people like me and half with more aggressive people, which genes would be more likely to survive?
posted by grumblebee at 11:12 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'm suprised at the responses who think that it is based on class or feelings of superiority. I think I'm smarter, richer and better looking than most everyone I meet, but I'm unfailingly nice to them. I feel no need to prove something. They aren't working this crappy customer service position for low wages because they love dealing with people. Let's face it, most people are not that pleasant to deal with. They work the job because it makes sense for them in their particular situation in life. I think it stems from feelings of inferiority and a deluded attempt to feel more important for a brief time. Those of us who really fancy ourselves superior have no need for such silliness. ;)
posted by Lame_username at 11:13 AM on October 5, 2006


The owner/manager of my local Quizno's is an older Asian man, so I just went with male. I don't recall any statements about ethnic tensions playing into retail rage, but I suppose that could be factor. You forgot to mention that before the customer comes in, he's already had a crappy morning, his wife doesn't love him, he's cranky because he's hungry, etc.
Or she. Apparently I might have a subconscious thing against women, which could be a problem since I am one.
posted by ml98tu at 11:16 AM on October 5, 2006


Those of us who really fancy ourselves superior have no need for such silliness

But that's exactly what everyone's saying, I think. It's not a class issue, it's a delusion-of-class issue.
posted by occhiblu at 11:16 AM on October 5, 2006


I do my very best to be polite and pleasant with people in the service industry, but there often comes a point when you just get so frustrated and angry about the inefficiency or stupidity you see on a daily basis that it can be hard to stay all Mary Sunshine. And that can build up into a feeling of "EVERYONE SUCKS" that overwhelms even the most neutral interaction.

I agree with this.

This isn't always the case, but at a lot of retail outlets getting angry and yelling is more effective than being nice.

This is so so so true.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:21 AM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I hosted/managed in a Canadian family-type restaurant (Above Dennys, below Applebees) for five years, and I have to second wackybrit in that it was the trashy folk who were more aggressively rude. The hoity-toities were usually just dismissive and or condescending, I suppose because they felt they were slumming to begin with.

People who replace their Pontiac's broken passenger side window with saran wrap and duct tape don't have many opportunities to be The Man. I also blame our consumerist society, wherein the customer is always right.
(Check out Waiting for a very accurate depiction of the server/patron dynamic.).

PS.
The "Are you wearing your flair" anal manager in me is kind of irked that the Quiznos person is complaining about customers to other patrons, though.
It's bad form, and makes me question how 'innocent' they are in the whole affair.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:21 AM on October 5, 2006


Fantasies of self-importance based on class.

Fits my experience. The worst offender I know is an American who attended Oxford and its all about "you just can't get good help anymore."
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:28 AM on October 5, 2006


Some of the uppitiest, snottiest, yuppie trash customers I have ever seen concentrate at the local Quiznos.
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:30 AM on October 5, 2006


It's funny that in the past year or two, I've learned how to stand up for myself - I used to be a complete pushover. But now when there really is a wrong, I stand up for myself, and these days I often feel like I'm being bitchy all the time. I'm not really... only when I absolutely have to be.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:30 AM on October 5, 2006


Because thety never were taught to deal with disappointment as a kid?
posted by beccaj at 11:31 AM on October 5, 2006


I read somewhere a few months ago about studies on children that show impatient children tend to, ultimately, be less intelligent. - wackybrit

If you populated half the world with people like me and half with more aggressive people, which genes would be more likely to survive? - grumblebee

If we assume that genetics are the sole cause of pointless asshattery, the reason pointless asshats doesn't dominate is because society would suffer, and members of a functioning society are more likely to see their genes succeed in the next generation. Another way of looking at it is that natural selection has favored intelligence in humans, and if higher intelligence is correlated with less asshattery (as wackybrit implies), then asshattery is selected against.
posted by LightStruk at 11:32 AM on October 5, 2006


As a representative of a large Byzantine organization, I see a lot of this reaction as an expectation of my inability to help someone, before I even open my mouth, so they're ready to go off at the slightest bump, regardless of how hard I am trying to help. So Omiewise has a point with the bit about laziness and shiftless employees, there are lots of people who are just unhelpful for whatever reason, and a certain class of customer assumes that yelling at someone will whip them into shape. I blame this on the stereotype of the loud drill sergeant that's so prevalent in our society post-WWII.

See also: Waiter Rant. He occasionally takes a very thoughtful look into the mindset that acts out like this. I read it as therapy that this stuff doesn't just happen to me.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 11:32 AM on October 5, 2006


Would I ever go as far as swearing at an employee becasue they were out of a sandwich meat? No way! Perhaps even a posted sign letting the customer know ahead of ordering though could be a common courtesy.

But I gotta tell ya when I went to Arby's a few months back and they told me they were out of roast beef I was shocked. That would be like McDonalds telling me they were out of hamburger. I was a little frustrated, I thought they might as well shut their doors and call it a day.
posted by Gooney at 11:33 AM on October 5, 2006


Basically good manners are disappearing, see the thread about "Giving your seat to a pregnant lady on the bus" to see that even well educated and well read people will not give up their seat, because it's THEIR seat.

In the sandwich example, the customer has just been denied HIS sandwich. How dare you!? I am the customer, the customer is ALWAYS right!

North American culture is becoming more and more anti-social, anti-community. The only people that matter to most individuals is their family and friends, usually no more than a dozen people or so, and the only people worth being polite to are your superiors (boss, boss' wife, etc.). Being nice for the sake of being nice, and fostering a sense of community, never enters most people's minds.

Ultimately people's worth is defined by their wallets (well, the appearance of their wallet) and not by their character. So, being an asshole to a service employee is a right earned by virtue of being in the superior financial position at the time of transaction, being nice to them has no value.

Virtue is useless, chivalry is dead, long live capitalism.
posted by Vindaloo at 11:42 AM on October 5, 2006


In general, I think one can chalk it up to a lack of empathy, the cathartic effects of an angry outburst, and the lack of perceived consequences for this behaviour. In particular, though, food issues bring out the worst in many people. Like your dog growling when you mess with his food bowl.

My fiance has a (very) light touch of this. Though she is the soul of politeness and tolerance, and I am an inveterate prankster, I have long since learned not to cross her on matters of food when she is hungry, for fear of that manic gleam that comes to her eye. I suppose its the reason most restaurants will serve you an unlimited supply of bread or other substitute while waiting for your meal, even though it would seem at cross purposes to their bottom line.
posted by Manjusri at 11:52 AM on October 5, 2006


I think it stems from feelings of powerlessness.

A lot of people lead alienated, stressful lives. They don't have good connections to the people around them. Family is a group of people they meet two or three times a year and know less and less. They're constantly stressed at work. They know they can get fired or laid off with the barest of notice. The official rhetoric says that we're a democracy but the actual working political system is completely indifferent to them and their concerns.

So, as others have mentioned above, the only place in their grey, sexless, undistinguished lives where they get to feel powerful, to feel an andrenaline rush, is in the retail sphere, where throwing a hissy fit over an excessive amount of mayonnaise makes them the center of attention, the lord of the 5.99 special realm. Just raise your voice and manager will quickly appear to apologize, sooth your ego and offer you a coupon.

It's pathetic. It's sad. Welcome to everyday life in the 21rst century, in the most technologically advanced, powerful nation the world has ever known.

"We live in an age of virile weapons and impotent men."
posted by jason's_planet at 12:04 PM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I think it stems from feelings of powerlessness.

A lot of people lead alienated, stressful lives. They don't have good connections to the people around them. The family is a group of people they meet two or three times a year and know less and less. They're constantly stressed at work. They know they can get fired or laid off with the barest of notice. The official rhetoric says that we're a democracy but the actual working political system is completely indifferent to them and their concerns.

So, as others have mentioned above, the only place in their grey, sexless, undistinguished lives where they get to feel powerful, to feel an andrenaline rush, is in the retail sphere, where throwing a hissy fit over an excessive amount of mayonnaise makes them the center of attention, the lord of the 5.99 special realm. Just raise your voice and the manager will quickly appear to apologize, sooth your ego and offer you a coupon.

It's pathetic. It's sad. Welcome to everyday life in the 21rst century, in the most technologically advanced, powerful nation the world has ever known.

"We live in an age of virile weapons and impotent men."
posted by jason's_planet at 12:05 PM on October 5, 2006


Not to get too far off topic, but last night my girlfriend attended a play, and a woman in the audience (in the front row), answered her cell phone. During a play. And I asked my girlfriend what happened to the woman, and she said, "nothing."

My point is, if you decide to be an asshole these days, you get lots of benefits (discounted sandwiches, keeping in touch with loved ones during A Raisin in the Sun) and almost no negatives.

Service sucks for the same reason: companies hire less people and give them less pay because that saves them a whole lot of money. People still shop at their stores, and then mumble to each other about how bad the service is. So, why should service be good?

My point? Polite people are too polite.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:08 PM on October 5, 2006


I'm not sure it's about race or class. I'm pretty sure it's just that some percentage of people can be jerks given the right circumstances.

A customer, Person A, comes into Quiznos and yells at the employee, Person B, because he can't get the sandwich he wanted.

That weekend, Person B is shopping for clothes when she discovers the store doesn't stock her size. She yells at the employee, Person C.

The next day, Person C is out to dinner when her credit card is declined. She yells at the waiter, Person D.

Person D goes home and finds his internet connection isn't working, so he calls the hotline and yells at the guy on the other end of the line, Person A.

I'm sure a similar percentage of people in every demographic do this. Just because you, or the manager, have only seen a couple of situations doesn't mean it doesn't occur in all different kinds of situations. As an employee, you don't like to be yelled at, but as a customer, you expect perfect service and are miffed when you don't get it.
posted by booksandlibretti at 12:14 PM on October 5, 2006


Still, I have to admit I'm mystified at restaurants who say things like "oh, we're out of ketchup" when there is a grocery store two blocks over. I mean, if you're out of ketchup, send someone over to get some! But they never do.

ive worked as a server in several larger chains in the last 10 years and every single one of them would break the contract they had with their distributors and run out to the store to grab the extra ketchup or whatever it is they are out of. the problem is that they usually dont have the extra staff to send out for a few minutes to get something during the middle of the dinner rush. not to mention guests in a restaraunt feel time as being a lot longer than it is. so taking ten minutes to run to the store and get ketchup.. when they come back the initial guest will be irritated at the long wait or finished with their food.

as far as people being jerks, i believe their are alot of reasons that people act this way. i will agree that in my experience higher class customers were generally more demanding and demeaning than middle class customers. low class were generally also very demanding but in more of an ignorant way than a 'giving orders' way. of course this doesnt include everyone. ive waited on MANY wonderfully understanding and nice rich people, but they are in no way the majority. but of course the reasons people are assholes in a restaraunt are countless.

but hey.. the customer is ALWAYS right, right? cause ive had that thrown in my face a good number of times when someone was angry....
posted by trishthedish at 12:14 PM on October 5, 2006


I hosted/managed in a ... family-type restaurant ... and I have to second wackybrit in that it was the trashy folk who were more aggressively rude. The hoity-toities were usually just dismissive and or condescending, I suppose because they felt they were slumming to begin with.

People who replace their Pontiac's broken passenger side window with saran wrap and duct tape don't have many opportunities to be The Man.
- Alvy Ampersand

Perhaps the difference between your experience and mine, Alvy, was the context in which we met these people. In a sit down restaurant those that consider themselves "high class" may, as you say, consider themselves slumming it, while those that feel lower class may find the same restaurant a rare treat and want more out of it. Meanwhile, I was at a neighbourhood gas station. Where they came in everyday, often multiple times, I knew them and their kids (and cousins etc) by name - I was part of the neighbourhood, I lived there, I was one of them.
posted by raedyn at 12:36 PM on October 5, 2006


I'm a very polite person, normally, and as a result I get stepped on all the time. On those few occasions when I've been pissed at the world, I tend to receive better service, more attention, and even more personal space.

...why should we be surprised if people therefore tend to act up? The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

I've even found this works while walking down the street (to return to an earlier sociological discussion here): if I look grim/determined/infuriated people get out of my way, the bums don't hassle me, cars don't cut me off, and I swear I get served faster in establishments.

If I could somehow manage to be pissed off 24/7 without killing my soul I'd probably lead an easier life in general simply because I'd get what I want faster, easier, and cheaper.

I've probably been in less than a dozen businesses that didn't reward assholery, and they were all run by older folks who'd probably had enough from jerks years ago so they didn't put up with it ("take your money and go, we don't need your business and I don't wanna see you 'round here again!")
posted by aramaic at 12:38 PM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Because I've had a bad day, I have a bad temper, and because it gets me what I want. Mostly the last one, but sometimes the first two (and then I feel really bad when my senses have returned). I can't tell you how many times I have asked nicely for something, only to be told it can't be done; then I lose my temper and--poof!--everything is fixed. So yeah, being an asshole is a tactic. Then again, when it doesn't help (say, a restaurant where it is obvious the waitress has too many tables and is doing her best), I'm generally not an asshole.
posted by dame at 12:59 PM on October 5, 2006


The chance to attack without fear of retribution seems to be a basic (and base) desire among a segment of humans. Some example cases: Backstabbing and anonymous attacks in social and communications settings; the use of bombs and missiles, many-on-one attacks by mobs and gangs in physical settings.
People in the service industry face firing or worse if they treat attackers as they deserve to be treated, therefore the servers are perceived as potential victims who cannot fight back.
posted by O Blitiri at 1:09 PM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


As someone who worked in retail, and saw all ranges of behavior, I must admit, for every nasty person, there's 10 who flat out ignore you and pretend you aren't even there. For everyone of you above saying, Gosh, I would *never* be cruel, I'm an angel with a tongue of gold- have you ever ignored someone greeting you when you walk in a store? Continued to talk on your cell phone while somebody helps you? Completed a transaction without looking your salesperson in the eye? You're all just as bad, and not as entertaining, either.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:18 PM on October 5, 2006 [3 favorites]


I still think people are underplaying the extent to which shitty service contributes to this (although the squeky wheel arguments begin to get at it). For many years I worked at a bookstore where the clientelle was very tony in a town where niceness is not valued (WDC). We placed a serious emphasis on customer service skills, and we insisted on such skills from our employees. We very, very rarely had any issues with irate customers, although in the coffeehouse, where the emphasis was not quite the same, we such issues were much more common.
posted by OmieWise at 1:21 PM on October 5, 2006


ThePinkSuperhero writes "For everyone of you above saying..."

As someone who said something close, the answer for me is no. When I go into a store, I say hello, smile, take off my earphones, take off my sunglasses, don't have a cell phone, etc etc.

But your comment does illustrate part of what seems limited about this thread: more people seem to be answering who work or worked retail than people who have been dissatisfied with retail workers. People who ignore pushy retail staff are not just as bad as people who yell at them, they may be rude, but they may also be being impinged on.
posted by OmieWise at 1:24 PM on October 5, 2006


Like many of us here, I've had a wide range of jobs, and I think I'm generally empathetic and courteous to all kinds of service people.

But I've recently come through a long stretch of ten-to-fourteen-hour work days, and that's taught me that this aspect of what I thought of as my "character" is pretty contingent on sleep and good stress management.

Specifically, I've found myself taking out my frustrations with bureaucracy on the bureaucracy's innocent pawns. (Not a retail example, but after giving my name, organization, address, service tag number, and whatever-all else to several different people on the phone at Dell, I finally exploded when another person asked for the same info. Obviously it wasn't the poor guy's fault -- he had to follow a script. Still, I made no attempt to soften or conceal my utter exasperation, and although I wasn't explicitly rude or insulting, it wasn't a pleasant exchange.)
posted by tangerine at 1:40 PM on October 5, 2006


have you ever ignored someone greeting you when you walk in a store?

Not sure if this was directed at comments like mine, but like OmieWise, no. I consider that part of what I called "being polite and pleasant." What I have noticed is that half the time, the people working behind the counter at smaller indy stores don't respond to *my* greetings when I enter or exit the store.
posted by occhiblu at 1:49 PM on October 5, 2006


It's probably also a simple matter of math -- if everyone on the planet were only 1% asshole (or, put another way, only a jerk 1% of the time), you're still bound to run into a lot of assholes in a day, both as clerk & customer.

...and that's taking things conservatively.
posted by aramaic at 1:49 PM on October 5, 2006


Often times I'm surprised when retail workers say hello or will even look at ME when they're ringing me up (this is usually at downtown Chicago places). I always say hello, goodbye, thank you, etc., and I'll even make small-talk if you want. But being ignored completely, whether it's a employee doing it to a customer, or a customer doing it to a employee, makes you feel like shit.
posted by agregoli at 1:53 PM on October 5, 2006


Not sure if this was directed at comments like mine

Not directed at anyone in particular; more of a general thought for the conversation. I'm sure all of you are angels with tongues of gold :-D

Yuk yuk yuk. I'll admit it! Sometimes I ignore salespeople. Sometimes I even yell.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:16 PM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I worked for Kinkos for many years, a soul-crushing job that I totally hated and felt trapped in. Yes, customers treated us like total crap, but it went both ways. To soothe my impotent rage at my position in society, I attempted to see to it that every customer left even angrier than they came in. All of us did it, and then we laughed like hell about it.

So now I generally assume that everyone working in shitty service jobs totally resents me, and I try to proceed accordingly.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:38 PM on October 5, 2006


a woman in the audience (in the front row), answered her cell phone. During a play. And I asked my girlfriend what happened to the woman, and she said, "nothing."

My point? Polite people are too polite.


Trouble is, what's the solution? I've heard people say, "Maybe if people called her on it, she wouldn't do it in the future."

Maybe.

But I bet she'd just get defensive and start a fight -- during the play.

This is a big "damned if you do; damned if you don't; but should you really just put up with it" problem. If, like me and some others here, you have a low tolerance for rudeness (in a rude world), what should you do?

Fight back, chastise, scold, call people out? That might make you feel better, but will it solve the problem? When I do it, it not only doesn't solve the problem, it also makes me feel worse. I have a low tolerance for my OWN rudeness. So if Fred is rude to me, I'm better off just letting it go. If I'm rude back, that's double the amount of rudeness.

On the other hand, if I DO just let it go ... it just goes. The woman continues to talk on the phone and I miss Hamlet's speech.

I could try to harden myself and accept the fact that it's a jungle out there. Well, actually, I'm not sure I can do that.
posted by grumblebee at 2:46 PM on October 5, 2006


My two cents as a former electronics store worker: People (men usually but that was mostly because of the electronics part) are hateful, smarmy, sexist and just generally rude because they can. Little Johnny kicks his puppy when he gets in trouble, so when Johnny grows up to a surly, beer-guzzling, middle-aged man he comes in and takes out his bad day on you. His resentment of the world in general. On you. Because he knows, if you don't stand, grit your teeth and take it with a forced smile, he can throw a bigger tantrum and become the center of attention and maybe even get you in trouble with your boss because "the customer wasn't right."

Sorry a tad bitter. A daily belittlement by men who didn't think you knew where a capacitor would be in the store much less what it DID definitely left an impression about the plight of retail workers with me.
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:01 PM on October 5, 2006


Lots of great, valid responses here.

Another aspect to this, which tangerine touched on, is that customers who follow the "squeaky wheel" theory tend to misplace their frustration and anger on the people who have the least amount of power to change whatever it is that is making the customer so upset in the first place.

My first full-time job after college was a miserable "Customer Service" position where I ironically had about the least amount of power to tangibly assist customers of anyone in the entire company. Yet I was constantly on the receiving end of hysterical rants from irate customers who thought that I could make backordered product appear out of thin air, authorize all sorts of discounts and freebies, change credit procedures at my whim, etc. I can't tell you how many times I just wanted to scream into the phone, "Listen, I'm the guy who has to collect up the trash bins every Thursday and part of my job is to cover for the receptionist when she has to take a shit - do you really think I have the authority to alter long-standing corporate policies just because you asked me to?"

People are taught that as consumers if they complain loudly enough they can get whatever they want. So, companies came up with the brilliant counterstrategy of making it exceedingly difficult for the customer to ever speak to anyone with the power to help them

Yet customers still think if they bitch loudly enough they can have the world handed to them on a platter. Not realizing, of course, that the waitress/sandwich maker/CSR/cashier/retail clerk/etc. is not only the wrong person to blame for whatever the issue is, but also the person with the least amount of ability to fix it.
posted by The Gooch at 5:00 PM on October 5, 2006


I think I'm smarter, richer and better looking than most everyone I meet, but I'm unfailingly nice to them.

That's because your particular fantasy of superiority includes noblesse oblige.

Everyone has their own idiosyncrasies and triggers; it's hard to say what's going to set any particular person off, much less what is doing it for the vast mass of men.

When I encounter a salesperson who clearly hates their job, feeling it demeans their essential humanity, and is taking it out on me by behaving rudely; the assumption that I'll be too stupid and inhumanly deluded myself even to notice, being floated at me like an aggressive challenge - well, I've been known to behave badly to salespeople in that particular situation. It sets me off.

But who knows why someone else might snap? Anything, nothing.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:26 PM on October 5, 2006


I haven't read all the replies as I am dead tired - but I worked part time at KFC for a while. Half the customers there are extraordinarily rude, even though I personally was squirrelling away the money for University. As I'm in an elitist Academic program, having people talk down me drove me nuts... but in some way, I always thought it was linked to the fact that recent medical studies and all that have completely slammed McDonalds and all the fast food restaurants. Unhealthy, fatty foods are looked down upon, and we *raises hand meekly* are seen as an extension of that.

I mean, you're not necessarily always rude to the people at, say, a clothing outlet, right? I do notice that people treat outlet employees a lot nicer than Wal-Mart employees, for example...
posted by Phire at 7:50 PM on October 5, 2006


I've gotten bad this way lately. Trouble is, I've grown sick and tired of the idiocy and poor service that is all too common in South Africa, and especially the small city in which I live.

Best example: I recently ordered a piece of office equipment, from the big national retailer of such things. I ordered on-line, paid with credit card. It was to arrive in no more than 1 week. When it didn't arrive, I started calling.

The woman at the local location asked me for "proof of payment". I went balistic (the equipment was delaying a project). Pursuing the matter with upper management, I discovered I was the very first person in my city to order something from them on their website. The employees were not properly trained to understand what was happening.

In other cases, it is being tired of stupid people given simple jobs for which they are, none-the-less, not qualified, simply because they are in the protected class called "colored" here. I take my ire out on their bosses. I grow increasingly pissed off because such incidents only serve to foster further prejudice against the people that are poorly qualified or trained. (add to this that I find better people of color working in lower-paying jobs all the time! And the poorest communicators seem to be answering phones.)

I like this country, and wish it the best. They constantly do stuff that is impossibly stupid that works against their own interests. This stuff piles up, and eventually, something is wrong for no reason, and I finally explode.

The only time it's a class issue is at the bank. I expect my ass to be thoroughly kissed any time I wish there. Their fee structure does that, and their assurance that I'm a very preferred customer (as I should be). They still muck things up for typically South African reasons.
posted by Goofyy at 12:23 AM on October 6, 2006


So, companies came up with the brilliant counterstrategy of making it exceedingly difficult for the customer to ever speak to anyone with the power to help them

This hits the nail on the head. The problem many times, as I see it, is broken feedback loops. This is how it's supposed to work:

1. Customer has problem
2. Customer contacts service representative
3. Service representative fixes problem, -OR- escalates the issue to some sort of supervisor who fixes the problem
4. Problem is fixed, customer goes away happy
5. (Bonus) Business procedures are adjusted so that the problem doesn't recur (for this or other customers).

But this rarely if ever happens. Instead we get this:

1, 2 (same as above)
3. Service representative explains how they can't do a damn thing to help the customer. The service rep probably has to deal with this a lot and it frustrates them too. They tend to stick to scripts because it covers their asses - basically a "not my fault I can't give you what you want/need - management forces me to follow this rigid formula". If the service rep actually escalates the issue to their supervisor, it could blow back on them, especially if done repeatedly. And nothing requires the supervisor to actually be in a position to do anything either.
4. Customer gets irate, and service rep has to deal with that, which can be very mentally taxing.
5. Customer may leave, but business doesn't give a shit as long as they are getting new customers to replace them.
6. Problem recurs.
7. Business puts more pressure on service reps to achieve better customer service metrics, tying raises and promotions (and retention) to these numbers, all while not doing a damn thing to actually help them help the customers.
8. Hilarity ensues. Oh, I'm sorry, I misspelled "The fall of Western Civilization as we know it ensues".

Anyway, sometimes I do get angry when a company is being retarded or their actions piss me off. But I always apologize to the poor person on the phone who has to hear my rant. "I'm sorry, I know it's not under your control, but could you please send my complaint up whatever pipeline you have, because this is really ridiculous and I'm very tempted to go with another company over this". Who knows if it does any good.

And if they're running out of that type of meat repeatedly, why don't they order more of it? A one-off when a bunch of people buy that sandwich on a given day, that I can see depleting their stores. But over and over again? Order more, geez. Close the feedback loop.
posted by beth at 2:45 AM on October 6, 2006


Upon further reflection, people lash out because it's socially unacceptable to break down and cry.
posted by kindall at 5:50 PM on October 8, 2006 [2 favorites]


I'm late to the party, but here's my two cents: hurt people hurt people. I think that people who are kind to others have a healthy perspective on life in general and have dealt with the crap life gives them. People who are pushy and mean and hurtful generally view themselves as victims and have not dealt with their hurts. Hurt people hurt people.
posted by orangemiles at 7:55 AM on October 9, 2006


Just hopped over to boingboing and found this: A new study suggests that a small part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefontal cortex (DLPFC) is key to suppressing selfishness.
posted by grumblebee at 12:52 PM on October 9, 2006


customers who follow the "squeaky wheel" theory tend to misplace their frustration and anger on the people who have the least amount of power to change whatever it is that is making the customer so upset in the first place. - The Gooch

Yes, and then a lot of times, when they finally get to talk to the big boss, they're suddenly sweet as honey.

I think beth's stpes about the bad feedback loops are right on the mark. kindall's remark: "Upon further reflection, people lash out because it's socially unacceptable to break down and cry." also has a ring of truthiness to it.
posted by raedyn at 6:39 PM on October 9, 2006


my sister worked in a restaurant and also as a cashier various places, and she said exactly what PinkStainlessTail said. it's about some notion of having bought power and wanting to display it. she mentioned that in restaurants it was often some schlubby guy being an asshole just to prove he could be, with the tone of "since i'm paying for this, i've proven i can afford it and i've paid for the right to treat you as my bitch" etc. she also said that said customer was often accompanied by a mousy wife/girlfriend who seemed embarrassed and likely dealt with similar power shit at home.
posted by ifjuly at 10:12 AM on October 11, 2006


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