Coping strategies for dealing with the public, please!
March 31, 2014 4:03 PM   Subscribe

Do you have a job where you deal with the public? If so, how do you deal?

I have a job which involves face-to-face interaction with the public. Probably 95% of the customers who come into the building are just fine, but the rest...well, let's just say that I am continually appalled by their capacity for rudeness (towards myself and other customers), insensitivity, selfishness and ignorance (including racism). I've been in this job for almost ten years, so I was hoping that by now I would have developed self-defense strategies that would allow this stuff to roll off my back (very little of it is anything I should take personally, but I often do), but I'm not there yet.

I'm wondering if there are other MeFites in similar situations, and if so how do you deal with the stress in a constructive way?

(Posted anonymously because there are people on this site who know me IRL).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It would help to have more specifics. Could you give an instance of an interaction recently that didn't go well?
posted by cartoonella at 4:36 PM on March 31, 2014

I smile really big and make clever, passive aggressive comments that the offending party will only understand 10 minutes after they leave.

Actually, I don't. I try to understand the offensive person's perspective. Some people are just asses and should be ignored. Other people can be asses because they are having a bad day. The bad day ones are great because I can usually cheer them up and send them on their way feeling much better. Everyone has a story. I either learn their story or I learn to ignore them. If someone says something really offensive, I repeat it back to them in a corrected version.
Racial Comment- Those black people are always stealing stuff.
reply- Oh, you mean sometimes criminals are black? Yes, I have heard that to be true. People come in all colors and temperaments. Can you believe this weather?!
posted by myselfasme at 4:42 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've worked a lot of "behind a desk" jobs (receptionist, bookseller, cashier, etc) and frankly never got very good at coping with the extreme end of how shitty other people can be.

Things that did help:

- remembering that dicks are being dicks for a reason, and have untold stresses acting upon them. This doesn't excuse a dick's bad behavior, but may help you handle it. (When someone was being cruel to me, I used to pretend his mom had just died.)

- reminding myself that the possibility also exists that I will be surprised by a stranger's positive actions, rather than negative - i.e. if you try and prime yourself to see kindness in the world, you will see more of it.

Recently I watched this 15-minute TED talk, which gave me my one and only coping skill for dealing with sudden stress. I no longer deal face-to-face with the public, but I do business online, which means I get a lot of emails from people who are sometimes angry or abusive. The technique in that talk has rescued me from feeling hopeless SO many times.

Good luck - customer service jobs can be brutal even if you're tough.
posted by jessicapierce at 4:53 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I turn them into characters and write about them. Totally works for me, but YMMV.
posted by quincunx at 5:00 PM on March 31, 2014

I work in a public library. So 99% of members (customers) are awesome. The one percent who aren't? Well, it depends on the situation. If I can, I try to de-escalate, but crap like profanity, racism, aggressive behaviour? I kick them out calling the police if necessary. Sucks to be them and whatever life circumstances made them think the way they treat others is okay - but it is not my problem. They are welcome to come back if they can be decent, otherwise it is a permaban. My employer is good at recognizing that a big part of our mission is serving ALL people. And someone spewing racist, homophobic, sexist crap is affecting all the other people that deserve a safe space.
posted by saucysault at 5:01 PM on March 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

I remember going grocery shopping right after my dog died. I hated everyone and everything and as much as I tried to be polite, I was grouchy as hell. I wouldn't make eye contact, I didn't talk to the cashier, I probably cut someone off in the parking lot. I just wanted to get home and cry and everyone was in my fucking way.

When someone is grouchy or rude to me, I assume something similarly upsetting has happened to them and I cut them some slack.
posted by desjardins at 6:12 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I work retail. Welcome to hell.

1] It's not about you. The customer doesn't know you. The customer doesn't care about you. They'd be treating anyone stood where you are the same way.
2] As soon as the interaction is over, do something else. Doesn't matter what. Be fabulously wondrously amazing to the next person you see. You need to excise that shit before it has the chance to take root.
3] Moan to your colleagues. But only if you must. Moaning will maybe help cement the interaction in your head, which is the last thing you want. Actually, try to make your colleagues laugh. While you're thinking up jokes, you can't be dwelling on the heel that just threw the money on the counter at you.
4] Consider how emotionally ill the other person must be to be nasty to you. Be glad you aren't like that. Be glad you don't wake up next to that person every morning. Spend a few seconds imagining it, shudder for a while, then take a deep breath and go about your day.
5] Make an effort to be extra specially nice to the next person in a service position that you meet. The other person hopefully gets their day brightened, and you get to feel good about yourself.
6] Remember that occasionally, you will win. And it will be THE MOST GLORIOUS FEELING EVAR. Storytime: I had a repeat customer at a place I used to work at. Most miserable guy I've ever had the misfortune to meet. Complained about all sorts of things every.single.visit. I'd offered him a bag, I hadn't offered him a bag. The thing he wanted was out of stock, or it was in stock but the wrong colour. Whinge, moan, grumble, complain. This went on for about 6 years, with him coming in a couple of times a month, every month. One day, I'd just had enough, and snapped "If it's really that terrible, why do you keep coming back?". He had no answer, and refused to come to my checkout ever after. I saw him in the supermarket once and he practically ran off.
7] Be especially super nice and sweet to someone who is rude to you. Maybe you can embarrass them.
8] Quit caring. It's just a job. Develop more care for the more important things in your life, like your family, your friends, etc. You only have so much care to go around, so don't waste it on unimportant crap.
9] Check out You are not alone.

Memail me if you want to vent.
posted by Solomon at 6:22 PM on March 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.
posted by vrakatar at 6:33 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

1. You are there to be subservient. You can't protest, you can't fight back, you generally just have to take the shit because YOU will be the one in trouble, not the jerk.
2. You are there to GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT. The jerk will not go away until s/he GETS WHAT THEY WANT out of you.
3. You are being paid to do this and to take the shit. This is what you have to do to survive. This is what you have to think about all the time: that if you don't put up with this shit, you won't eat or have a place to leave.
4. Complain to coworkers and friends, but out of earshot of customers or management. Turn the stories into funny ones later on.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:17 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I work in a restaurant. When I get a rude asshole customer, I go overboard in the opposite direction, which usually changes their attitude completely.

Example: customer is running me to death, and has just demanded that I bring them still more of the free pickles. My instinct would be to bring them 2 of the tiniest pickles I can find, because dammit they're free so it's rude to keep asking for more. (I mean, our business is SELLING food, and I don't go to your job and ask you to work for free!) But instead of bringing them 2 tiny pickles, I load a bowl up with 6-7 of the biggest ones. When I plop that down on the table, they're thrilled, and now they love me, they go out of their way to be nice to me, and they tip extra.

Racism, however - yeah, I have no tolerance for that.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:36 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me; not [only] of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in [the same] intelligence and [the same] portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another, then, is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book II)

For now, focus on the help you can give to your 95% of customers; practice really good self care; consider washing your hands or doing something to "cleanse" yourself at the end of a shift.

And consider looking for a new job, because burnout is real.
posted by Hypatia at 5:33 AM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

You are an actor.

When you put on your work clothes and step on to the work floor, you become the role. Let the person you play handle the stress. That person can be someone you're not. That person can deal with this shit. That person has seen a lot worse. That person can smile through it all.

And at the end of the work day, when that person steps off the work floor and take off the work clothes, you become you again. The stress comes off with the role and the costume. You don't talk about work, or you talk about it as if it was something you saw on television, where some poor bastard had to deal with ignorant racists and so on at work. But that poor bastard isn't you. You peeled that person off with your work clothes. You can talk to others about that poor schmuck and wonder what you'd do in that poor schmuck's shoes because that person isn't you.
posted by pracowity at 6:21 AM on April 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Not really directly dealing with stress, but I run two different customer service departments and I am always clear to my staff that they do not need to listen to harmful or hateful language, like swearing, racism, and etc. They have my permission to end a phone call if that's happening, or transfer the call to me. If it's someone in person the same rule applies, but I find people to be much more horrible over the phone.

Could you have a conversation with your boss or supervisor about this and ask them for more support? I don't enjoy dealing with angry people, but sometimes the manager also has more leeway to give the customer special treatment and diffuse the situation. I also get paid to deal with more crap than my staff!
posted by dellsolace at 10:28 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

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