Back in August, Madison, Wisconsin-based chef Tory Miller asked an exasperated 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 had a front-of-house staff member quit, citing “toxic” guests as their reasoning. “The entire world is short-staffed, and you yelling about your table not being ready the moment you arrive is not making that any different,” Miller wrote.
His lament got picked up by the local news site Madison.com, which followed up with him for an interview. He told the publication that customers seemed to think they could “just be downright mean to whomever is there” when out and about spending money.
I heard about Miller’s protest from a friend who works at another Madison restaurant (not one of Miller’s). She’d noticed the uptick in customers behaving badly and was glad someone had finally come out and said it. She’s not alone in her complaints; for months and months, I’ve been talking to retail staff and service workers who often bring up customers’ tendency not to treat them like people.
Now that the holiday season is upon us, as is all the pressure it brings along with it, many customers behave even worse. It’s worth saying: As we head out into the world to buy presents or gather for celebratory meals 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 nice.
Over the past few years, thanks to the pandemic and economic turmoil, consumers have been forced to reckon with the idea that they can’t always have what they want when they want it, and they haven’t been particularly kind about it. The pandemic has also led to a situation where many workplaces are severely understaffed. Retailers have struggled to hire and keep workers throughout the year, including the holiday crunch. That’s translated to longer wait times and more difficulty finding a staffer to help customers. It’s also an exhausting situation for the workers who, on top of feeling overstretched and overwhelmed, are also being mistreated over issues that are often completely out of their control.
Workstream, a hiring platform that helps companies connect with the “deskless” workforce — meaning largely hourly, in-person workers often in customer service jobs — created a public service announcement ahead of the 2022 holiday season that asks people to be nice. “Sure, many of us have experienced less than ideal service lately, and most of us have responded to these compromised situations like adults. But some of us, well, we’ve unfortunately turned into ‘Karens,’” the PSA says, referring to the meme and insult being a let-me-speak-to-the-manager type at minor inconveniences.
“As we’ve spoken with our customers and our employees, we’ve heard some concerning stories, to say the least, about people having less patience than ever and treating all of these workers like cogs in a machine,” Daniel Blaser, the content creator at Workstream behind the PSA, said in an interview.
We should not need a PSA that says to be nice to workers during the holidays, but alas, we do. Take it as a reminder to relax the next time you’re tempted to shout at the person standing across the counter from you.
Holiday stress + economic stress = a potential recipe for disaster
It is an annoying time to exist in the economy, and it’s been that way for a while.
Everything was more expensive last holiday season; this year, it’s going to be even worse. Not only does inflation persist, but the transitory story many economists were telling in 2021 — meaning high inflation was temporary and could go away on its own — has largely been debunked. People are spending more than they were on everyday items now than a year ago. They’re going to have to spend more to achieve the same experience as prior holidays, or they’ll have to scale back, which many say they are. The Federal Reserve’s way of dealing with inflation might push the United States into a recession, adding anxiety to an already anxiety-inducing moment.
The supply chain issues that dogged last year’s holidays have started to ease up somewhat. However, given what a mess getting things during much of the pandemic has been, it’s easy to worry — not to mention that the supply chain remains fragile.
At the same time, the labor market remains tight, despite the Fed’s best efforts to cool it off. That means businesses, ranging from retailers to airports and airlines, are still struggling to hire to keep up with increased holiday demand.
Consumers feel pretty down about the economy, even if in actuality the data says things — beyond inflation, which people hate — aren’t really that bad.
Combine that with the stress that normally accompanies the holiday season and it might not be a pretty picture. A 2015 survey conducted by Healthline found that 62 percent of people say their stress level is “very or somewhat” elevated during the holidays, compared to 10 percent who said it was no stress at all. From money to travel, the festive season takes already disquieting issues and turns the pressure up a notch or three.
Consumers are not awesome because corporations have trained them that way
At the start of the year, I did a bit of a deep dive into the mindset of the American consumer, because — let’s be honest — we are not always at our best while operating in our customer-centric economy.
The long and short of it is that we’re not accustomed to having to think about the trade-offs we make for our economy to run the way it does. We want things cheap and fast, and it’s uncomfortable to think about the costs of that for, say, the workers hired to make that happen. Corporations have pushed customer expectations higher and higher over the years as they’ve competed for our business and made available what one historian described as an “avalanche of stuff.” People expect offers to be bigger and better and the consumer experience to be constantly improving, even in moments when that’s not possible.
“We have become an entitled society,” Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, told me at the time. Because of the pandemic and current economic conditions, some of that entitlement has been stripped away, resulting in a “grumpy” public, he said. “The supermarket, the gas station, the department store, the mall, it’s kind of where it all comes to a head.”
Workers often end up bearing the brunt of people’s frustration with the situation, even when the situation is entirely out of their hands. If your flight is delayed, you cannot get American Airlines the company on the line because it is not a sentient being, 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’s just trying to get through the day and get paid and go home and cannot, much to your chagrin, control flight delays, let alone the weather.
Melanie Morrison, a professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, told the BBC that people in service jobs often become “easier targets” for consumers in part because they don’t have a lot of power. Consumers feel like they’ve got 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 “scapegoat theory,” where people look for someone to blame, even if the person in front of them is largely blameless. “It’s going to happen on the phone with a customer-service worker or at the discount store or McDonald’s,” Morrison said.
Maybe this holiday season, be cool
Whenever I talk to workers for stories, namely in the service industry, I’m surprised how often the topic of consumer behavior comes up. It’s not because I’m not aware it’s tough to deal with. Still, of all the things to talk to some random reporter about, this being it always takes me back a bit. It’s an indicator of how heavily the experience of being on the receiving end of a consumer meltdown weighs.
Ahead of Thanksgiving 2021, I talked to Will Liao, the owner of Queens Natural Meats in New York, about 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 that took care of you during Covid, they went to work every day, I went to work every day, to make sure you could eat,” he said at the time.
Nichole, a Wisconsin convenience store worker 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 get the word out there to people that we’re short-staffed so that we’re not getting yelled at.” To put it more succinctly, she added, “If you’re going to be a dick, don’t come back.”
I’ve had minimum wage workers lament how hard it is to get by when customers are tipping so little and when their employers are asking so much of them for so little pay. “You know the company’s making X amount of money, and for the amount of work they ask employees to do — coming in on off days, coming in early, staying late, dealing with customers — I’m not doing it for fun,” one grocery store worker told me this spring.
It’s gone the other way as well, as workers say a kind customer can measurably impact a lousy day — especially in a world where those customers often look down on them.
Many people have come to view themselves more as consumers than as workers, for a litany of reasons, and approach their interactions in the economy as such — even though they often play both roles. Maybe this holiday season, before losing your temper over some mundane thing that you won’t remember in a month, it’s a good idea to take a step back.
We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.
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