Nerves at the grocery store were already frayed when the customer arrived. He wanted Cambozola, a type of blue cheese. He had been cooped up for a long time. He scoured the dairy area; nothing. He flagged down an employee who also did not see the cheese. He demanded that she hunt in the back and check the store computer. No luck.
And then he lost it, just another out-of-control member of the great chorus of American consumer outrage, pandemic style.
“Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” said the employee, Anna Luna, who described the mood at the store, in Minnesota, as “angry, confused and fearful.”
“You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.’”
It is a strange, uncertain moment, especially with omicron tearing through the country. Things feel broken. The pandemic seems like a Möbius strip of bad news. Companies keep postponing back-to-the-office dates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps changing its rules. Political discord has calcified into political hatred. And when people have to meet each other in transactional settings — in stores, on airplanes, on customer-service calls — they are, in the words of Luna, “devolving into children.”
Perhaps you have felt it yourself, your emotions at war with your better nature. A surge of anger when you enter your local pharmacy, suffering from COVID symptoms, only to find that it is out of thermometers, never mind antigen tests. A burst of annoyance at the elaborate rules around vaccine cards and IDs at restaurants — rules you yourself agree with! — because you have to wait, and it is cold, and you left your wallet in the car.
A feeling of nearly homicidal rage at the credit card company representative who has just informed you that, having failed to correctly answer the security questions, you have been locked out of your account.
“People are just — I hate to say it because there are a lot of really nice people — but when they’re mean, they’re a heck of a lot meaner,” said Sue Miller, who works in a nonprofit trade association in Madison, Wisconsin. “It’s like, instead of saying, ‘This really inconvenienced me,’ they say, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ It’s a different scale of mean.”
Civility takes a holiday
The meanness of the public has forced many public-facing industries to rethink what used to be an article of faith: that the customer is always right. If employees are now having to take on many unexpected roles — therapist, cop, conflict-resolution negotiator — then workplace managers are acting as security guards and bouncers to protect their employees.
It’s not just your imagination; behavior really is worse. In a study of 1,000 American adults during the pandemic, 48% of adults and 55% of workers said that in November 2020, they had expected that civility in America would improve after the election.
By August, the expectations of improvement had fallen to 30% overall and 37% among workers. Overall, only 39% of the respondents said they believed that America’s tone was civil. The study also found that people who didn’t have to work with customers were happier than those who did.
“There’s a growing delta between office workers and those that are interacting with consumers,” said Micho Spring, chair of the global corporate practice for the strategic communications company Weber Shandwick, which helped conduct the study.
At the same time, many consumers are rightly aggrieved at what they view as poor service at companies that conduct much of their business online — retailers, cable operators, rental car companies and the like — and that seem almost gleefully interested in preventing customers from talking to actual people.
“The pandemic has given many companies license to reduce their focus on the quality of the experience they’re delivering to the customer,” said Jon Picoult, founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer service advisory firm.
Frictionless economy backslides
In part, the problem is the disconnect between expectation and reality, said Melissa Swift, U.S. transformation leader at the consulting firm Mercer. Before the pandemic, she said, consumers had been seduced into the idea of the “frictionless economy” — the notion that you could get whatever you wanted, the moment you wanted it.
That is not happening.
“There’s a lack of outlets for people’s anger,” Swift said. “That waiter, that flight attendant — they become a stand-in for everything coming between what we experience and what we think we are entitled to.”
How do you measure rage? For many years, Scott M. Broetzmann, now president and CEO of a consulting firm called Customer Care Measurement and Consulting, has been conducting studies of consumer anger. The next iteration is set to come out this spring. He almost can’t believe what he has seen during the pandemic.
“When we founded the study, I never thought that the environment would be like it was today,” he said. “I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined that we would be seeing people fighting on planes and beating each other up.” Last spring, he said, his early-morning flight from Washington to Phoenix was delayed for 45 minutes while a drama over a man and a mask played out in the back. The final scene: The man was escorted off in disgrace.
Flight attendants say that enforcing rules — not just over masks, but over seat belts and sitting down during takeoff and landing — is perhaps the most wearying part of their job.
“It’s mentally exhausting to have to police adults over this matter,” wrote Adam Mosley, a flight attendant, responding to a request by The New York Times to describe conditions in the service industry at this odd juncture.
“There is definitely a subset of people that don’t seem to think that any of the rules apply to them,” he said. Recently, an angry woman confronted him and another flight attendant in the galley, backing them into a corner while she argued that she had a right to talk to her children without wearing a mask.
It’s not all grim, he said. Some passengers go out of their way to thank him, just as some customers have taken to leaving huge tips in restaurants. Others have been bringing him and his colleagues little gifts, like chocolate.
“I think there was enough media attention over poorly behaved passengers that some people feel bad,” Mosley said.
Airplanes as scenes of the most crime
Airplanes are the scenes of the most obvious instances of consumer rage, along with restaurants, where customers regularly express their annoyance at staffing shortages, higher prices, vaccination mandates and other pandemic-centric problems. But most of the bad consumer behavior is low-grade — a persistent hum of incivility rather than an explosion of violence.
“Customers have been superaggressive and impatient lately,” said Annabelle Cardona, who works in a Lowell, Massachusetts, branch of a national chain of home-improvement stores. Recently, she found herself in a straight-up screaming match with a customer who called her lazy and incompetent after she told him that he needed to measure his windows before she could provide the right size shades.
Such interactions used to make her weep. “But I’ve been calloused by it,” she said. “Now, instead of crying, I’m just really pessimistic and judgmental against the people around me.”
Miller, from the Wisconsin trade association, said the pressures of the pandemic and the deterioration of elected officials’ behavior — the shouting, the threats, the hatred — have given normal people license to act out, too. With her customers, she tries to remain calm, address their problems and take solace in any crumbs of civility they offer.
“I’m not expecting people to be nice,” she said. “They don’t have to wish me a good day. They can say, ‘Hi, I’d like to buy this,’ and then ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’ I’d be very happy with that.”