1 Jun 2023

Awkward customers

A survey by the British Retail Consortium in March 2023 has revealed that violence and abuse against retail employees had almost doubled from pre-pandemic levels, rising from a pre-Covid high of 450 incidents per day to over 850 per day in 2021/22. What is going on?

The pandemic has clearly had a negative effect on behaviour. Isolation, stress and anxiety have all taken their toll. When the social ties that bind us are forcibly broken, we can feel untethered and overwhelmed and many people have found it hard to adjust to ‘normal’ life and social interactions.

This difficulty has been compounded by some of the lasting changes brought about by the pandemic: hybrid and remote working have become the norm for many people and, while there are clearly many advantages when it comes to flexibility and an improved work-home balance, there are downsides. Feeling isolated and deprived of mundane interactions has left some people feeling depressed and frustrated. In this state of mind, people are easily pushed over the edge by seemingly innocuous requests or minor inconveniences and confrontations may ensue.

Many people found being confronted by a battery of rules and regulations during the pandemic hard to take – particularly so when they discovered the extent to which non-compliance was tolerated in the corridors of power. They therefore found that ‘release’ from the restrictions created a heady feeling of newfound liberty, which in some cases was combined with a new-found contempt for rules and regulations and a repudiation of any kind of authoritarian intervention in individual behaviour. This inevitably leads to clashes with service personnel, who are often at the front line when it comes to ‘policing’ everyday behaviour – following rules on aeroplanes, queuing protocols, adhering to safety regulations at leisure facilities, and so on.

But why are people so quick to fly off the handle and so unrestrained about throwing tantrums and hurling abuse when things don’t go their way? It appears that social norms are to some extent being undermined. The digital revolution has long been transforming the way we communicate and interact, and the inexorable advance of social media was inevitably escalated by pandemic restrictions. Many people increasingly lead a social life that is dominated by social media and text-based communication and are finding it hard to make the transition into face-to-face situations. There seems to be a disconnect between digital and real-life communication, and their online behaviour has become disinhibited. They regularly dish out abuse and insults online, becoming detached from notions of empathy, and incapable of imagining the impact their remarks will have on their targets.

Some people are now transferring these online traits into real life behaviour and are laying in to service personnel, making unreasonable demands, complaining bitterly about service, making insulting remarks, falling back on racial and sexual abuse and, in some instances, even resorting to physical violence. Rudeness can be contagious; when people use encounters with strangers as an outlet for negative emotions, stress or anxiety they erode the code of civility that governs all our interactions and, bit by bit, unruly behaviour becomes more normalised.

It goes without saying that this negative spiral must be halted. Politeness is also contagious, and everyone can play their part in reinstating everyday civility by moderating their own behaviour. Start by ensuring that everyday interactions are polite and positive: practise small talk and exchanging remarks with strangers; remember your ps and qs (saying ‘Good morning’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’,  ‘please’, thank you); try to be pleasant and agreeable.

When things go wrong and you feel compelled to complain, don’t fly off the handle. Challenge yourself to remain calm and arm yourself with politeness and discretion. Never resort to aggression: do not lose your temper and never humiliate your target in public. Moderate your body language: do not loom over your victim or invade their physical space, try to maintain a neutral stance and facial expression. If you feel you are not making progress, politely ask to speak to a manager. Always think about the impact your remarks are having on your target: use your imagination to fully understand the impact of insults or bruising rudeness. If you can’t control your temper, remove yourself from the situation and revisit it later when you are feeling calmer. Above all, remember that persistent politeness and calm reasonableness are far more effective weapons than ranting and tantrums. Sometimes all you have to do is smile confidently and say “I’m sure we can resolve this”, or remind them of the reputation they have to uphold.

Good manners moderate our behaviour and ease our social interactions. They make people feel understood and appreciated and minimise conflict and aggression. We shouldn’t let the events of the last few years erode these essential skills.


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