Nerves at the grocery store were already frayed, in the way of these things as the pandemic slouches toward its third year, 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 look it up on the store computer. No luck.
And then he lost it, just another out-of-control member of the great chorus of American consumer outrage, 2021 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, over the phone on customer-service calls — they are, in the words of Ms. 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-y 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 outside, 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 own account. (Note to self: Adopting a tone of haughty sarcasm is not a good way to solve this problem.)
“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, Wis. “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.”
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.
At a specialty grocery store in Traverse City, Mich., a manager named Shea O’Brien was recently accused of being unable to read by a customer enraged that a kind of fish advertised as being discounted had sold out. In another instance, Mr. O’Brien said, a man who did not want to wear a mask verbally assailed another employee, interspersing personal insults with an impromptu soliloquy about liberty and tyranny until the employee began to cry.
“He kept shouting, ‘The governor said we no longer have to wear masks,’” Mr. O’Brien said. The woman’s response — that they were still required in places with a certain number of workers — only made him angrier.
Finally, the owner arrived and “told the customer never to return,” Mr. O’Brien said.
It’s not just your imagination; behavior really is worse. In a study of 1,000 American adults during the pandemic, 48 percent of adults and 55 percent 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 percent overall and 37 percent among workers. Overall, only 39 percent 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.
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.