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.
That is not happening.
“There’s a lack of outlets for people’s anger,” Ms. 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 chief executive 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.
That seems like child’s play, compared to what else is going on in the skies. In the Covid era, airplanes have become fertile landscapes for fights about rules that are really metaphors for other things. This is where mask mandates meet never-maskers and where weary, combative consumers meet exhausted, fed-up (and increasingly overworked, because so many people are sick) employees.
In 2021, there were 5,779 reports of unruly passengers on planes, more than 4,000 of them related to mask mandates, the Federal Aviation Administration reported. The stories keep coming: of passengers knocking out flight attendants’ teeth; of flight attendants subduing passengers with duct tape; of people brawling about masks, seatbelts, no-alcohol policies, the lack of normal meal service — you name it.
Recently, a woman on a Delta flight from Tampa to Atlanta hit and spat at another passenger in an incident that began when she refused to accede to the flight attendant’s request to sit down while the beverage cart was in the aisle. When the woman was invited to find an open seat for a few minutes, she asked, “What am I, Rosa Parks?” according to the ensuing criminal complaint.
Flight attendants say that enforcing rules — not just over masks, but over seatbelts 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 51-year-old 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,” Mr. Mosley said.
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, Mass., 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.”
From across the country, workers responded with similar stories: of customers flying off the handle when the products they wanted were unavailable; of customers blaming the store, rather than supply-chain disruptions, for delays; of customers demanding refunds on nonrefundable items; of customers so wound up with worry and anxiety that the smallest thing sends them into a tailspin of hysteria.
In Chicago, a customer service agent for Patagonia described how a young woman became inconsolable when told that her package would be late. Another customer accused him of lying and participating in a scam to defraud customers upon learning that the out-of-stock fleece vest he had back-ordered would be further delayed by supply-chain issues.
In Colorado, Maribeth Ashburn, who works for a jewelry store, said that she was weary of being “the mask police.”
“Customers will scream at you, throw things and walk out of the store,” she said.
The worst, she said, is the political commentary. Once a customer went into a diatribe against Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, saying she had it on good authority that he was about to be jailed for his “crimes.” Others have called Ms. Ashburn a “sheep” and a “fraidy-cat” for wearing a mask.
Her go-to response — looking noncommittal and murmuring “hmm” — seems to make matters worse. “I am very discouraged at the polarization and at the unkind way that people treat each other,” she said.
Ms. 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 — had given normal people license to act out, too. With her customers, she tries to remain calm, address their problems and take solace in whatever 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.”