Why people lash out at service workers
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People are increasingly berating service workers. There are forces at work that may explain why they’re bearing the brunt of customers’ ire.

If you are the television-company representative who was recently berated and harangued by a woman named Caitlin, you should know she feels bad about “torturing” you. 

“I was trying to cancel this contract we’d been roped into, and it became this whole ordeal,” says Caitlin, who lives in Oregon, US. “[The representative] was stonewalling me, and just kept using these scripted phrases, and wouldn’t or couldn’t bump me up to speak with a manager. Somehow, I got so enraged that I was swearing at him.”

She knew the agent’s training meant he couldn’t hang up on her. “I refused to let him get off the phone,” she says. “It was like two or three hours. I was so furious. It unleashed something in me that I didn't know existed. I was basically using this poor person as a punching bag.” 

Whether we’re willing to admit it, most people have treated a service worker poorly, at least to some degree. We’ve said things we regret to a customer-service representative, a flight attendant, a cashier or barista, usually sparked by something not that person’s fault, or not in their control. While people have always taken out frustrations on service workers, data shows these acts have been on rise in the past few years; research from the Institute of Customer Service has shown more than half of customer-facing employees report increased incidences of abuse since the start of the pandemic.

This poor customer behaviour doesn’t automatically mean someone’s a bad person (though, sometimes, people really aren't nice). Experts say there are underlying forces driving these outbursts as well as reasons why they’re increasing amid the pandemic. Understanding why people lash out at service workers, they say, is crucial to altering the behaviour – and giving these overworked employees a break.

Experts say Covid-19 has exacerbated this problem, since people are desperate to regain some sense of control, and can do so by "punching down" (Credit: Getty Images)

Experts say Covid-19 has exacerbated this problem, since people are desperate to regain some sense of control, and can do so by "punching down" (Credit: Getty Images)

‘Scapegoat theory’ and power dynamics

Generally, humans are generally pretty inflexible, says Reena B Patel, a San Diego-based psychologist and behaviour analyst. So, when routines get altered, this can unnerve people and spike agitation. “When things are slightly off, or don't happen the way we expect, it causes natural anxiety.” 

A long queue at the coffee shop, for instance, might have a domino effect, threatening to throw off the rest of the day’s schedule. It may seem like no big deal, “and people may not realise that’s what they’re stressed about”, says Patel. “But internally, that’s what’s happening. You walk into a restaurant for breakfast thinking you’ll get seated in 15 minutes and instead you’re waiting 45; now, your whole routine is shifting, and the stress is building up.” 

This creates a powder keg, says Patel, that doesn’t need much to blow – as pressure accumulates, some minor inconvenience can prove the final straw. “Let’s say you go into a grocery store, and you’re not able to find the items you typically get, or the costs have suddenly skyrocketed. That increases frustration, worries and anxiety,” adds Melanie Morrison, professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. 

That undercurrent of stress has a tendency to boil over during mundane tasks, like grabbing coffee or a meal, she adds – even for generally composed, mild-mannered people. That means a service worker can often be the person in the line of fire: suddenly, you’re snapping at a waitress who’s just trying to serve you some pancakes.

But outbursts at service workers specifically don’t generally happen just because that person is simply in front of you, says Morrison. “People that are working those jobs often do not have a lot of power,” she says, “and so they become easier targets”.

She says ‘scapegoat theory’ – the psychological term for people’s tendency to look for someone to blame – helps explain why people lash out at these types of employees, rather than, say, family members or colleagues. People aren’t going to “lose their mind” at work or school, says Morrison. “It’s going to happen on the phone with a customer-service worker, or at the discount store or McDonald’s.”

There’s no social credit in the relationship. I feel guilty about this, but it was a situation in which I could unload a whole bunch of frustration onto someone – Caitlin

This is because people who aren’t in service positions can feel superior to people who are, and it’s much easier to punch down. “Even though we shouldn’t look at one occupation being higher in terms of a hierarchy than another, you naturally can fall into that trap and assume that you’re superior,” says Patel. 

But even without the entitlement of a superiority complex, it can feel easy to unload on a stranger whose training says they essentially have to listen to you. For Caitlin and the cable-company employee, “it felt like there was nothing to lose for me by absolutely going nuclear”, she says. “There’s no social credit in the relationship. I feel guilty about this, but it was a situation in which I could unload a whole bunch of frustration onto someone.”

So, even if your real gripe is with your boss or partner, the stakes are significantly lower with service workers: explode at work or home, and you’ll just have to pick up the pieces later. But, like many of us, Caitlin knew she’d never speak to person on the other line ever again. “There’s no ramifications,” she says, “for me just letting my worst behaviour fly.”

Powerlessness and the pandemic

Processing stressful events becomes even tougher when the bad news piles up – as has happened to many people over the long years of the pandemic.

“It’s all been exacerbated by Covid,” says Morrison. “There are political hostilities, health anxieties, economic challenges that so many people are facing right now… it all has a compounding effect.”  When things feel like they’ve gone off the rails, it can really put people on edge. “The world is in chaos right now, and so people are searching for a sense of control.” 

The rudeness could be a symptom, says Morrison, of being “out of practice” when it comes to human interaction, after all this time spent largely avoiding – or at least being anxious about – other people. Or it could be deeper than that. It’s possible many still feel robbed by a pandemic that forced us to reschedule life events and deprived us of normalcy, and a wider fury at companies, systems and institutions who don’t seem quite as sympathetic as we feel they ought to be.

It’s enough to make anyone feel more helpless than ever, and the average person doesn’t have much recourse against the effects of a global pandemic. This feeling of powerlessness may feed into bad behaviour; in many cases, people are just looking to regain even some control, which can spark misplaced ire. It helps explain why, during the pandemic, abuse directed at service workers saw such a sharp spike.

Little moments of stress can add up to a powder keg that can blow at any minor inconvenience – and powerless service workers bear the brunt (Credit: Getty Images)

Little moments of stress can add up to a powder keg that can blow at any minor inconvenience – and powerless service workers bear the brunt (Credit: Getty Images)

‘They’re a human’ 

Still, even amid these unusual circumstances, “you'd hope there would be some recognition that even a situation as bad as we’ve been in shouldn’t be a catalyst for poor and pitiful behaviour”, says Morrison. Yet incidents remain rampant – and even if we’re not always in a global pandemic, there will always be stressors that threaten to make the pot boil over. 

The good news is, there are ways people can stop the explosions before they happen, or at least de-escalate quickly. 

“First of all, if you’ve done this, you're not automatically a bad person,” says Patel. “Sometimes we don't make the best choices. But you can do things differently so you don't have that same reaction.” That might be as simple as waking up 10 minutes earlier to create a buffer in your schedule, she says. “So, if things don’t go the way you want, you’re not so stressed about it. You don’t want to be rigid in your expectations.” 

And flexibility is a skill you can practice and improve by doing things as basic as changing your coffee order, or walking to lunch instead of taking the train. “Don't take the same route to work every day,” says Patel. “You need to have variability in your life. And if you actually practice it ahead of time, you're not so upset when the unexpected occurs.”

When you do inevitably get upset, however, it’s not necessarily more helpful to swallow your frustration. But there are better ways to vent it than lashing out. “Instead of the word ‘you,’ use the word ‘we’,” suggests Patel. “Ask the customer-service agent, ‘how can we solve this problem? It diffuses that hostile energy, and then you trying to get what you want becomes more of a collaborative process.”

You can make sure your better angels remain in control, she adds, by using a person’s name, instead of just thinking of them as a stranger you’ll never have to speak to again. “If you're talking to a barista and you see their tag, use their name, and let them know that you respect them,” she says. “Even though you're upset, you’re acknowledging – and reminding yourself – that they’re a human, and they have feelings.” 

As for the broader sense of control loss the pandemic continues to foist upon us, the experts say you should be aware that you may be already on edge, and try to pre-correct before you take your problems out on a person who, almost invariably, can’t solve them. “It’s as simple as just being mindful,” says Patel, “and stopping and thinking before you respond is really important.”