The Death of Civility

Picture it –  it’s 2010 and society has devolved to the point that a sense of entitlement is an American citizen’s most staunchly defended birthright.

This becomes an issue when two people encounter each other in a service-type situation. One person plays the role of the customer and the other is the service professional.

Calamity ensues when the service professional tells the customer that she can not do what she wants to do in that very moment. She feels that she is entitled to instant gratification of her every whim, no matter what the damn rules say. She becomes rude and violent and the service professional, who is entitled to have his authority recognized and respected, lashes out and makes a scene.

Last week Steven Slater, a flight attendant for Jet Blue, got into big trouble when he cursed out a passenger over the intercom, deployed the emergency slide, stole two beers and slid away to temporary freedom after the passenger attempted to remove her baggage from the overhead bin before the plane had come to a stop at the gate.

Steven Slater

I don’t condone what Mr. Slater did because he put lives at risk by deploying the emergency slide on the ground where baggage handlers and mechanics could have been hit and killed by it. He also forgot to maintain his dignity and professional restraint.

I can, however, understand what might drive someone in a situation like that to take such drastic measures. He was, by all accounts, dealing with an angry and belligerent passenger. When he told her that what she was doing was unsafe, as was his job requirement, she told him to f*** off and struck him on the head with the door of the overhead bin. If she was two that would be called a tantrum. At middle age, well, that’s still a tantrum, which is really just a lack of self control.

Once upon a time I worked as a waiter in the dining establishments of olde, when manners had not yet waned to the point of regular conflict. Sure, there were belligerent guests, cranky curmudgeons and people with so many diet restrictions they really should have just been attached to a feeding tube. All of these people could and did make crazy demands, yell at me for things beyond my control, treat me like I was a slave and not a person, insult me, hit on me, tip me poorly for good service and touch me inappropriately. Of course all of that irritated me and we servers would complain about and mock the customers from the safety of the kitchen. But we also knew that bad customers came with the job, that it was up to us to be the bigger people, to behave like adults when other adults refused to because our livelihood depended on it. Otherwise we could become office drones like these big babies and save up our frustrations to dump on people who had to take it from us, and take it with a smile. Sure, they know better, but they don’t care. They’re entitled to their feelings, after all.

I can completely understand that fed up feeling that Steven Slater must have had on that flight and I know for a fact I’ve wanted to tell customers a thing or two about a thing or two on many occasions in my former career in the service industry, but I didn’t because I took pride in being able to control myself and maintain my dignity.

Someone has to maintain a modicum of respectable behavior or it really will be the death of civility.

All, I’m saying, Steven Slater, is remember the rule of karma. What goes around comes around. And, truly,  people who can’t behave like adults, who wrap themselves in their sense of entitlement like a living shroud, are likely cranky in the first place from the coming around of the last bad thing they did.

When we think about it that way, realizing that the tantrum thrower’s problems are their problems and not ours then the behavior won’t bother as much anymore. And when we take away their power to bother us as much we’ll deflate some of their anger and they’ll be slightly smaller jerks. But still jerks, to be sure. At least we won’t also be jerks.



5 comments on “The Death of Civility

  1. Once while traveling with a broken foot, I made my way onto the plane past a flight attendant in her sixties who was agitated, complaining loudly about how her company was treating the employees. I hobbled to my seat, buckled up only to realize the seat of my pants had completely soaked through. I politely interjected into her diatribe that I had sat in something that I hoped was water. Unlucky for me, there was an elderly man on the flight before who had pissed himself and though they had been meaning to remove the cushion and replace it with a dry one, they got distracted instead and forgot. The way the flight attendant broke this to me did not part from the spirit of frustration in which she was operating, so, it was like my bringing this up was a rude interruption of her conversation and that I had created an imposition. Anyway, in the bathroom, gingerly working around my soft cast, I changed my pants and did some cringing. As I got back to my chair a different flight attendant, wearing rubber gloves, removed the seat cushion carrying it off as if it was made of dynamite. Yet another flight attendant put the dry seat in place and then I sat down and said thank you. I stewed in silence for much of the flight. Then, it was announced that due to earlier delays we were all to get free headphones. As I see them passing them out up ahead, the frustrated flight attendant comes up to me and says, “We’re so sorry that happened, we’d like to give you some complementary headphones.” I replied, “but you’re giving everyone free headphones.” She said something like, “what is your point?” It was a rough flight. A wheelchair was waiting for me at the plane door and we were the last ones out. As I sat in the wheelchair the flight attendant bent at the waist, hands on her knees and said in a patronizing tone, “you know what? You have a nice hat.” Being pulled away, I look over my shoulder and she is still in that position smiling at me like I am Special Needs. Three months later I got my ticket refunded.

  2. That sounds awful, Colin. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

  3. I asked her how it was that my pants got so completely wet and she said that because the seat was a flotation device, just underneath the thin upholstery fabric was a plastic lining. So, all of the old man’s urine pooled there waiting for me to sit on it. It’s funny now. I felt like a Ben Stiller character.

  4. Not sure what I like better… the blog or Colin’s response. Jeepers, that sounds awful to have to go through that. I would have complained and gotten my ticket refunded as well.

    I definitely would say there is a very palpable change in the way people act… especially with regards to customer service. I’d say I’ve seen a steady decline in quality CS over the last 10 years. But, recently, as times have gotten tougher, I’ve seen CS improve. Apple, contrary to all of this, has remained an awesome company all throughout. My positive story, in a nutshell:

    1) Bought a Powerbook Apple laptop from CompUSA, with the CompUSA (not AppleCare) warranty, in Spring 2005.

    2) After 9 months with the laptop, it started having issues. Brought it in

    3) Over the next 18 months, I brought the laptop in 11 times. It was never fixed quite right.

    4) CompUSA went out of business and my 3 year warranty was now over, with the computer STILL not right.

    5) I called Apple and explained my story to them. I provided copius notes and records.

    6) Apple not only agreed to fix it. They gave me 3 day assured turnaround (‘white glove’ treatment, they call it)

    7) I got my laptop back in the said time. There were a couple things still wrong. Sent it back, got it back once again very quickly, working perfectly.

    8) 2 years later, it’s still my wife’s main computer and is working great.

  5. That is so gross! And that they ‘got distracted’ and didn’t switch the cushions right away is ridiculous. That is definitely not providing good service. But you were the bigger person and kept it from becoming an altercation. You certainly handled it right by complaining and getting your refund rather than getting into a fight with someone carrying a chip on their shoulder.

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