Is Common Courtesy Dead? Tales From Behind the Counter

Illustrated is a portrait of a fictional angry customer screaming “you got my order wrong!” reflecting the attitude and behavior of many towards service workers. Illustrated by Lula Hugo.

Anyone who has ever worked in customer service knows that rude and terrible people are inescapable. The thing is, this universal truth isn’t a stagnant one. What I mean to say is that common courtesy is on the decline, and fast. With the world evolving to be more on-demand with online ordering and delivery apps, people are constantly expecting more from their services, especially when it comes to food. Anything less than perfection in terms of service is used as justification for treating the people on the other side of the counter as less than human.

  Until recently, I worked as a barista at a very popular coffee chain which had no shortage of rude and entitled customers (I’ll let you guess which one). In my time there, I had many appalling experiences with fully grown adults that caused me to wonder if common courtesy has died in the modern age. In one instance, a man I was serving had a tab of $4.95 (which he was aware of before he even got to the second window). He handed me two dollars, and I said in my friendly customer service voice, “sir, you still owe $2.95.” 

With a lukewarm expression, he didn’t say a word and reached into the tip jar and retrieved three dollars placed there for us by other paying customers. As he handed me his indecent bounty he said “keep the change.” I found myself speechless, and at that moment I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but stare. He stared back. It was one of those moments where I felt like I was about to hear “hello, I’m John Quiñones and this is ‘What Would You Do?’” To be honest I don’t remember much of what happened next. I probably said something like “Sir, I cannot accept payment from the tip jar.” He then grunted nastily and sped away, taking the three dollars from the tip jar and leaving his food– which we ate.

This tip jar situation was certainly not the only event that left me at a loss, and eventually led to my two-week’s notice. One can only endure so many pieces of their soul dying, after all. I’ve spoken to dozens of my peers about their own customer service experiences, and almost everyone has an equally heinous story. “We’ve had people immediately walk out when we give them a mask to wear,” said Franklin student Hannah Doty, illustrating how COVID-19 guidelines add another layer to customer bitterness. So…what’s the deal? I, like many, have always observed this absurd behavior and have noticed how much worse it has gotten throughout the pandemic. People are understandably upset about how their lives have been affected by COVID-19, and service workers are easy targets for these people to offload their displeasure.

Now, one could psychoanalyze this type of rudeness, but that was never my job. My job was to make obscenely sweet drinks and be nice to the people who ordered them, which I had no issue with. My issue –and I’m not alone in this– arose with the way that I was treated while performing my job. There were always kind regulars and sweet passersby, but I’m sorry to say that they were often overshadowed by people who just seemed to be intentionally mean. 

Should I and other teen workers expect complete politeness and kindness from all patrons? Probably not. All I’m really calling for is some sort of bored indifference if one doesn’t feel like being friendly. In time I learned to absorb the absolute animosity coming from the general public, but it becomes grating over time. I eventually found myself dreading clocking in and craving to be posted making drinks, doing dishes or warming up food– pretty much anything to avoid working the window. Many times my coworkers and I would play a game of “not it” just to leave the position up to fate.

I recognize that it’s a gnarly world out there these days, but a little human kindness goes a long way! As much as I remember the terrible secondhand embarrassment moments, I remember sweet people and their dogs, and my easy conversation regulars. I do still believe that it’s entirely deplorable and unfortunate the direction that our manners are headed as a nation (because let’s be real, rudeness is as American these days as apple pie). However, I really appreciate those who are nice. Or at least decent. So, if you’re making even the smallest effort when you put in your order, just know that service workers appreciate it and it’ll probably make you feel better than being coarse and inconsiderate. We’re all going through it; let’s not make it any harder for anyone. 

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