Are we as Americans getting ruder?

I wondered about this one evening when another consultant and I were on an elevator. It stopped on the next floor, and a woman got on who was speaking on a cell phone. My friend and I were talking, and she started speaking louder because, obviously, we were ruining her ability to carry on a conversation with someone who wasn’t there. When she got off on the next floor, she turned around to look at us as though we had slapped her child; I found that incredible.

Are the people who report to you ruining your business? Can those same people ruin the reputation that you, or others before you, have worked hard to establish?

Year ago, I went to a well known department store in NYC with some other consultants. Most of what I saw was extremely expensive, which I expected in a store of this caliber. I'd decided to buy something that was within my means, that I knew I’d enjoy.

I went up to the counter to make my purchase, and the young lady behind the counter was on the phone. She wasn’t paying any attention to my standing there waiting to buy my item. Finally I verbally excused myself, she looked up and came over and, still talking on the phone, rang up my purchase.

I started to walk away, but looked at my receipt and noticed that I’d been charged more for the item than the listed price. I went back and now she was sitting down. I excused myself again and mentioned that what had been rung up was higher than the posted price. She scanned it, still talking on the phone, asked the person to hold on a minute, then told me that was the price coming up, and I had to go downstairs to customer service to be taken care of.

I went downstairs to customer service, where there were two people working behind the counter, one wrapping a gift for another customer, the other just standing there, talking to the first. When it was finally my turn, I showed her my purchase and told her my issue. She told me I had to go back upstairs to the person who rang me up, because it wasn’t her job to credit things, but the job of the person at the counter. I told her that person had sent me downstairs, was on the phone, and I wasn’t going back upstairs until it was confirmed that this person upstairs was the one who was supposed to handle it.

She actually huffed, picked up the phone, and got a busy signal from upstairs; I’d told her the woman was on the phone. She lost her mind and started a stream of cuss words, in front of me and the other customer, as if we weren’t there. I was appalled, but instead of saying anything, I just sat down in one of the green chairs they had in the area and waited for someone to take care of my issue.

After another couple of minutes of complaining, as well as making other phone calls to people who wouldn’t respond to her, she finally decided to take matters into her own hands and left the area. I wasn’t sure where she was going, but she was off. Five minutes later she was back in the area; I knew because I heard her, as I had my eyes closed, and I knew her voice. She was still spouting a stream of invectives, but she was working on my issue.

looking rude

I heard her mention the problem to a manager, who I then heard say “He’s complaining for only a dollar?” Then I heard “He’s sitting right there.” Two minutes later, I had my credit, and made sure to make eye contact with the woman who’d uttered the detrimental comment, so she knew that I had heard what she had to say, and left the store, knowing I’d never be going back.

I'd been reading a book on leadership where the author met with many leaders of organizations across the country to discuss their theories on leadership. An owner of a chain of stores was quoted as saying “We treat our customers as if they are the most important person in the world, and they pay us for treating them well.”

I imagine that across the country every one of us hears the person at the top making a statement like that, but we deal with another reality from time to time, and it makes a negative impression on us. Even closer to our reality, we probably work with the types of people who produce this behavior on almost a daily basis, making statements to customers in person or on the phone that make us cringe.

As co-workers, sometimes we allow this behavior to go on, because we’re unsure what to do. As supervisors, managers, or other types of leaders, when we allow this type of behavior to go on we show exactly what we’re made of, and what we think of the organization we’ve been entrusted to make better. As business owners, we’re telling our customers that we don’t care about them, nor our business, or their business either; that's a dangerous message if we hope to be successful.

A change of behavior can be as simple as changing the words that are used. For instance, how much better does having someone say “I’m sorry ma’am, but I wish there was more I could do for you”, compared to “I’m sorry ma’am, but that’s not my problem, and you’ll have to deal with it yourself”? Would you rather have the person working for you that tells a customer “Let me see if I can find a way to solve your issue”, or “I don’t know what you expect me to do for you”?

Whether in your business or outside of your business, here’s five things to think of when considering the “rudeness” factor:

1. Are you or others behaving in a manner that’s making someone else uncomfortable? Is the phone call or cell phone call absolutely more important than the person who’s with you or around you at that moment?

2. Are you or others using words that you could say in front of your parents or children without discomfort, knowing that if they used those words in front of others that they’ll reflect positively on you or themselves?

3. Are you or others in such a hurry, or so concentrated only on yourself, that you can’t take a moment to hold open a door, give someone a requested direction, ask a friend how they feel, or even acknowledge a quick hello, whether you knew that person or not?

4. Are you or others expecting someone else to cater to their whims if you’re not paying for it? As an addition, are you or others expecting to be allowed to treat others without respect just because you’re paying for it?

5. Are the words “thank you” or “I’m sorry”, or something similar, missing from your language or the language of others?

I thank you for your time; I’m sorry if I’ve inadvertently called you out (actually, I'm not...).