The study of customer service seems primarily reserved to business-oriented, sociological research, or so my database searches would suggest. However, it is certainly a problem for anthropology. Bullying behavior does occur among adults, and notably in the customer-server sphere of interaction.
Jürgen Habermas notes in chapter V of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that as the market has become privatized, businesses became distinct and protectionist; meanwhile, the public sphere experienced “stateification” to the point that the line between public and private became permanently blurred. I believe this blurring accounts for the problems of interaction in the world of customer service: vestigial conflict between public and private, business and consumer, is played out through servers and customers.
According to Habermas, the public service sector was developed to alleviate the imbalance created by increasing social costs upon economic growth (p. 147). This “intervention” also increases tension between oligarchic reality and public consumption. Furthermore, service representatives become the face of an organization to a consumer; their privacy is temporarily suspended, their identity conflated with that of the company or government, for the sake of mediation between disparate levels of production and consumption.
Put simply and applied to contemporary America, state/public agencies and private businesses are often self-contained and run by private individuals, even if the company is publicly owned. Their interests may be at odds with their economic and social costs. They also require the public’s attention. Through public service announcements, advertisements, press releases, and other types of marketing and promotion, they negotiate their relationship to the public. This means that an employee of any type of service establishment is representative of the organization (see p. 153), yet a private person; they interact with the public, which is also comprised of private persons. See the potential for conflict?
Examples: A customer attempts to return an item but is outside the return period set at the executive level. The cashier declines to give the customer money back for fear of losing his job, or having the money taken from his pay. The customer takes the denial personally and insults or bullies the cashier. The cashier defends himself by citing the business’ policy. The customer requests a manager, by whose higher authority is more representative of business interests. The manager is actually more concerned by the business’ interests and fears losing respect, privileges, or even her job if she drives away a customer. She makes an exception to the policy; the customer believes the cashier to be wrong, bullheaded, or just discriminatory by denying the return, but is the only one to walk away feeling resolved.
In addition, the public sphere has devolved from a distinctie sphere of public intereaction into an artifically connected web of private spheres (see pp. 162-64). The extraordinarily wide gap between the producers and consumers contributes to this tension. The closer one gets to the top, the easier to alleviate (hence why customers have learned to call for managers or otherwise escalate the issue). You will see less of the “customer is always right” attitude, although this too has changed from its original conception and has a distinctive American iteration, in smaller or independent businesses.
Although childhood bullying is a more pressing topic in the news, I am fascinated by these tensions and resulting behavior in the public sphere, if only to answer my own questions about how I’ve been treated on the job I worked to support myself through undergraduate to the present. Examples:
- A pleasant customer, attempting to make conversation, asked me leading questions about whether I still lived at home, when I graduated high school, and what I liked to do when I wasn’t working. I made the mistake of answering honestly, that I had moved to Gainesville as an adult and had just begun to pursue a Master’s. He suddenly changed in demeanor and said, “Oh, yeah, in what, fish-catching?” [I work in a pet store.] and laughed derisively. I said, “No, anthropology.” He said he didn’t know what that was, glared at me, and was unpleasant for the rest of the encounter.
- I get told I “must like working here” several times a week. Yes, told, not asked. Usually this is combined with an overuse of my name (or, if you’re like one customer we have, addressing all employees by the name of our company) and slower-than-normal speech when addressing me.
Cross-posted on Eponymy’s Delight.