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“The customer is always right” says more about us than we think

We use generalizations to understand how we’re supposed to act. But why do we use generalizations to justify bad behavior?

November 6, 2019

A man walked into a bar one day for a drink. Not long after, he became very, very upset. It was an absolutely catastrophic reaction, like the kind you’d see from a toddler after being denied any assortment of things he may have wanted. Let’s call the customer John.

He was being cut off at the bar after showing aggressive behavior and verbally assaulting the bartender. After asking for a couple light beers and a handful of tequila shots, our ill-mannered friend John — who embodies the relentless abuse service workers deal with on what seems like a daily basis — went on to verbally abuse the bartender.

The bartender had deemed John too drunk already and unfit for more drinks. Rightfully so — John was notorious for getting blitzed before even going to the bar, and would sometimes take out his aggression verbally on the staff. 

Make no mistake; it is a sad reality for those working in the service industry. But it shouldn’t have to be.

America needs a culture change. It’s been a long time coming for this, but it has to be said: employees, employers and customers alike must do away with the infamous, totally backwards “the customer is always right” attitude.

First off, it’s simply untrue. Second, the assertion that “the customer is always right” indirectly condones horrible behavior by customers in bars and restaurants. In addition, it actively justifies the fact that employees must put up with cruel or foul behavior as just a means to an end: getting customers to pay their tab or check without incident. 

Seems cruel, right? But what’s really causing this to happen? This is about something bigger; something many of us love to use when we discuss how we run our lives and how we organize our politics. 

And that’s a good old-fashioned, superficial but easy to understand blanket statement, or generalization. “The customer is always right” is one we use a lot as Americans. 

We love generalizations. We love them because they require no thinking and despite their problems, they help us conceptualize life. But how’s that working out for us?

Blanket statements serve nothing productive when taken literally. Most of the time, blanket statements we use quite often are untrue, completely or to some degree.

But what’s important to note is that we essentially use generalizations to help create general truths about the world. But we also use them to help justify bad behavior, often with detrimental consequences. It’s labelling and generalizations that have fueled some of the deepest hate and darkest ideologies of our lifetime and many that came before us and it’s a key component in identity politics. Banning customers who regularly harass is one thing, but nothing can be done for the one-time only patrons.

As consumers, we are indeed more powerful than the bartender or server taking our order by the current power structure. Some assume that acting horribly to hospitality employees will help them get what they want faster. As employees serving these consumers, we’re expected to just deal with it because the customer is, indeed, “always right.”

This mentality doesn’t apply only to service and hospitality, but it’s emphasized when dealing with customers face-to-face on a regular basis is integrated into the job itself. In many industries, the workers do the work and the management deals with the clients. In hospitality, this isn’t quite the case, as servers and bartenders are nearly autonomous when they’re on the floor. But our attitude towards them as consumers also makes for a culture where hospitality employees are at the mercy of their customers, no matter what verbal or physical mistreatment they may experience.

It’s incredibly difficult to think of anything that is always true, at all times, under any circumstances, aside from objective scientific facts. And even then, scientific advances change how we perceive the world and things we know to be true get replaced with new facts. The earth was scientifically claimed to be flat at one point, and — sorry, Kyrie Irving — we’ve gone on to debunk that as well.

We’re past the point in our lives where blanket statements should be dictating whether or not we choose to do or tolerate something. If you ask most sensible people, if we truly applied this logic to our lives, most would agree we’d be in deep trouble in a plethora of other regards after some thought.

Ryan Arel / Opinion Editor; Graphics courtesy of Pixabay

And that’s a huge part of what’s wrong with the hospitality industry and that’s a huge part of why our culture discourages customers from being on their best behavior. This old-timey phrase must go. Asking employees to simply “deal with it” is tantamount to teaching people how to deal with harassment, as opposed to teaching people to just simply not harass.

Instead, I commend my readers to do the following: use generalizations to help solve problems and shape how we look to be better people, not to rationalize the bad things in life. Use proverbs and maxims to advance your life, not justify the shameful behavior of you or of others. Like other words of wisdom, take the lessons they offer, but be practical with them.

And we all obviously want to deal with less hogwash at our jobs. That’s universal. In the hospitality industry, it’s mean-spirited people. Labor workers, bankers and everything in between all have certain wars they’d like to start on certain aspects or shortcomings of their jobs. 

It’s easier to complain at work about the coffee machine breaking. What you take home with you are the horrible things people may say to you. Some customers may be great, but many are not. 

But it’s mentalities like “the customer is always right” and other die-hard, no excuse rules like it that lead to people getting off with being genuinely bad people doing genuinely bad things. 

And that I don’t buy. One study done in 2013 mentions that one service worker referenced the phrase itself when a customer was “in the midst of abusive behavior,” and the worker claimed that a customer said if the worker wanted a tip, they should’ve been “kissing his ass, not telling him off.”

The tale of the oh-so-lovely John is not unparalleled with the tales that many who work in bars, restaurants, hotels or any other type of hospitality jobs may also be able to tell. But for now, it’s what hospitality workers are expected to deal with. But without ditching our die-hard loyalties to some proverbs, we’ll just keep having problems. 

But to make a blanket statement of my own, John can’t be fixed because you can’t fix stupid. Right?

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