Customer service is one of the worst social interactions many of us engage in because it’s almost always a sham. And we know it. Knowing how fake the interaction is makes it that much more difficult (for me) to participate in sincerely.*
In a customer service social interaction, politeness is for sale. Along with the (implied) purchase of a consumer good or a service is a built-in benefit of pleasantness on the part of the service professional. It’s a simple commodity-exchange relationship, but (in the U.S. especially) we expect to sugar-coat that with a false sense of cheer. In a normal social interaction, one not so directly contingent on the exchange of money, politeness is something that is almost earned: if one person in the interaction is polite, the other is more likely to be polite as well. But they are not obligated to be–no one is obligated to be. In contrast, during a customer service interaction, the promised payment of money obligates only the service professional to be polite. That person’s demeanor is being manipulated by money.
MY POLITENESS IS NOT FOR SALE! It SHOULD NOT be for sale! That drains politeness of much of its value, and maybe this is why society is becoming more rude in general. If we’ve commodified everything (see Strasser 2003), turning much of our dealings with strangers into fake social interactions that only obligate one party to be polite, and both parties know this politeness is fake because it’s being bought, then why should anyone value politeness in and of itself? Niceness becomes a perpetual sham, and no one will know how to feel it or genuinely be polite, anymore. A stretch, okay, but I see kids running around acting entitled to everything without even having to act polite or gracious, nevermind actually feel those things. And their parents let them! Is our consumer culture, which hinges on various commodity-exchange relationships like customer service interactions, ultimately to blame for this general slide into rudeness? Look me in the eye when we’re talking and put that goddamn phone away!
My main point is that customer service social interactions make me angry because they are so fake, and because they put a price–albeit unquantified–on the manner in which the service professional engages with a fellow member of society. Except, of course, the service professional is not the consumer’s equal, because the consumer has been taught to feel entitled to the service professional’s robotic smile and fake politeness. The service professional is a slave to capitalism’s social consequences. Their behavior is devoid of free will and instead dictated by the possibility of acquiring capital from the customer.
I say it’s time we called shenanigans, and started treating people well no matter what. Alternately, if you’re a service professional and a customer is rude to you, you should be able–even expected–to be rude in kind if the spirit moves you, because why should you have to take it just because the customer is the one with the money? It’s likely not going into your pocket, anyway, but that of the company you work for. And I feel it’s more important that we teach each other the value of engaging nicely with everyone regardless of their social position within a customer service interaction. Regardless of who holds the money, and where it might be spent.
*This is why my smart, rude customers will complain about my sarcastic attitude. They don’t appreciate that I’m multitasking by trying to teach them a lesson in how to behave and being metapragmatic by commenting on the fakeness of our social interaction even as we are engaging in it. So I guess they’re really not that smart–or they’d rather focus on how rude I’m being because they think they’re entitled to my smile in spite of their disrespectful attitudes because they’re ostensibly paying to be there. Which is bullshit. My attitude is contingent on yours, not how much money you make in a year, who you are, or how much you’re dropping on this visit to our store. Asshole.