Gustafson: Bullying isn’t only on the playground

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

For the past 24 hours, I’ve regretted the way I participated, or failed to, in a small encounter that took place recently, and because I can’t go back and react differently or sooner, I’ll write about it now in hopes of preventing anyone who reads this from feeling equally guilty, or for that matter, entitled.

While picking up a few things in a large local chain store in Glenwood, I couldn’t help overhearing an irate shopper as he berated an employee because she was unable to locate a very specific item in the huge store. The situation escalated; he was aggressive, loud and patronizing, pushing the boundaries of acceptable customer behavior. After keeping her composure under pressure through the entire experience, the gentile and diligent clerk finally found the item and the angry man stormed off.

Unable to continue to hold back the tears that had been welling up, she let them spill out. I stopped to console her and to praise her for handling the situation with such grace and told her that the way he had been talking to her was not nice. I believe she took some solace from my sympathetic gesture but her eyes said, “It’s OK, happens all the time.” And that’s just not OK. I left feeling that I should have intervened on her behalf much sooner.

It was the type of bullying that I try to discourage my own little children from standing idly by and allowing to continue. And because I am certain that as a parent I wouldn’t have been so passive on the playground, I realized that I was talking the talk but not walking the walk.

There seems to be an assumption that the customer is always right, and some will abuse their perceived power in such situations, even expecting that those who serve them should take it with a smile. And please don’t get me started on the experiences of those of us who have relied on tips to make ends meet.

I often muse over the 24 different jobs that I had tried out before putting forth some effort toward a sustained career path. I’ve waited tables, tended bars, taught skiing, walked dogs, arranged flowers, at one point in college I even delivered the very same newspapers for which I was the managing editor.

I’ve worked part-time as a passenger service agent at the airport — my least favorite customer service job, despite the perk of traveling around the world standby, but still in first class seats. That job culminated in an angry traveler throwing his baggage (no pun intended) over the counter at us when he was told that a safety restriction would prevent either himself, or his oversized luggage from traveling in our small plane over the mountains. I promptly resigned; no perks were worth that abuse.

I’ve held my tongue while a client reached across my desk, took my only pen out of my hand, used it to make herself a note, then looked up at me and scolded “why aren’t you taking notes” as she continued rattling off her list of unrealistic expectations.

We’ve put up with a lot, thanks to the “customer’s always right” philosophy. But I wonder if that has culminated in an escalating sphere of inconsiderate behaviors. I’ve often suggested that every person should, at some point, in his or her life — regardless of socio-economic status and in some cases specifically because of status — wait tables for tips. It is eye-opening and forces those of us who have served others to serve up empathy when the shoe is on the other foot.

And to be sure, customer bullying can be a two-way street. We have all witnessed disrespect and even abusive behaviors from self-important clerks or managers who have chosen to wield their powers. But the pendulum seems to be heavily swinging the other way these days.

Call it the social structure, part of the job, say, “If you don’t like it, quit,” but I’m going to call it bullying — and I realize that is a heavy word — but still I find it appropriate because I really believe it shouldn’t be acceptable in our society, let alone as a work-related norm. In elementary school, bullying definitions include, “persistent unwelcome behavior, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, nit-picking, fault-finding, being shouted at, humiliated, excessive monitoring, having verbal and written warnings imposed.” It makes me question how much of this abuse, or fear for one’s job, has become normalized in the customer service industry? And I ask myself, should it be?

The results of bullying for adults are just as they are for kids. Those being bullied can experience loss of self-esteem, non-acceptance, fear, anxiety, even depression. We may not see it as readily as we do with kids, after all, adults are much more adept at hiding issues than when they were kids, but it’s still there. Our kids are taught that bullying behavior in a social or community situation is not acceptable because it is not only unhealthy for the persons directly involved, but it impedes the quality of the school community as a whole.

Accepting bullying of any kind reinforces a sad status quo and a dangerous negative cycle. After all, we were bullied right into our current national administration. As parents and adults, and as a society, I believe that it’s our job to model appropriate behaviors. If we don’t recognize and stand up to bullying, how can we expect our kids to do the same?

Since we cannot always look to the top tier for social justice, I implore each of us to please take a look in the mirror and ask the honest question, “Do I engage in any of these behaviors?” If the answer is yes, or even maybe, I suggest making a resolution to stop and take whatever steps you need to display respect for those around you, whether or not it is their job to serve you. If you need to apologize for losing your temper, do so. I admit to making some mistakes in this area, and it’s a hard realization. I also admit that I have passively allowed it to take place in my presence when, as a fellow customer, I should have had the strength to say something. So I also resolve to take the next step and make the decision to speak up in the future to do what I can now to affect change in these situations.

With the words of a former and decent U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in mind, “I would rather be a kind nobody, than to be an evil somebody.”

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


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