Monday, March 23, 2009

Rudeness and Stress

On at least two occasions over the past few days, while waiting on my food, I witnessed people who were being rude (so I felt) to the people who would be serving them. I wish I could say that they were acting in ways that I could never see myself acting, but that would be lie. In fact, I can think of a couple of times just off the top of my head when I felt that a cashier was getting my order wrong, or when they were confused by a simple coupon, and my reaction caused my wife a great deal of embarrassment. To be perfectly honest, I can't really say that anything I saw these other people were doing was that far off from something I've probably done myself at some time or another.

Even so, I felt sorry for the people who worked at these restaurants, and I started to wonder how much they must have to deal with this kind of stress from demanding customers every day. I know how I feel dealing with student demands during Finals Week, and it really gets to me after a while. But at least I only have to deal with that level of stress during a few particular seasons over the course of the year. It's not stress I have to deal with every day.

Thinking about that, especially having just survived a particularly stressful Finals Friday last week, on top of some other stuff that hasn't been going right recently, got me to thinking about whether something might have been going on for the people I perceived as being so rude that may have caused them to act this way. That's not to say that I would "excuse" this bad behavior, any more than I'm trying to excuse my own bad behavior when I "lose it" in a stressful situation, but I certainly understand that human beings have limits, and that we are more prone to doing things we later regret when we are under a great deal of stress.

And with the economy the way that it is these days, I expect that lots of people are under stress these days. Expenses are going up, and even for those fortunate enough to be keeping their jobs (a number decreasing all the time), incomes are at best staying flat. In fact, pretty much the only people I've heard about in recent times that got a raise of any kind this year were those already high-paid workers at AIG who were getting the bonuses that everyone is so upset about. Honestly, although I'm certainly aware of a few cases where tragedy has already resulted from people's despair over the current economy, I suppose I should be surprised I haven't witnessed more incidents of short-tempered outrage. Perhaps the collective anger at "corporate America" has given the rest of us a focus that has (so far) kept us from venting our frustrations elsewhere.

I wonder how long that can last. I don't think that groups like AIG can serve as our scapegoats for forever. And if the situation doesn't improve, I fear that occasional rudeness to restaurant cashiers and servers will be the least of our concerns. Rather than cultivating a sense that we're all in this together, we could very easily adopt an "every person for themselves" attitude, and that can only make matters worse.

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