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Seven Signs That Common Courtesy Is Dying - an Observation

I am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.

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Last night, my husband and I went downtown to watch the Fourth of July fireworks on the Empire State Plaza. It was a hot night, and the crowd was out in force. We arrived early, so that we would get good parking, and decided to walk up a few blocks to grab a sandwich for dinner instead of simmering in the heat eating deep fried pickles, cotton candy, and overcooked burgers from the food booths on the plaza. After a nice walk, it felt awesome to walk into the air-conditioned sub shop. As we checked out, I had an experience that seems to be occurring in my life more and more. The woman who finished up our sandwiches and checked us out made a comment that reminded me that customer service skills are on the decline and common courtesy may in fact be dying. These are my observations.

#1: The Sandwich Lady

My husband and I each ordered a large sandwich at a chain sub shop last night. I did the ordering for both of us, knowing that he wanted his usual sandwich, piled high with veggies. When I checked out, the sandwich lady kept giving me a look as she piled some napkins next to my husband’s sandwich, which she had made a bit of a mess of, but never mind. She said, “That’s yours, isn’t it.” I said yes, as I wanted to make sure that I was paying for what I ordered. She followed that with another look and, “humph, that is a biiiggg sandwich.” I was slightly speechless, as her words clearly implied that she thought I was about to make a pig of myself. I paid, handed my husband his sandwich and made my way to the other side of the restaurant to eat, slightly annoyed by her remark. Isn’t she there to sell sandwiches? Should she care if I order six sandwiches and eat them all myself? Shouldn’t she have said something more like, “Thank you. Enjoy your meal”? Wouldn’t that have been the way to get me back as a customer?

#2: The People on the Sidewalk

I didn’t let the sandwich lady ruin my night, but I think the experience heightened my senses for the evening. After our quick dinner, we made our way back downtown to the plaza to find a place to view the fireworks. We settled on a spot on the edge of the sidewalk just down the steps from the main part of the plaza. It was a perfect viewing spot, and a couple of families with children settled on either side of us with blankets laid out. There was a clear pathway between us and another group of people. I suppose it was the natural way of things, so that people could still pass by. Then, a couple with a small, and smelly, dog took up a spot right in the middle of the walkway. They were clearly in the way of people passing, and they clearly didn’t care. As the night progressed, a few people barged right through them, which left the woman with the dog shouting at passersby. One woman with a baby stroller was trying to pass and said, “excuse me” three times very loudly. The dog woman gave her a dirty look and an incomprehensible comment before she moved enough to let the woman through. I don’t know what is worse: those that barged through, those that ignore the politeness of others, or those that just blatantly stand in the way and inconvenience everyone around. Wouldn’t the courteous move have been to find a place on the curb a little further up?

These two examples of disregarding common courtesy last night got me thinking of all the other things I have observed lately that fit this trend.

The Grocery Store

I could write a whole hub about the lack of customer service skills that are displayed in the local grocery stores, but I will limit myself to two.

#3: The Bag Incident

When I go to the grocery store, I try to do my part by bringing my own reusable grocery bags. I really like to either check out myself or at least bag myself, but sometimes it is not possible. On one occasion, there was a woman doing the bagging who really broke the rules of common courtesy. As the grocery items moved down the belt towards her, I told her that I had my own bags. I handed her the pile and proceeded to empty my cart. As I turned back around, I saw her starting to put my items into plastic bags. I let her know that I would appreciate it if she used my bags first, knowing that there was plenty of room. “Oh, you don’t want me to put food in these dirty bags directly do you?” she said. I was gob smacked! First, my bags were not dirty. They are made of an off white canvas that has some speckles in it. Second, even if my bags were dirty, she should have piled the groceries into them with a smile and a “have a nice day.” I have to admit that my ability to be courteous died in that moment too, and I ended that trip by bagging my own groceries.

#4: No Cell Phones, PLEASE!

The other area where common courtesy has died in the grocery store also occurs at the checkout lane. On so many occasions, I queue up and check out with not so much as a “hello” from the cashier. I have faced cashiers who were talking on a cell phone, taking texting breaks between scanning items, and talking about very personal topics with the other cashiers within earshot. Sometimes I just want to stand there and shout, “Hello! I am standing here and would like some good service, PLEASE!” Is that too much to ask?

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#5: Hold the Sugar, please...

I am an avid coffee drinker. Many days on my way to work, I will drive through a local branch of the coffee shop chain that all of America supposedly runs on, and order a cup to take with me to work. Since I have to drink the coffee, I, like so many others, would like it prepared to my taste. That means only one sugar, please. One morning when I got to the drive up window to pay, the young man at the window made quite a scene about my cup of coffee. “You only get ONE sugar? How can you drink THAT!? I can’t drink coffee unless it has like five sugars…” He went on and on dangling my coffee just out of reach. Couldn't I have just got a “thank you” without being bombarded with his criticism and disgust? As far as I am concerned, he can drink his coffee however he likes, as long as he only puts one sugar in mine.

#6: And Hold the Mayo too...

The last time I moved, I had a hard time finding a good place to get my hair done. On one occasion, I was slightly desperate for a trim, and I ended up in a mall salon that looked respectable. My hair cut came out fine in the end, but the experience was far from the pampering one expects at a salon. As she was cutting my hair, the hairdresser got a visit from a friend who worked in the restaurant across the hall. Her friend brought her some dinner, wrapped nicely in foil to keep it hot. The hairdresser couldn’t wait. She ripped open the foil and started to multitask. She nibbled with one hand as she applied dye to my hair. At one point, I thought I saw some sauce or mayo on my hair. I didn’t want to be rude, since she was about to take scissors to my hair, but I thought the courteous move would have been to wait until she was finished to take her “dinner break.” Needless to say, I didn’t return for a second cut.

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#7: Apparently the Customer is NOT Always Right

A few months ago, we purchased a new, custom built computer from a local business. We felt great about supporting a local small business, and we were excited to get a product built to our specifications. Then we brought the machine home. For three months, we struggled with this machine. It crashed continuously and just didn’t work properly. Over and over, we took it back to be fixed, as our warranty guaranteed. We knew that one of the components must be faulty, but we didn’t know which one. On the first trip in, the computer guy tried to tell us that we had a virus and that he wouldn’t cover the repairs. I put my foot down and insisted, and thankfully he complied. On subsequent visits, he insisted that we were having software difficulties, which were not covered under the warranty. He would do a quick fix and we would go home hopeful that the machine would work “this time.” After a day or two, or maybe a week, we ended up back in his shop. In the end, it turned out that we had a faulty hardware piece. The computer guy had spent three months denying that he could have built a faulty machine and that we must be doing something wrong. What happened to the concept that the customer is always right? What happened to small business owners who go above and beyond to make things right for their neighbors? In the end, we were right, and it took a threat of small claims court to resolve the issue. When did customer service deteriorate to the point that one has to resort to court to get what he or she paid for?

Final Thoughts

I think common courtesy is a skill that we all need to practice consciously. When I am out for a walk in the neighborhood, I smile or say hello to people I pass on the sidewalk. When I start a class, I say “good morning.” When I end a class, I say, “Have a good day.” It amazes me how many neighbors and students don’t return the sentiment. Have we become that disconnected? Is common courtesy dying? Thankfully, I think the positive experiences still outweigh the negative. Most of the time, a cashier will say “thank you” and exchange small talk. Often, neighbors will smile back, and there is always at least one student who will return with a “you too” when I tell them to have a good day. These positive moments make me hopeful that we will all remain human, as I believe being kind and courteous to others is one of the things that makes us human beings.

© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt

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