You’re on a crowded train late in the evening. Some people are dozing, others reading quietly―and one woman is yakking on her cell phone. Occasionally, a head will pop up over the seat backs, and a glare will be aimed at the prattler. Of course, she doesn’t notice these glances of reproach, since she’s so wrapped up in reporting the fascinating news that the price of potato chips in the club car has shot up five cents.
Advice: If a call is truly annoying you, you can always nicely ask the person to end the call or take it somewhere else. “When you use the words ‘please,’ ‘kindly,’ and ‘thank you,’ you can ask for anything,” says Dorothea Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington, an etiquette academy. (If you’re not comfortable asking yourself, enlist the help of a conductor, a manager, or the maitre d’.) Just remember, says Randy Cohen, author of The Good, the Bad, & the Difference: How to Tell the Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations ($16, amazon.com), “you have to tolerate a certain amount of other people’s needs. Being allowed to make one three-minute phone call seems reasonable.”
Callous “Customer Service”
Your computer crashes, and you call the help number. An automated voice says your estimated wait is 52 minutes. As you have no other choice, you stay on the line. When the company rep answers the phone, you’re told that your name and warranty are on file, but the company’s computer system is down, so you’ll need to call back. When you express frustration, you’re told to chill out, and the rep throws in an ethnic slur based on your last name. In shock and indignation, you hang up, but you don’t know where to complain.
Advice: “Certain behaviors are not to be tolerated for one second―expressions of racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism,” Cohen says. Report the offensive behavior to your state attorney general, the Civil Liberties Union, or the Anti-Defamation League. And take your complaint to higher-ups at the company this employee supposedly represents. “I’d go online to look up a few executives at the parent company and send them an account of what happened, cc-ing the jerk you spoke with,” Carlin says. “And I would tell everyone I know exactly what happened, because word of mouth can be pretty powerful. I wouldn’t set real or virtual foot in that business until I got a satisfactory apology”―and maybe not even after that.
In less egregious (nonracist) cases of customer disservice, the first thing to do may be to check your own tone: The phone offers a degree of anonymity and accordingly gives you license to be a lot less pleasant than you might feel compelled to be in person. As Johnson says, “Niceness gets niceness. Rudeness gets rudeness.” Moreover, Cohen points out, “one of the great problems in modern life is that you never get to yell at the right person. You get some minimum-wage worker who has no power, and this poor person’s job is to take calls from angry and indignant people.” So at the first signs of truculence―theirs or your own―ask to talk to a supervisor.