You’re heading somewhere on the interstate, minding your own business, when a car suddenly swerves into your lane inches ahead of you, barely missing your bumper but giving you plenty of time to fume about it―through the next three states.
Advice: If you’ve been cut off, “take a deep breath and let it go,” says Dini von Mueffling, coauthor of The Art and Power of Being a Lady ($12, amazon.com). “You pick your battles in life, and when health and body are at stake, it’s just not worth the trouble. And it takes so much less energy to ignore it than to work yourself up over it.”
Supermarket Line Cutters
You are waiting near the front of the line at the Piggly Wiggly when a woman with two weeks’ worth of groceries for a family of six barrels in front of you and stays there, apparently oblivious to the rules of line formation most of us learned in kindergarten. Her math skills aren’t much better: It’s the express lane―12 items or fewer.
Advice: Etiquette writer Lesley Carlin recommends a simple and clear interjection: “Something like, ‘The end of the line is actually over there.’ And you want to do it politely, not aggressively―not ‘Hey! Get back there!’ Saying something when other people are around usually shames the person into doing the right thing.” Plus, as von Mueffling points out, “it’s rare that someone who’s caught in the act will engage in debate.” In the case of this express-line invader, if you don’t feel like saying something, you can hope the cashier will take action.
2 of 3Monika Aichele
Your waiter “offers” you bottled water, but you choose tap. Instead of ordering an appetizer, you tell him you’re happy with the bread basket. You can feel the disgust dripping from his voice.
Advice: If the haughtiness persists, Carlin says, “you’ll just sit there and stew and spoil your meal. Instead, get up, find the person in charge, and say, ‘We’d appreciate it if you could have someone else cover our table.’ Tell him your waiter is being unprofessional.”
Indifferent Sales Help
In the bookstore, it’s just you and the clerk, and he’s on the phone talking about kegs of beer, fake IDs, and next Saturday night. You’d just like to buy your Shirley Hazzard novel and go home, but no amount of throat clearing can get the guy’s attention.
Advice: “Walk out,” Carlin says. “No one should have to take that.” If you’ve already picked out some merchandise, put it down on the counter to make the point that you’ve decided against the place, not against the goods. If a clerk is too immersed in a conversation―with a colleague or on the phone―to pay you any attention, that store doesn’t deserve your business. “If you are truly determined to make the purchase, ask―nicely―to speak to the manager,” von Mueffling says. Or call the store when the manager is likely to be in.
3 of 3Monika Aichele
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.