After 15 years in retail management, Lynette Vyles was done. She was scared because she didn’t have another job lined up, but the constant stream of rude customers had become too much to bear.
“I had never just turned in my keys and left a job,” Vyles said. “I had always given at least two weeks’ notice when resigning, but I was at a point in my life that I just couldn’t take any more.”
Vyles recalled one grueling interaction with a customer who was trying to return clothing that was at least a year old. The clothes had been washed, the tags had long been removed, and the customer had no receipts. Yet she insisted on exchanging her old stuff for brand new garments.
“I first asked the customer why she was returning so much clearly worn merchandise. Her answer was, ‘Because my kids need new stuff.’ I was floored,” Vyles said.
Vyles patiently explained the company’s return policy, but the customer kept pushing to get her way. First, she started yelling. Then she began hurling insults and merchandise at Vyles. Another manager was called in to address the situation, but the customer’s anger continued to escalate. It took an arrest to stop her tirade.
“She refused to leave, stating I was violating her civil rights as a customer by refusing to return the merchandise. I told her I was not refusing, I was simply not going to give her back full price since she did not have receipts,” Vyles said.
When The Customer Is Wrong
Anyone who works with the general public likely has similar stories of nightmare clients and awful customers—people who expect everything, yet give nothing but grief in return. They can be cruel, quick to anger, and stretch our patience to the breaking point.
Social interactions are supposed to be civil. If there is a dispute, we should be able to work it out in a reasonable fashion. But what do we do when we’re faced with someone who defies reason? And how do they get that way?
Vyles believes the culture of modern retail—where the customer is always right, even when they’re wrong—contributes to the type of behavior she’s been forced to confront.
“People know that if they yell loud enough and make enough of a scene they will get what they want,” she said.
But it’s more than just the retail environment. According to Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and psychology professor at California State University–Los Angeles, there are a number of social developments eroding our civility.
“Empathy has gone the way of the 8-track, and kindness has become a unicorn,” Durvasula said. “This is the psychological equivalent of global warming. It’s a slow burn that is destroying us.”
Errant Self Esteem
Psychologists used to worry about people suffering from low self-esteem, but now there is a growing concern of the opposite problem. In a world of selfies, social media, and heavily promoted dreams of wealth and fame, people have developed an inflated sense of self and will stop at nothing to feed it.
Durvasula is an expert on narcissism—a personality disorder characterized by self obsession and a lack of concern for others. The word comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus: The tale of a beautiful young man who rejected his admirers, but became so enthralled by his own reflection that it totally consumed him.
A fixation on our own desires to the exclusion of everyone else’s is an ancient concept, but Durvasula believes the modern environment is helping it spread like an obnoxious disease. She’s currently working on a book that explores this problem.
“We have incentivized narcissism—manifested via consumerism, materialism, billionaire worship, entitlement, etc.—and are heartbroken when it touches our lives at the individual level,” she said.
We all must carry some self-interest to get along in the world. It allows us to make purposeful decisions, and stand up for our needs. For a narcissist, however, self-interest is the sole motivation.
Although narcissists seem supremely confident in pursuit of their selfishness, Durvasula says they are actually deeply insecure. Her advice for dealing with people who use dirty tactics to meet their needs is to keep our own personal standards high.
“Don’t get into the mud with them. If they are yelling, keep your voice calm. If they insult you, do not engage, just step away,” she said. “Your power comes from being graceful, calm, and serene.”
Not all the difficult people we encounter are full-blown narcissists. Sometimes we confront otherwise kind people who are just having a bad day.
Dr. Heather Hammerstedt, is a doctor and integrative nutrition coach who works nights at a trauma center. One thing she has observed in her 18 years as an emergency physician is that when people are under stress, civility often flies out the window.
“They are not able to function in their kind adult brain, even when they have a kind adult brain,” Hammerstedt said. “They act in their toddler brain. They literally can’t connect the right and left sides of their brains, and act primitively.”
Whether it’s an irate customer or an obnoxious family member, it can be tough to rise above the insults and screaming when their attack is directed squarely at you. But Durvasula says that when we take this kind of conduct personally, we become defensive, and our own behavior quickly deteriorates.
“Stop taking it personally,” Durvasula said. “When they are tantruming they are no different than toddlers, but you wouldn’t defend yourself to a two-year-old. When a person is difficult and entitled they often lack empathy and simply do not care about the perspective of the other, so stop wasting it on them. It only psychologically exhausts you and doesn’t change the situation.”
So how do you fight the impulse to defend? Paige Harley, a professional relationship coach and mediator specializing in conflict management, urges us to stay on the offensive.
“Listening is an offensive strategy, and it can become a powerful tool,” Harley said. “I ask my clients to cultivate a ‘seek to understand’ mentality. You do not need to agree with the other person, you just need to understand what they are asking for, as this is how solutions are found.”
We can do this most effectively if we set boundaries on what we’re available to do. According to Vyles, the key to handling a difficult person is to stay proactive, not reactive. “I would not react to the tantrum but, rather, tell the customer what I could do to help them,” she said.
When we are up against rudeness, yelling, and insults, it helps to have a few moments to collect ourselves (a short walk, a few deep breaths) so that we don’t react to a bad situation in a regrettable way.
However, if you can’t step away, and have to keep calm in the face of someone who is losing their cool, try to realize that you are dealing with a tortured soul.
Joy Rains, author of “Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Busy Mind,” says that when we’re confronted with people who are rude, unreasonable, entitled, or demanding, that’s the time we need to tap into our compassion.
“If an animal was wounded and hurting, you would probably feel compassion for the animal. It’s likely that a person with difficult behavior is also hurting at some level,” Rains said. “If you approach them with compassion, it helps you see that their behavior is likely not about you, it’s about their approach to the world.”
One way to practice compassion is to look at the person as someone with needs and desires just like you. In a perfect world, everyone would possess the skills to meet their needs in constructive and considerate ways. But understand that people in the real world are working with serious deficits when it comes to strategies for getting what they want.
“Realize they’re trying to get their needs met in the best way they know how. Forgive them for not being able to take a perfect approach,” Rains said.