In a pandemic can “the customer is always right” survive?

“Mrrmmhmm?” said the butcher standing six feet away from me, wearing a surgical mask and surgical gloves.

I only knew that it was a question because of the tone and the look in his eyes. When you’ve spent a career trying to figure out what people want, when they mutter it from far away in a busy, noisy place, some more modern obstacles seem slight.

“Mrrmmhmm,” I muttered back through my retro-nostalgic purple bandana. The only bandana I still own, which has had to suffice because my order of a newer style is still backordered. I’m guessing it will arrive sometime after it is no longer necessary, along with my toilet paper.

“These things really suck,” said the butcher after several minutes, pulling his mask down a touch.

“I bet,” I said, pulling my bandana slightly to one side.

“Try wearing one for 8 hours,” he replied.

“I can’t even imagine how difficult it is going to be for me to do my job once I go back to work,” I said. 

He asked what I did for a living and I told him. When you tell someone you are a bartender; people almost always have questions.

“How often does a customer yell at you?” he asked.

I have been asked a lot of questions about a lot of things over the years. But I have never ever been asked that one.

I looked at the poor kid behind that counter, who as an essential worker had no real choice but to go back to work (there is no unemployment for an essential worker who decides not to work), under stress, overworked, uncertain, maybe even a little scared. And people were yelling at him. Enough people that his first question about another service occupation, was that one.

“The customer is always right” is a time-honored axiom invented by hotelier Cesar Ritz and used by customers seeking an advantage ever since.

-Can you do something about the rain?

-I don’t want to pay that much for that, can you change the price?

-Can you ask them to move?

-But I am telling you I am 21.

Those are all actual, real arguments I have heard over the years, all based on that axiom. With the implementation of these new restaraunt guidelines it remains to be seen whether that axiom will hold up. Oh, and all four of those people proceeded to yell at me.

I thought about that young butcher’s question for quite some time. It dawned on me that almost once a week, every week, in my entire 35 years restaurant career, a customer has yelled at me for some reason or another.

These last eight weeks furloughed, have been the longest time that I have not gone into work at a restaurant in that period, and it has also been the longest period that I have gone without someone yelling at me about something stupid. In fact, without someone yelling at me at all.

I have found over the years that often the people who scream the loudest and most obnoxiously about “their rights”, and “their freedoms” and “their needs” are usually far less concerned about the rights, needs, and freedoms of others. These arguments are usually about advantage and not about freedom. I want the right to scream at you, but I don’t want you screaming at me. I want you to hear me, but I don’t want to listen to you. You must acknowledge me, but I won’t acknowledge you.

“That’s different,” they always say. When the only difference is who gets the advantage.

I have told myself for years, that you can’t change people, you can only change your reaction to them, and that bad behavior says more about others then it does about you. As well as countless other affirmations and beliefs.

But as I looked at that poor butcher kid, working behind that counter, in the most uncomfortable of get-ups and in the most awkward of circumstances – certainly not what he originally signed up for- and realized that someone out there had the audacity to, on top of all that, yell at him about meat, I wondered. I wondered for him and I wondered for me. Because I know that when I go back to work in the next couple of weeks, with all these new restrictions and all these new concerns, someone, somehow is going to yell at me. And I wonder how I am going to react to that after having two months off.

If a history in customer service has taught me anything, it is that I probably won’t have to wonder for long.