When Miss Manners came out squarely against rudeness on the part of salesclerks, along about this time last year, during the height -- or depth -- of the Christmas shopping season, she knew she was in for it.
What is more, she knew exactly how she would be in for it. She tried to head off the coming storm by stating clearly that she was aware that store clerks had much to put up with in the way of rudeness from customers.
Indeed, they do. Rudeness is routinely rampant among shoppers, and the crush and hurry at this time of year seem to remove the last fragile vestige of civilization.
As a solution to their own tiredness or inability to find what they want, or to store policies in matters of check-cashing, gift-wrapping, closing hours or returns, they scream at the clerks. Some of them turn nasty when their hopes of cheating the store by exchanging items that weren't purchased there or that were used, or attempting to get sale prices before or after sales, or otherwise bargain over price, are thwarted.
Miss Manners is in total sympathy with the clerks who reported these trials, which she has herself witnessed many a time. She deplores such crass behavior. But she refuses to accept the idea that it justifies return rudeness.
"Why," asks a Gentle Reader who could no longer bear customer rudeness, "should the Gentle Salesclerk be expected to say, 'Yes, ma'am,' and 'Have a nice day, sir,' etc., when these people don't deserve the time of day?
"I had been requested to bend over backwards once too often, and I ignored remarks about my capabilities a little more than enough. Consequently I quit, to the dismay of the management."
Other salespeople made the point that the clerk is not responsible for the inventory or the policies of the store, and therefore should not have to take the brunt of resulting dissatisfactions.
"A little attitude adjustment is needed on the part of some customers," wrote another Gentle Reader, "a realization that salesclerks are just human beings, there to work because they have to pay rent, buy food, help put Junior through college or braces, buy a car or pay hospital bills. They also have to buy Christmas presents; their feet hurt because of standing on them for eight hours, and they are hungry and tired. Smiles won't make their worries or tiredness go away, but they will make it all worthwhile and leave everyone feeling better."
Absolutely. The surest sign of human decency is kindness to those who are, at least temporarily because of the requirements of their job, not in a position to defend themselves.
What Miss Manners objects to, however, is the idea that salesclerks not only should consider themselves in a position to snap back, but actually should maintain their personal dignity by responding in kind to rudeness.
First of all, she believes that there are no circumstances that justify responding to rudeness with even greater rudeness. Besides not being nice, it doesn't help: It removes the ground of complaint, by making it obvious that one is no better than the original defender, and, under the guise of objecting to rudeness, actually increases the amount of rudeness in the world. Miss Manners has never been amused by those who pretend to help her uplift the manners of the world by listing all the vicious things they plan to do to etiquette violators.
Secondly, professional roles should act as a restraint. The clerk is not there representing himself or herself as an individual human being, whose personal dignity is affronted by customer attacks. Nor should the clerk distance himself from store policies because he or she did not actually make them.
In any job situation, one is the symbolic representative of the employer. Dignity consists of being above fighting things out on a person-to-person level and accepting the responsibility of speaking for the store in whatever explanations or apologies might be necessary or politic.
What should support one in this difficult policy of virtue under attack is knowing that the rudeness is directed toward the institution, not oneself; and that there is a superior benevolence in upholding the dignity of one's organization by obviously bending over backward.
And if that isn't enough, the clerk should take satisfaction from knowing that there is nothing more likely to drive the customer crazy, without any hope of redress, than an aloof "I'm so sorry, sir," or "Certainly, madam," when it is obvious to everyone that it is the customer who is both wrong and rude.
Q. When our children dislike the food at mealtimes (this seems to occur on the nights they do not choose the meal), what should we do? If we insist they eat what is served, they put up a terrible fuss and beg for a sandwich instead.
We want to expose them to a variety of foods so they are able to eat at others' homes. Yet they seem to like so few foods. We do not want to prepare a separate meal for each person's taste. We are in a cuisine quandary.
A. Have you not heard of such traditional parental directives as "Just have a taste, dear; you don't have to eat the whole thing, but you must taste it" and "I'm sorry, but that's what's for dinner and we're not taking special orders," and "You don't have to like it; just eat it and say no more about it"?
Food fussery having been a staple of childish behavior since the world began, these infuriating replies were developed to save the olive and turnip markets. Eventually, they work. In, say, 15 or 20 years.