Sympathy is not a natural human emotion. It is easier to look past someone than at them. For the same reasons, empathy (sympathy’s less boisterous cousin), finds itself invited into public less and less. Despite what we may valiantly declare to our friends, our ability to emotionally place ourselves in someone else’s shoes only happens when it is convenient for us. If I am angry or frustrated with the behavior of another, I am in no way about to see things from their perspective. Likewise, if I am in the depths of my own despair, my own self-interest prevents me from listening to the advice of those who have been there before.

There is no doubt that the modern worship of the self plays heavily into the abolition of sympathy. We cannot continue to believe that social media is about connection. It is about broadcasting your perceived sense of self. I do not post pictures of my food on Instagram to share my cooking ideas with the world. I do it to remind the world I can cook well. Shirtless selfies of attractive trainers do not inspire, they affirm their fragile perception of their own finite beauty. One day I will stop cooking, one day their shirts will stay on. In both instances we will realize that all social media did for us was seal us off from connecting with other people. All it did was make us worry about ourselves. The point is, for all the new generations are getting right, we have failed when it comes to genuine social connectivity. What is worse, the divide grows as we feed our own notions of what the world sees of us.

There are many aspects of our lives that this inability to sympathize (or empathize) becomes destructive. The service sector, by its very nature, requires interaction between client and provider. What is absent is the understanding that for a successful experience, this is a dialogue.

I am not about to pretend that South Africa is a nation that knows service delivery. Bad service exists and it is everywhere. It is so pervasive, that the average South African has no idea what to do when faced with good service. Companies do not prioritize training personnel, instead believing that a simple job description will do. As anyone who has worked in the service industry can attest: dealing with people is an incredibly nuanced skill.  

Though that is not to say there is no good service. This article is aimed directly at bad clients, not bad service providers.

What I find fascinating, is that the service industry directly places itself in the firing line of a client’s self-interest. That client lives in their own nucleic world. They post on Instagram uplifting quotes. Not because they want to inspire others, but because they want to be seen as profound. They go to a restaurant as much to be fed as to feel important. There is an opulence to being served which most people do not experience in waking life. The service industry operates in a social vacuum. I do not have to reciprocate lost ideals such as courtesy or kindness to the stranger providing me with a product which is mine by right. The barrier that is erected between client and provider is the understanding that one is paying for something. The client is thus imbued with righteous entitlement. Sometimes, it is not enough that you give me the thing I have paid for. You must give it to me on my own terms.

There is no denying the disconnect between how we perceive ourselves and how we want the world to perceive us. As I mentioned earlier, social media continuously adds to this divide. I no longer just have to lie to others about who I am. I can lie to the world. I can appear confident, enabled and with agency. My images will always be well-framed, flattering and powerful. This is how strangers must see me. In my digital fantasy, everything goes my way and is on my own terms.

How can I feel sympathy for the checkout girl who is slow at the till? My sense of self-value demands she is cheerful, obedient and pliant to my whims. She has to be these things to fit into my world view. My fabricated identity demands it. How dare the waiter give me bad service? I am important in my own mind. Do they not know how important I am? Does anyone?

A job in the service industry is accepting that people will treat you badly because they think this way. You have to accept that with the highs of satisfied customers, there will be the lows of those who are impossible to please. It is a fact, and one you have to own the moment you decide to earn money interacting with the public. What is worse, this is not going to improve. The average client worships themselves more and more. With that will come increasingly worse returns on their behavior.

Looking back, the title of this article is a misnomer. I do not think you can defend bad clients as opposed to understand them. When they are being served, they feel less of the schism between their manufactured identity and how the world really treats them. If that illusion is shattered in any way, their behavior will turn. It is that simple. As a service provider, your job is to charge onward. You must continue to provide nothing short of the best product (service or otherwise) as is possible. You must do it facing the hurricane of someone else’s ego. These are the fragile monsters of the modern world you are serving. Their behavior is not an excuse for you to forget yours. In such a case, the best defense is sympathy.

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