Amanda Mull examines why.
Because consumer identities are constructed by external forces, [historian Susan Strasser, the author of Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market] said, they are uniquely vulnerable, and the people who hold them are uniquely insecure. If your self-perception is predicated on how you spend your money, then you have to keep spending it, especially if your overall class status has become precarious, as it has for millions of middle-class people in the past few decades. At some point, one of those transactions will be acutely unsatisfying. Those instances, instead of being minor and routine inconveniences, destabilize something inside people, Strasser told me. Although Americans at pretty much every income level have now been socialized into this behavior by the pervasiveness of consumer life, its breakdown can be a reminder of the psychological trap of middle-classness, the one that service-worker deference to consumers allows people to forget temporarily: You know, deep down, that you’re not as rich or as powerful as you’ve been made to feel by the people who want something from you. Your station in life is much more similar to that of the cashier or the receptionist than to the person who signs their paychecks.
There are endless ways to make sense of the situation America is in now, in which new horror stories from retail hell make national news every few days, and stores and restaurants all over the country complain that no one wants to work for them. Perhaps the most obvious one is simply how damaging this whole arrangement is for service workers. Although underpaid, poorly treated service workers certainly exist around the world, American expectations on their behavior are particularly extreme and widespread, according to Nancy Wong, a consumer psychologist and the chair of the consumer-science department at the University of Wisconsin. “Business is at fault here,” Wong told me. “This whole industry has profited from exploitation of a class of workers that clearly should not be sustainable.”
When I was a kid, I read Robert Heinlein's novel Friday, which contained this observation: “Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms such as you have named...but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.”