We rolled up at the local train station the other day and couldn’t help noticing a sign that said something to the effect “We will not tolerate abuse towards our staff”. This sort of sign isn’t new. You see similar ones everywhere. It got us thinking. How do signs of this type make people feel when they see them and are they really necessary?
First of all let’s think about why we have arrived at a point where we use such signs. It’s only in the last decade or so that they have proliferated. Have we become a more abusive society or is it just that our tolerance of abuse has changed? For example, if you volunteer for Samaritans you could receive calls from people in a very anxious state who may use profanities and abuse to vent their feelings. Now you might say that if you sign up to be a Samaritan you have to expect this sort of treatment whereas if you’re selling a train ticket you really shouldn’t have to endure it. This is true, but it may be that the customer buying the train tickets is so angered by their views on their price or the quality of the service that they let fly at the poor operator. It’s not the poor operator’s fault but at the time things boil over, there is no one else to have a go at.
We can see the problem from both points of view – the train ticket sales person is at the sharp end of dealing with the train travelling public and perhaps should expect and be able to deal with customers who are annoyed. Equally, there surely is no excuse for abusive invective aimed at someone who is not the cause of the problem and is just doing their job.
In any case what constitutes abuse? Quite clearly a physical attack would be right at the top of the list. However, this is relatively rare and most abuse comes out as an emotional eruption of words. In private or even in our heads we may say all sorts of things but in a public place we normally use vanilla language. The coursing of chemicals in the brain of the annoyed customer may very well make them lose their inhibitions and they speak more colourfully. Here again, we must question what is acceptable. There is surely a spectrum of acceptability. Someone may get away with the word “hell” or even “bloody” and “shit” but the C word is generally a no-no and the N word most definitely so. This spectrum is not straightforward. Words are interpreted differently depending where you are. People with Anglo Saxon heritage may react differently to those brought up in the New World culture.
Furthermore words that are acceptable have changed over time. Our Victorian ancestors were very much offended by language. To them religious slurs were upsetting. Equally, they may have used the N word without thinking whereas today it could be one of the worst things that can be said. It is not just a racial slur it is a reminder of hundreds of year’s systemic oppression.
There is a saying that “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you”. This isn’t quite true. Words do hurt and they can be used as verbal bullets. So, we fully endorse that it is unacceptable for someone to let fly at the poor seller of train tickets or indeed anyone who is providing a service. However, we are suspicious that the signs that say we shouldn’t be abusive to the staff really work. Someone who has steam coming out of their ears is unlikely to notice or respond to such a sign. Take a leaf out of the Samaritans training book. Throw away the sign that says you won’t tolerate abuse towards your staff. It won’t be necessary for 99% of your customers and the 1% who are angry wouldn’t read it anyway. Hear them out. Show some recognition of their problem, and point them in the direction as to how and where it could be solved. Empathetic listening will calm down even the most irate customer.