In November 2019, a customer made a complaint to the insurance firm Ageas. Repairs had been carried out on his car after it was damaged in an accident, but he felt necessary work had been missed. Ageas sent out an engineer to inspect the vehicle, but it was decided that no further action was required. That’s when the abuse began, says Rachel Undy, operations leader at the company. “It was mostly sexist abuse – very angry – shouting, disgusting language and quite personal insults.” Over the months that followed, the customer contacted Ageas 98 times, in an increasingly threatening, and often grotesque, manner.
“Eventually, we refused to speak to him, but then his emails carried on with the same language,” says Undy. At one point, she recalls, he made viciously crude remarks to her, before eventually directing his ire at the male engineer, too – “even threatening to come to the office and deal with him face to face”.
Undy has seen an increase in the number of aggressive customers over the past couple of years, and staff at call centres are far from alone. You may have noticed the proliferation of “Don’t take it out on our staff” signs on pallid surgery walls, at train stations and family restaurants, or sometimes felt a palpable tension in the public spaces we all inhabit. From shop workers to waiters to surgery receptionists, public-facing staff say they have experienced a surge in abusive treatment since the Covid pandemic began. The number of shop workers who faced abusive customers has risen 25% since February this year according to the latest Institute of Customer Service (ICS) data, while the British Medical Association revealed in May that criminal violence in GP surgeries had almost doubled in five years.
In October 2021, a survey conducted for the ICS found that half of those dealing regularly with the public had experienced abuse in the past six months – a 6% rise – and 27% had been physically assaulted. The result has been a flurry of new policies, including legislation allowing stronger penalties for abusers being introduced in an attempt to protect staff who serve the public. Last month, Lincolnshire council announced a plan to restrict access to some services for “vexatious” customers, in response to a significant rise in “verbally abusive and aggressive” behaviour directed at staff over the pandemic.
The change in how some people behave means frontline workers must deal with an added layer of emotional legwork just to get the job done. “It’s really hard hearing someone say they hope my children will die,” Bradley, an ambulance call assessor, said recently, in support of the NHS ambulance staff Work Without Fear initiative. At Ageas, Undy describes the months of abuse unleashed on her and the other staff as “draining, frustrating and insulting”. The abuse only ended when the customer’s insurance policy was cancelled and he was asked to sign a community resolution form by the police, which he did voluntarily.
“By many, many metrics, violence has been on the decline for a very long time,” says Michael Muthukrishna, associate professor of economic psychology at the London School of Economics. “It looks much better than it has ever looked in the long run of history.” Yet in recent years, loneliness and mental health problems have been eroding confidence and resilience and here we are, crawling out of a world-shaking pandemic, only to face recession and climate change. We all experienced the Armageddon vibe of empty supermarket shelves during the pandemic, along with medical shortages and petrol pumps running dry. Too many people have been tipped into poverty by the cost of living crisis. I could go on.
There is no excuse for abusive behaviour, but, Muthukrishna says: “Anything that increases stress is going to increase your anger and frustration, and your likelihood to lash out at someone. And maybe that’s sufficient to explain what was happening specifically during the pandemic.”
Behavioural science also points to a broader economic explanation. When the good times roll and there are plenty of jobs and homes for everyone, it’s easy to be nice. Muthukrishna has a neat car park analogy: “There are things that piss you off; like you might get annoyed when somebody slips into that space. If there are plenty of spaces, you’re like, ‘Oh, what an asshole,’ then you just find another space. Those fractures that always exist in a society are tolerated when there are enough spaces to go around. We describe this as a ‘positive-sum environment’ – where other people’s success doesn’t harm your ability to do well,” he says.
The flipside comes when economic growth slows, creating a dreaded “zero-sum environment”: Now, he says, “other people’s success is predictive of your failure. This creates a completely different dynamic. If you’ve been driving around for 30 minutes and you finally see a parking space and someone behaves like that, you’re going to see some road rage.” This could explain why abuse continues to rise even as we attempt to return to normal. “People are kind of on edge. It’s been hard for a lot of people. But now we’re going through these more systemic shifts, where it looks like the pandemic has triggered some more longstanding, zero-sum psychological environments, where the competition moves from being productive to destructive.”
This dark behavioural trend was already in motion pre-pandemic, as reflected in the World Economic Forum’s global risks report 2019. Co-produced by the insurance company Zurich, one of the headline risks to global businesses reads: “Decline in human empathy creates global risks in the ‘age of anger’.” The report identified a new global phenomenon of people feeling “disconnected and isolated”, with technology and urbanisation cauterising social bonds. “Profound social instability” comes sixth in the top 30 chart of risks in the report.
Perhaps, too, the dehumanising effects of communing online, which makes dishing out bile to strangers as easy as a “frictionless” online payment to a lot of people, has now spilled out on to the IRL streets, along with the extreme, polarising and reductive effects of social media. “The internet allows us to form new tribes along the lines of whatever we happen to be interested in or believe, and those new tribes are reshaping our societies in ways that we are still coming to terms with,” says Muthukrishna. “Any very small minority can find one another and begin to advocate for their common interests. It’s true of LGBT groups. It’s true of Arab spring groups, but it’s also true of QAnon, and white supremacist groups or whatever weird, perverted, crazy, obscure thing you happen to be interested in. It might be a good thing in the long term, but it is fundamentally destabilising.”
Muthukrishna’s guess is that we’re “in for a tough few years”. But we are not powerless as individuals to mitigate the rise of rage. The more prepared we are for change, the smoother the ride will be. “If you create situations where people’s expectations are not met, you trigger zero-sum psychology,” he says. A great human strength is that we can adapt to different levels of comfort, but it’s the change, he says, “that triggers people”. Being prepared for the circumstances ahead, he suggests, “might go some way towards creating some solidarity, making people realise that we’re all in this together now. Where that’s not true, because of things like inequality, then you have to address those underlying things.”
Then there’s the Instagram effect. “It’s the Fomo [fear of missing out]: why is that person vacationing in Mauritius and I’m sitting here trying to pay my bills? And 10,000 people, or even 10 million people are seeing that person in Mauritius, feeling very dissatisfied,” says Muthukrishna. There is even research, he says, “showing that if your commute takes you through neighbourhoods that are wealthier than your own, you are more dissatisfied than if your commute takes you through neighbourhoods that are like – or worse than – yours.” Knowing this, and that many of the so-called best lives being lived online are false, there is no harm in reducing our exposure to such deeply deflating stimuli.
The word should also be spread that being nasty to people who are trying to do their jobs only worsens the service we receive. Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service, points out that lack of staff is one of the key causes of poor service and customer frustration right now, and if we abuse staff, who are already working under increased pressure, they might quit, too. While being attacked and spat at is less common than verbal abuse, she says, the effects of the latter, particularly on those working from home, take a toll. “Some of these people have been on their own dealing with this. If you’re taking contact centre calls all day and several of those start to get pretty aggressive, the impact on individuals is not insignificant. It builds. We have seen a rise in people saying that they are not sure that they will stay on, and certainly a rise in sickness, too.”
In early July, Edinburgh airport had to temporarily close its customer service line, because it was deluged with irate customers trying to retrieve their luggage – even though baggage isn’t handled by the airport, but the short-staffed airlines. “In order to allow our teams to work through a backlog of airport queries,” said a spokesman, “and to protect them from verbal abuse, we have taken the decision to temporarily suspend the phone lines.”
Even if staff don’t resign, while they are unhappy they will be less able to provide a good service or defuse heated situations effectively. “There’s a link between employee engagement and customer satisfaction, and most people in customer-facing roles care and want to do the right thing,” says Coulson. “They are very motivated and like to have a conversation with someone in the local shop, or to make sure that person is doing OK.”
Recognising how cheering and trust-building these random daily exchanges with strangers can be is yet another tool in the battle against abusive behaviour. Gillian Sandstrom, director of the Centre for Research on Kindness at the University of Sussex, spends most of her time either talking to strangers, or researching what happens when we do. During the first lockdown in 2020, she conducted a study in which she found that after participants talked to a stranger online, they reported feeling a greater sense of trust in other people. “So it can really change how you think about other people, to individualise them and maybe give people the benefit of the doubt.”
This could work both ways – by initiating a pleasant interaction with a stranger (who may or may not be providing you with a service) you might just jump-start their trust in their fellow humans, sending a beautiful cascade of goodwill trickling through the community.
It doesn’t take long to build a habit, Sandstrom points out. “So the more often you train yourself to think about the other person, it should help you get into that conscious mode of remembering that they are human too.” If it feels like a big effort at first, that is because it is. “We’re naturally egoistic, and we all have to exert conscious effort to take someone else’s perspective into account. If we don’t make an effort to do that, [a tense exchange] is the kind of thing that’s going to happen.”
These precious friendly encounters that people once took for granted, were one of the things we lost during the lockdowns, and it doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to see how that could have fed into those rising abusive situations. “A lot of times when we lash out,” she says, “it’s coming from fear, and if people feel socially anxious, that could turn into frustration and anger.”
There are other fun ways to awaken lapsed empathy. Sandstrom mentions research showing that reading fiction can do this, and “going to the theatre, similarly, can help people feel more empathy”. And making ourselves come across as more individual could help to avoid being dehumanised by others who are disconnected. “Wear something that expresses your individuality,” she suggests.
The great added bonus of talking to strangers, she says, is that it “puts people in a better mood, it makes people feel more connected. I think that’s because you are showing someone that you are seeing them as an individual. We live in an individualistic culture, with more and more things that make us feel like it’s us against the world, rather than being on the same team. And so anything that helps us to feel we are not alone, we are connected to other people and other people are generally OK, is important.”