Dr. David Solot is the Director of Client Services at Caliper, an international human resources consulting company. He has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from Walden University, and a Masters in clinical psychology from UNCG. Solot has previously written for Eatocracy on the topics of food aversion and maximizing brain power.
A few days ago, Eatocracy reported on Elan Gale’s exchange with “Diane in 7A” – a woman who was supposedly being extremely rude to flight attendants on her flight to Phoenix. Even though Gale has since admitted that he made the entire incident up, the internet is still smoldering from conversations about who was right and who was wrong. Whatever your opinion, as the article stated, “It is never, ever, ever cool to be rude to someone working in a service position.”
But if that’s the case, then why does it happen so often? What causes people to treat service personnel as though they were subhuman, and casually dismiss their feelings?
The fundamental attribution error occurs on the frequent occasions when we’re wrong, and someone’s actions are due to circumstances, not due to who they are.
Here’s an example. You’re out to eat with family, and you get stuck with what feels like the slowest waiter in the world. He vanishes from the table for long stretches at a time. It takes forever to get your drinks. Your entrees are cold and you send them back. Your sister wants sour cream for her potato, and the waiter is nowhere to be found.
While everyone is looking around for the waiter, your brother comments, “I can’t believe what a jerk this guy is! I bet he’s in the back right now, taking a break. Lazy bum!”
When the check finally comes, your brother insists that you stiff him on the tip. “Teach that jerk a lesson!”
Got that image in mind? Good. Now let me tell you the rest of the story. Your waiter isn’t a jerk, and he isn’t lazy. He’s actually a kind, hardworking man who takes pride in his job. He’d never dream of taking a break while customers were waiting.
But tonight, on the other side of the dining room, out of your sight, is a party of 16 rowdy people who are monopolizing his time. Every time he gets away from them, they call him back with more demands. He’s been trying to get back to all his other tables as much as he can, and feels terrible that his customers are suffering. But, he can’t ignore the large party either, or his manager will get upset.
How do you feel towards your “lazy” waiter now?
That’s the fundamental attribution error in action. Your brother assumed that the poor service was due to something about the waiter – he’s lazy or he just doesn’t care. But the truth is that the poor service was due to circumstances out of your waiter’s control.
This kind of thing happens all the time. That slow driver holding up traffic? Maybe he’s not a “thoughtless idiot who needs to learn how to drive.” Maybe he just got a call that his mother is dying, and he’s trying to keep it together long enough to get home.
Your coworker who was late for the big meeting? She’s not lazy. There’s new construction on her route to work. The customer service rep who won’t make an exception for you? She’s not rude. She just got told by her boss that if she authorizes more out-of-warranty returns she’ll be fired.
The problem is that if we believe that a service person is a jerk or is being disrespectful to us, we’re more likely to act like a jerk in return. We stiff the waiter on the tip. We flip the bird at the slow driver. We yell at the customer service rep. And in doing so, we’re often rude to people are just victims of circumstance – just like us.
Eatocracy suggested several good ways to deal with a family member who is rude to service people. But what if you’re the one who’s being rude? How can you resist the urge to blame the service person?
In this case, the old catch phrase from G.I. Joe is correct: knowing is half the battle. Just knowing that we’re hardwired to blame the person and not the circumstance gives you the opportunity to try something different. The next time you feel yourself about to make a judgment about service person, try asking yourself what else could explain their behavior. See what other explanations you can come up with.
A great question to ask yourself is: “What else could be going on?” Can you picture that this is a good person who’s just in a bad circumstance? If you can, you’re much more likely to be polite in response.
So if you’re the one who thinks the waiter is slow, lazy, or just doesn’t care, try this before you get angry with him. Say to yourself, “Well, he could be lazy, that’s one explanation. But what if he’s not? What else could be going on here?”
At the very least, you’ll be taking the time to think about the feelings of someone who may be just as frustrated as you are.