A few weeks ago, I read this article by Paul Ford about the “unexpected gains” of etiquette and politeness. I was surprised at the snarky tone of some of the reader responses, because I thought it was a very-well written piece with an important message. Etiquette is not about arcane rules of which fork to use, but about being considerate of others. And the article also gently made the point that politeness can pay off for the polite person, as well as for those he or she interacts with.
A few days after I read Ford’s article, I was wandering through my local Target store. As it happened, this was also a few days after Target announced that it was closing all of its 133 Canadian stores. And at the time I was wandering through, there was some sort of staff briefing going on near the fitting rooms, with a manager and about 15 staff members. I was curious to hear what the staff were being told about the closing, because I’m certainly no fan of how Target has treated some of its workers in Canada, so I pretended to browse the racks while listening to what was being said.
The manager leading the meeting was very impressive. She told the staff members, quite sincerely, that the closing was as big a surprise to the managers as it was to anyone else, and that the next few weeks were going to be very difficult. But she also said that while she was losing her job, even though it wasn’t because of anything she did, she wanted to walk out of the store on the last day feeling proud of herself and of her work. So she personally didn’t plan to slack off or be bitter, and while she knew that not everyone working at the store might feel or react the same way, she hoped that everyone would respect however their co-workers chose to spend the next couple of weeks, and support each other during what was going to be a rough time. The staff members all listened respectfully and nodded as she was speaking, so clearly this manager had built a good relationship with her staff members and was someone that they trusted.
Then a couple of the staff members spoke up. They said that customers had been coming up to them and saying things like, “Target is a crappy store and you all deserve to lose your jobs”, and that a lot of customers were being really rude to the staff after the news of the store closings. The staff members wanted to know what they should do if a customer was insulting to them.
The manager’s response really impressed me. She said that if a customer said something cruel to a staff member like “You deserve to lose your job”, it might be because that customer was having a bad day or had other problems in their life. But, she said, that didn’t give that person the right to be nasty to the staff about something the staff had no control over. She said that while everyone was still expected to act professionally toward the customers and not be rude back at them, she wasn’t going to “write up” anyone who refused to serve a customer who was being rude – and if a staff member decided to walk away from an abusive customer, she would back them up if that person complained.
I was appalled to hear that customers were abusing the Target staff, because I can’t imagine why anyone would act so ridiculously. Unfortunately, though, Target itself doesn’t appear to be acting too thoughtfully toward its employees in its last couple of weeks of operations in Canada. And the Target Canada liquidation sales start later this week, so I imagine that things are only going to get worse for the staff members.
So what does this have to do with etiquette? Well, the manager that I overheard in Target was encouraging exactly the kind of behaviour that Ford discusses in his article. By being polite, even when other people are being rude, you protect yourself and you make things easier for yourself. As Ford says,
The practice of etiquette let[s] you draw a protective circle around yourself and your emotions. You could drag yourself through a terrible situation and when it was all over, you could throw your white gloves in the dirty laundry hamper and move on with your life.
I hope that politeness will give some protection to Target Canada’s staff during the next couple of weeks, and that it helps them move on to better things in their lives – and hopefully find work with a company that treats them a little less shamefully. And maybe some of Target’s more clueless customers can also realize the benefits of politeness, and restrain themselves from verbally attacking workers that really don’t need any more stress right now. But I also hope that another organization recognizes that Target manager’s talents and hires her. Her kind of attitude would be an asset anywhere.
I was also surprised when I heard that Target was closing all its stores in Canada and wondered why that was, when it is so successful here. Very impressed with what you overheard because the shopping experience at the few Targets I visit are never particularly spectacular: most of the floor staff is sullen teenagers and the cashiers just want to whisk you through. I have never had an interaction that left me feeling I received great service. Nothing I would ever complain about either but I see the stores as conveniences, not places I am actually drawn to. Which makes me wonder what the corporate culture that trickles down is all about. After all, etiquette in the work place comes from the top, right?