NY Times: Why do so many people seem on the edge of losing it in public?

Earlier this month the NY Times published a piece about what it called “consumer rage.” Here’s how it opened:

Nerves at the grocery store were already frayed, in the way of these things as the pandemic slouches toward its third year, when the customer arrived. He wanted Cambozola, a type of blue cheese. He had been cooped up for a long time. He scoured the dairy area; nothing. He flagged down an employee who also did not see the cheese. He demanded that she hunt in the back and look it up on the store computer. No luck.

And then he lost it, just another out-of-control member of the great chorus of American consumer outrage, 2021 style.

“Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” said the employee, Anna Luna, who described the mood at the store, in Minnesota, as “angry, confused and fearful.”

“You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.’”

Two points about this. First, I don’t know if you’ve experienced a moment like that in the past few months but you’ve probably seen the videos of people on airplanes or in stores seemingly losing their minds and in some cases starting fist fights. As the story above indicates, similar outburst are happening in restaurants, grocery stores, even Home Depot.

“Customers have been superaggressive and impatient lately,” said Annabelle Cardona, who works in a Lowell, Mass., branch of a national chain of home-improvement stores. Recently, she found herself in a straight-up screaming match with a customer who called her lazy and incompetent after she told him that he needed to measure his windows before she could provide the right size shades…

From across the country, workers responded with similar stories: of customers flying off the handle when the products they wanted were unavailable; of customers blaming the store, rather than supply-chain disruptions, for delays; of customers demanding refunds on nonrefundable items; of customers so wound up with worry and anxiety that the smallest thing sends them into a tailspin of hysteria.

In Chicago, a customer service agent for Patagonia described how a young woman became inconsolable when told that her package would be late. Another customer accused him of lying and participating in a scam to defraud customers upon learning that the out-of-stock fleece vest he had back-ordered would be further delayed by supply-chain issues.

Members of my family have seen it up close as I described here.

My daughter told me recently about one such incident at a local pharmacy. A man became outraged because the pharmacist didn’t have enough pills to fill his entire order and asked the man if he could come back the next day for the remainder of his prescription. This led to a showdown where the man refused to pay for his prescription or step away from the register until he could talk to a manager. But the manager was off that day and so it was just a kind of in-store stalemate for about 20 minutes with people (including my daughter) stuck in line waiting for this mini-drama to end. Eventually he just stormed out.

Why are people acting like this? The Vox story I was talking about here argued the problem was capitalism and what was needed was a week off work for everyone to decompress. The NY Times story I quoted above took another approach, and connected the outbursts to politics.

Ms. Miller, from the Wisconsin trade association, said the pressures of the pandemic and the deterioration of elected officials’ behavior — the shouting, the threats, the hatred — had given normal people license to act out, too.

I don’t think that’s it. We were all upset about politics long before the pandemic and before this recent uptick in people losing their minds in public places. The only explanation that makes sense to me is the pandemic itself. I don’t think it’s just the stress of lockdowns and mandates. My own take is that most of these incidents, including the one my daughter witnessed at the pharmacy involve people who are suddenly confronting the reality that they can’t necessarily get what they want. We started this pandemic with shortages on toilet paper and cleaning wipes and now two years later, thanks to supply-chain issues, inflation, worker shortages, it often feels we’re on the edge of not being able to get the things we used to take for granted.

Of course this is just speculation but I think people have a new sense of the fragility of everything. They are on edge because nothing seems guaranteed anymore. Everything is now a battle for scarce resources and everyone is ready to fight for what they think they deserve or at least what they used to be able to get with a lot less effort. Suddenly, everything feels more difficult and more competitive. Being told you can’t have x, y, or z is no longer just a disappointment, it’s a challenge and a reminder that you’re not in control of anything. And I think that when you cram a bunch of people already feeling that way into a tight space like an airplane, it’s not surprising that a lot more fights are breaking out than usual.

I don’t think we’re going to see things go back to normal until things actually do go back to normal, i.e. no more lockdowns and mandates, no more shortages and delays, no more school cancelations. At some point we’ll recover our positive outlook and our good humor and everyone won’t be so on edge, but I don’t think that will happen soon. I think this is the new normal for a while, unfortunately.