We’ve all heard the cultural reference by now: “What a Karen!” I don’t think the meaning needs explanation any longer, except to note that the “I want to speak to the manager!” customer in question need not be a woman, and need not be named Karen (in fact, I know a very nice woman named Karen myself). But if “Karen” culture is so common that we can reference it nationwide with a single word, it’s got to be a bigger problem than just a certain personality. Where did all the Karens come from and how did it become so widespread?
The answer is that corporate America created its own demons.
It started with the mantra “the customer is always right,” a marketing tactic dating as far back as 1909 that has since been adopted by many a retail giant. Though much has been written about the inherent problems in this idea, it has endured now for over a century, weaving its insidious lessons deep into society. It created an army of entitled consumers who now firmly believe that every business exists solely to cater to their every whim. We demand perfection; we demand instant gratification… and when the business fails to live up to any number of these impossible standards, they ought to be vilified.
...The original idea was to assure customers they would be well-treated, and it was valuable in a time where consumers didn’t have the power they do today. But it has since warped into something completely different and a little ugly. Business have come to fear the Karen so much that they fall all over themselves to please them. Over-the-top apologies accompanied by a pile of freebies became the new norm for even the slightest of mishaps. Consumers have come to expect it.
This tyrannical relationship contributes to an elevated sense of power and importance on the part of the consumer. It fuels the ill-treatment of waiters, fast food workers, or generally any customer service employee who stands in the way of whatever they want. Ironically, individual customers are in fact powerful and important to small businesses... not so to the corporations that created this mess. From the corporate point of view, I get the logic: the bigger the company, the more it makes sense to just give the tyrant whatever they want, so that the company can move on. Fairness doesn’t enter the equation.
But that’s a problem… Because small businesses can’t operate that way. The independent contractor that had to leave in the middle of your job to pick his sick kid up at school? He can’t come back tomorrow because he’s caring for a sick child now. You’re going to have to wait a few days. And no, you aren’t supposed to come first right now. The bike shop owner whose “Sale $499” sign got misplaced on the $1,200 bike that just came in? She can’t afford to give it to you for that; the loss comes out of her pocket. And by the way… no, she doesn’t owe it to you because of a misplaced sign.
The reality is, she is not a faceless corporation. She’s a human being trying to make ends meet. A few hundred dollars’ worth of high-end steak is probably a drop in the bucket for Omaha Steaks; but it matters to us. A lot. I know you didn’t see the 12-hour days in 120 degree heat that we spent building fences by hand; you didn’t experience the near-financial collapse when we had a freezer outage that took out half our inventory; you weren’t there for the 40-hour course in web design or the crash course in butchering or the 8-hour days in cold storage or the 2am panicked realization that I forgot to mark the filets as sold out on the website the night before. I know that you don’t know every last detail that goes into putting that perfect steak in your hand, and that’s ok. But respect all the time and care that went into it, and give us some grace on the small stuff. We aren’t robots. We’re people, just struggling to get by too.
So I know this may be breaking the mold, but our guidelines at Perry Land & Cattle are these:
Real wars are fueled by creating a distance – a sense of “other”-ness between sides. The same logic is operating when you see the person behind the business as less than human. When you frame all businesses as some sort of faceless corporation, it allows people to put their common humanity aside and treat the owners (and employees) differently than they do a friend, family member, or even stranger on the street. In wartime, that’s how governments get people to view each other as unrelatable, less human. They know that when we recognize the humanity of the individual on the other end, it becomes harder to kill. It’s the same poison that divides our politics: otherness. Sure, it’s easier to simplify and vilify each other -- and in the moment, that can feel satisfying. But the truth is always more human and more nuanced than we’re led to believe.
Let’s just stop. Let’s drop the smoke screen that lets us de-humanize the business owner, the store manager, the customer service rep, or the person on the other end of the computer screen. Let’s treat each other with a little more compassion, understanding, and kindness. Let’s be a little bit less demanding and a little more grateful for all that we already have.
Consumers themselves seem to be becoming more aware of this problem, at least in the business/customer relationship. Awareness is being helped along post-Covid by supply shortages, shipping delays, and other such problems outside the control of the business. Will this mean a permanent shift in attitudes from both corporation and consumer? Will it mean redefining what “customer service” means? Maybe. Either way… the Mom & Pop Shop is finally pushing back.
Alicia Ellis Perry
Perry Land & Cattle
Alicia Perry, PhD, Owner/Operator and all around Hay Maven (see my blog post on the time I fell off a haystack...). I share industry insights, tips & tricks on grilling great beef, and my personal journey into the ranching world.