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It’s Christmastime, a time of good cheer, of family, of friends, and of being crammed into a Target with the very worst people on the planet who care about nothing except for getting the most consumer goods for the least amount of money.
I’m very interested in the ways that humans dehumanize other humans when certain factors are in play, and some recent research sheds light on how and why we do it to retail workers — researchers at the University of British Columbia found that bargain hunters are less likely to view retail workers as fully human.
I’ve worked quite a lot in the retail world and can state with 100% certainty that there have been customers who saw me not as a fully human individual with my own needs and desire but as a means to an end who could be abused as needed. I once had a man yell at me because my store didn’t stock headphones. It was a magic store. I was like, “unless you want trick headphones that explode or something, you should probably try literally any other store in the city.” A woman once got angry that a lifelike dog I was holding was a puppet that would require her child to demonstrate creativity, as opposed to a robot that required only a few D batteries. It was quite an interesting time in my life.
Little did I know at the time, but I had it quite easy compared with many other retail workers simply because of the type of store I worked at. Sure, it was a magic store so I dealt with a LOT of weird shit, but it was a high-end store where nothing was ever on sale and we mainly catered to tourists who were spending a premium on something fun. According to this research, it would have been much worse if we had been a discount magic store.
The researchers in question had subjects first review airlines, either the high end Lufthansa or the super low-end budget airline Ryanair, where you famously have to pay extra for just about anything. The subjects used fewer “humanizing” words for Ryanair, even when the researchers controlled for the quality difference between the two airlines.
That’s all well and good when talking about a corporation, but this also extended to the airline workers. Subjects were more likely to see a Ryanair employee as less human than Lufthansa or even just a plain person who wasn’t a uniformed employee. When I say “less human,” I mean that the subjects literally thought the Ryanair employee was less likely to experience human emotions. Yeah.
In a final study, researchers found that people were more likely to recommend a rude employee get serious disciplinary action when they were in a “price-conscious” state of mind. And that does ring true for me, personally, as even though I worked in a higher-end store, the very worst, meanest customers were usually the ones who balked at prices and tried to finagle discounts on things, claiming they were damaged, trying to buy floor models, are even just outright haggling like we were at a yardsale.
It’s important to remember that the subjects in this study aren’t bad people per se — anyone who adopted a “budget-conscious” attitude can unconsciously fall into the trap of treating retail workers poorly. So keep that in mind as you finish your Christmas shopping, or as you hit up those sweet after-Christmas sales. If you find yourself getting a little haughty with an overworked, underpaid employee surrounded by discount signs, remind yourself that they’re people, too.