David Sedaris's 'Jokes' About Letting Customers Fire Workers Go Over Like Lead Guillotine
If there is one phrase in the English language that fills me with blind rage, it is "the customer is always right." It is not that I am personally opposed to great customer service, but I gotta tell you — there are a whole lot of people out there who see that phrase as a license to go mad with power and treat workers like crap over things that are entirely beyond their control. It is most frequently invoked by people who for some reason think sales associates are allowed to determine a store's return policy and that servers are the ones to blame when the kitchen runs out of something.
So just to preface this — allow me to admit my bias. I believe that the customer, more often than not, is wrong.
Yesterday, author David Sedaris became Twitter's main character after "CBS Sunday Morning" tweeted out a video in which he suggested customers should be able to fire people from their jobs if they do a bad job. He then cited two examples of people he would have enjoyed firing, both of which sounded pretty sketchy.
It did not go over well!
.@DavidSedaris demands the right to fire others The humorist suggests the power of a "citizen's dismissal," like a… https://t.co/2Jz2QQR6AB— CBS Sunday Morning 🌞 (@CBS Sunday Morning 🌞) 1607266924.0
Weirdly, people were not super into a rich guy fantasizing about getting to fire people during a pandemic, in which practically everyone is on edge and afraid of losing their job. I don't know if there is a right time for this kind of take, but this certainly wasn't it.
In Sedaris's first example, he recounted a lifeguard at the YMCA saying he and everyone else in the pool had to leave after he had only been there for ten minutes because she had to go to her parents' house to do laundry. He recounted this as if she just decided she was done for the day regardless of when her shift was supposed to end. He neglected to mention, however, what the pool's hours were. Now, I just looked it up, and it looks like practically every YMCA pool in my area, at least, is only open until 1pm, which I would not have expected. It seems entirely possible — and in fact, likely — that Sedaris, who was not a regular member of the pool, just happened to get there when it was about to close and that the lifeguard in question did not feel like staying later than she was supposed to stay so David Sedaris could swim laps. Which she may not even have been allowed to do, by the way.
Let me tell you, I have a lot of experience with customers who think they should be able to stay after hours forever. I once had a couple ladies keep me after work for an hour and a half and literally remark, out loud, how they felt like celebrities having a "private shopping experience" because we were closed. They did not buy anything and to this day, I hate them.
Now, call me crazy, but I sincerely doubt a lifeguard at a YMCA is allowed to set her own hours and does not have to clock in or out or let someone above her know when she is leaving. That's not how jobs like that work ... ever. Were there not other people working at this YMCA who would have noticed a bunch of people being required to leave the pool before it was closed for the day? I'm just saying, it seems like a very difficult thing for this lifeguard to pull off.
His next example of someone he wished he could fire was a sales associate at a store where he and his sister (didn't specify which one) bought a tea set, who said "I'm afraid I have nothing to put them in, no bubble wrap or bags." Now, I grant you — I can absolutely see why this would be inconvenient! But it would also not be the salesperson's fault, because it is actually not their job to buy those things for the store.
I am sure that I would find Sedaris's joke that a good worker would have offered to wrap the teacups in her own socks and underwear funny, had I had not literally had a woman who was mad there were no chickpeas for her salad look at me and say, in all seriousness, "Well it's not like there wasn't anything you could have done about it" while gesturing at the supermarket across the street.
A lot of people — including me — say that everyone should have to work in retail or the food service industry for at least a year. Sure, this is partly so they treat those workers with respect, but it's also so they know how little control they have over anything that goes on at their place of work. Frankly, I think people would be a lot happier in life if that was something they understood. I once had a customer literally throw a clutch at my head because she was mad that I couldn't change the store's return policy for her. It's not that I was being mean or unfair to her in particular, or due to any vendetta or desire to ruin her day, but that I literally was not allowed to do a return on the purse for anything but store credit.
Salespeople, just for clarity, are never going to be in charge of setting a store's policies — and will almost never be able to change those policies for you, personally, even if they wanted to. In some circumstances, doing that could actually get them fired, for real. They are also not in charge of inventory, store hours, whether or not the store takes Discover, or pretty much anything outside of selling things and ringing up your sale. Likewise, servers have pretty much zero power over the kitchen or what is on the menu or anything outside of taking your order and bringing it to you.
I don't think David Sedaris is a terrible person. I like David Sedaris, generally! But workers have enough issues with crap wages, bosses who keep their hours just low enough to not have to pay for health insurance, an extremely uncertain job market, and sadistic Yelp reviewers, that even joking about giving customers the power to fire them is going to rub people the wrong way — especially those of us who know just how crappy some customers can be. Given that we live in a country where (except for Montana) people can be fired for literally any reason or no reason, at their employer's whim, the idea of giving customers that same power — even as a joke — is terrifying.
It will, however, be extremely ironic if there is a whole social media/thinkpiece cycle of "Oh no the social justice warriors want to cancel David Sedaris! How awful of them to try to hurt someone's ability to earn a living like that!"
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse