Posted : 2009-06-26 16:35
Updated : 2009-06-26 16:35

Why Do Customers Become Idiots?

By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist

At virtually all department stores, you encounter a person or persons stationed at the entrance to the parking lot whose job is to bow to you as if you were the conquering hero or the master of a plantation returning to his mansion.

The job seems to be guiding the newcomers properly to their parking spots, but the main job is to show proper deference to the customer. Going beyond the rule of business politeness, this gesture makes me quite uncomfortable and often makes me want to escape the scene as soon as possible.

Why does the scene create such uneasiness in me? Because it is the sycophancy of the worst kind, and groveling by a person who is a worker to another person who is also a worker.

If I were hugely rich or powerful, on the order of a dictator or a slave owner, I would expect that sort of groveling behavior from my underlings and slaves. By virtue of my power over them, even over their life and death, I would expect them to show me all the servile flattery they are capable of showing me simply because my power over them is absolute and unquestionable.

But as a shopper going for one little item or another at the store, this attitude of bowing to you makes me uneasy and uncomfortable and raises a question in me: Why are they so servile to me, when I am neither a dictator nor a slave master?

The answer is that I am actually worse than either of the two traditional villains: I am the CUSTOMER! As a customer in a capitalist world, I have replaced the traditional villains in dictators and masters. In that small moment of my status at the store, I control my destiny, I command the whole store imperiously, I can throw any tantrum and make
can make any demands and I will still be the CUSTOMER-KING!

The little man at the entrance to the parking lot recognizes me as the customer-king that enters his kingdom and bows to me as if I am the returning conquering hero or the God of the Underworld. I am so powerful, and he so powerless, we have recreated the ancient world of masters and slaves, or kings and subjects, for the few minutes I am there with my credit-card and shopping list. As a customer-king, I can do no wrong and the whole world, at least there and then, bows to me. What a great feeling of exhilaration! What a great sense of dominance! What a great…

Wait a minute, I control myself: You are only a worker yourself, not a king, not a master, merely a worker just like the man who is bowing to you. Now I come to my own senses and recognize that, as a worker at the university where I am employed, it is I who bows to others and grovels for their favors and goodwill!

It is I who gives everyone who matters his servile smiles and bows to make sure that his masters and kings recognize his groveling and sycophancy and grant him their mercies and rewards. It was my hallucination that made me think I was the customer-king who had the whole world by the balls, whereas in fact I was merely another slave whose role had reversed for a brief moment and time at the store, until I returned to my role as the bowing worker myself.

Coming to my sociological senses, I realize that in this day and age of a ``service economy,'' virtually everyone who earns a living works in a capacity that deals with ``customers.'' Unless you are a farmer or a factory worker, whose number shrinks all the time, more and more workers earn a living by working for other people, namely, customers.

Because the customers buy, the businesses must depend on the mercy and goodwill of their customers and do everything to keep their customers satisfied, to the extent of calling them customer-kings.

Even in the traditionally non-customer areas, such as families and classrooms, the idea is that we must establish a customer-relations environment if we value our safety and security.

This way, we take turns being the customers and customer-caretakers; being the inflictor of humiliation on others and the recipient of humiliation by others. The game is how long we can be the inflictor of humiliation on others, and not being the recipient of such humiliation from others, like the parking lot attendant, any more than the shortest time possible.

The time we spend as customer-kings is the time we become masters of our destiny, and as such, most of us become as nasty and demanding as possible while we are at it. As long as we are in a position to be customers, we are given the right to be as nasty and brutish as possible to those who serve us or with the situation that allows us such temporary powers.
With few exceptions, most of us know how difficult customers are most of the time, as they pitch a fit over even the smallest of dissatisfaction. As workers, we are always in the position to be pressured to satisfy our customers (poor English teachers in Korea know what I mean!)

But when we become customers ourselves, according to the game of master-and-slave musical chair, we forget all about our own humiliation and go all out to become the most demanding and nastiest customer possible. In other words, we become the thing that all customer-dealers fear the most: Idiots, with the power of a child-tyrant and monster-king. As we all know, there is nothing more fearsome than a monster child with the power of total control and destruction. As customer-kings, all of us become what we fear the most, ourselves!

Korea is a master of groveling and tyranny; its language, custom, tradition and subconscious allow the worst form of servility and tyranny to be seen anywhere on Earth.

This customer-tyranny is worse if anonymity is added to the customer so that he doesn't have to show his face to anyone. I am referring to the on-line bloggers in the Korean news media.

In the opinion of many observers, the Korean on-line bloggers have the worst manners of tyranny known anywhere in the Internet world. The news media offer, as a form of business flattery and sycophancy, to customers to register their instant reaction to services rendered, and every child-monster customer registers his reaction as if he were the true king.

The little space that the media provides for the customer-kings in which to register their little reactions is all business groveling. But it is enough for the customer-kings who take the bait and enter their little customer-reactions, usually in the nastiest manner possible, within 50 words or less, as specified by the space limitation, thinking they have shown to the world what great customer-kings they are.

In the Korean cyber world, the worst of several elements come together to form this beastly and unheard-of incivility among the on-line customers: First, the nature of workers becoming customer-kings, or slaves-turned tyrants; Korea's culture of tyranny-and-slavery relations, everyone by turns being the slave-sufferer and becoming the mean tyrant to others when the slightest chance rises; and the instantaneous mechanism of registering (or shouting) your kingly feelings to the world, and anonymously to boot.

So this cycle of misery and ecstasy continues, as we inflict on each other the worst of human conditions. One minute we reap the most miserable kind of abuse from our own customers. The next minute we revel in the fleeting ecstasy of flexing our customer-power and inflict upon others as customers what we detest ourselves.

In short, the very concept of ``customer'' is a sure way to create cultural and human idiots. I long for a world where there are no customers as much as I long for a community where there are no idiots with the power of a tyrant or a child-monster.

Jon Huer’s Q&A Plaza

Korea Times columnist John Huer has introduced a new online forum called “Q&A Plaza” for readers to ask questions about his columns that appear in the newspaper and Web site (

The Korea Times hopes questions can be answered, issues clarified and unnecessary misunderstandings avoided.

The forum is limited to the columns at hand and a modicum of civility should be maintained.
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