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Image: Getty / Treatment: Archi Banal

SocietyMay 8, 2023

Tempers seem shorter than ever these days. Is it always going to be like this?

A fist surrounded by angry emojis
Image: Getty / Treatment: Archi Banal

Lockdowns are over, and storms and floodwaters have subsided. But the stresses still seems to be showing up in everyday interactions. Chris Schulz attempts to track the rise of the ‘micro-aggression’.

The phone call started like many others – with a complaint. Theresa* worked for Mecca, an Australasian cosmetics chain, and she was used to receiving regular abuse. As customer services manager, it was her job to sort it out. This caller, though, had a certain tone in her voice. “She had an electronic device she wanted to return,” Theresa says. But she’d already taken it to an electrician, and they’d tampered with it, thus voiding the warranty.

Across a phone call that lasted nearly 40 minutes, Theresa patiently informed the irate customer that there was nothing she could do to help her. Mecca wouldn’t replace the item, or offer her a refund. Despite it being her own fault, the customer’s increasing rage began to consume her. “Eventually, she told me to go fuck myself and to shove the electronic device up my ass,” says Theresa. “Then she hung up on me.”

This became a pattern. Not long after, a man was on the other end of the phone requesting a refund on perfume more than a year old. “He thought it was broken,” Theresa says. This was also against Mecca’s returns policy. “I told him, ‘No, we can’t honour this.’ His response, she says, was to abuse her, telling her she was, “Fucking stupid, that I was dumb and didn’t know what I was doing.”

Theresa started her job in 2020, in the middle of New Zealand’s very first Covid lockdown. As pandemic stress wore on, she noticed levels of aggression rising on the other end of the phone. She wondered if customers weren’t really concerned about the products, or her service, at all. “It was more that there was other stuff going on in their lives and this was the final straw,” she says.

“They needed someone to take it out on and the person on the other end of the phone that you can’t see is the easiest person to pick on.”

Theresa wasn’t the only one struggling with this. With schools and shops closed during lockdowns, reports suggested front line staff were copping it. Supermarket check out operators were easy targets. Middlemore staff were forced to tend to angry visitors rather than sick patients. When lockdowns eased, the stress continued to show. “I’ve been told to kill myself, told they’re gonna burn the place down and kill me,” one retail assistant told Newshub.

When life returned to a new kind of normal, Theresa expected phone aggression might calm down. That didn’t happen. “If anything, it probably got worse,” she says. Earlier this year, when heavy rainfall caused major flooding events, she noticed things spiking again. “We got a lot more impatient, angry and aggressive customers.”

It was something she discussed with her flatmate, who had a similar job, and the pair swapped stories of their “call centre trauma”. He told her about an older woman who spent nearly an hour on the phone with him. They bonded with stories about their lives, a moment of connection at a time when Covid had made that difficult. At the end of the conversation, the woman told him, “I really think you should kill yourself,” and hung up on him.

A few weeks ago, Theresa quit her job, citing the toll all that abuse was taking. “It got way too much. I left because there wasn’t much support from my managers,” she says. “They would tell me that I needed to be more resilient, but no one should sit at work and get abused. The fact that people were visibly abusing me over makeup and skincare is just ridiculous.”

(When contacted for comment, a Mecca representative offered the former staff member the opportunity to speak to HR, and said: “We’re so sorry to hear of this team member’s experience. We want all our team members to feel supported, and so we have processes and education in place to help our teams manage any difficult situations with customers that may occur, as well as to support them personally including confidential counselling from an independent third party.”) 

It was there at the Kingsland VTNZ transport station when a mate drove his ageing Nissan in to pick up its annual Warrant of Fitness recently. He asked a staff member if he’d parked his car in the correct lane and the staff member snapped back, “Look at the sign, you dumb fuck.”

It’s happening in petrol stations where staff say they face incidents of racism and abuse every day. One attendant revealed customers take soft drink cans out of the fridge to throw at staff. “For a number of staff it is a daily occurrence,” the owner of 17 Z petrol stations, Wayne Kennerley, told Stuff.

It’s apparent at The Pacifica, the gleaming new Auckland apartment building with views across the Hauraki Gulf. Earlier this year, a resident lodged an imported “agitator” under the window frame to annoy an upstairs neighbour, effectively disrupting the sleeping patterns for those living on all 25 floors above them. “It was 24/7… kind of like a pulsing constant vibration,” a resident told me.

The Pacifica tower in central Auckland.
At The Pacifica, a neighbour riled residents for an entire month. (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

And it’s not just Auckland. In Wellington, train conductors were left in tears because of the abuse they received from commuters angry that their morning travel times were being extended without warning last week. “People were boiling over in their frustration,” a One News reporter told Breakfast.

Agitation, tension, rage and dismay plays out in mini soap operas across Auckland’s clogged roads every day. When I bought this subject up in my office, a colleague mentioned a friend who was chased then punched in the face by another driver. They had no idea why. Another friend was stunned when a much older woman call her “the C-word”. Her crime? She’d stopped to let children cross the road over a pedestrian crossing. She’d held her trip up by, at most, 30 seconds.

On a recent Thursday while driving away from the office, after a day spent researching this piece and pulling together these kinds of stories, I passed a child aged no older than 12 sitting on the back of her dad’s ute. She looked up, saw me, and raised her middle finger.

My theory was that the compounding stress of Covid, along with multiple weather events, the cost of living crisis, a forecast recession, coupled with any number of personal gripes, was causing brains to regularly explode. Have we escalated to the point of no return, pushing New Zealand into an age of intolerance, where petty personal beefs escalate into incidents far greater than the sum of their parts?

Possibly, says clinical psychologist Kirsty Ross. She likens the human brain to an iPhone battery, in that when it’s low in power, it begins shutting down functionality. “That ability to think things through thoroughly and evaluate – ‘Is this a threat or am I just tired?’ – becomes a little bit more compromised,” she says. “So you perceive things as being bigger and more difficult and more challenging than you might have otherwise done if you were in a more rested state, physically and emotionally.”

Image: Getty Images

If everyone’s feeling like this, then acting on those impulses, Ross admits those vibes feed off each other. “It does make it more socially acceptable to engage in that behaviour,” she says. Ultimately, she believes it’s proof that everyone’s struggling right now. “There’s been three years of really tough stuff without a lot of a break in between. It’s not something that just a couple of good nights on a weekend is going to sort out.” Her answer? Micro-breaks, listening to music, going for a walk and being thankful for something, anything. “You can always find something to be grateful for if you look hard enough.”

But it keeps happening. Stories documenting all these micro-aggressions, and the incidents that escalate into something much more, aren’t hard to find. North Shore resident Joshuah Tasi died after a road rage incident following what was reported as a minor prang. Two staff members at Burger King in Takanini were stabbed. Recently the man fixing my lawnmower told me how he’d stepped in to save a librarian from being attacked by someone angry they didn’t have the bus timetable committed to memory.

Everyone who leaves the house regularly seems to be finding themselves witnessing these incidents, or engaging in them. But no one’s recording statistics. There’s no Covid-type tracker monitoring the shit time everyone’s having out on the streets. I wanted to find someone who could give me firm proof, real evidence that people are continuing to be stupidly, unnecessarily, ridiculously mean to each other when they really don’t need to be.

Then I met Claudia. 

“We are seeing a continuation,” says Dr Claudia Wyss. She’s the director of customer and community services at Auckland Council. She can recite a laundry list of recent incidents affecting the 3,300 staff under her watch. “One of our contractors was stabbed in a park in West Auckland,” she says. Someone else called a bomb threat into an animal shelter. “We’ve even had some of our lifeguards being threatened while they’re trying to ensure the safety of patrons and pools.”

Her voice cracks. You can hear the toll this is taking on her. Wyss is under strain, feeling the pressure, wondering what she can do to protect her staff from all these random acts of unnecessary unkindness or downright violence. To help them cope, she’s keeping busy giving body cameras to animal control staff, putting more security guards in places where incidents tend to happen, and training everyone in de-escalation techniques. Yes, all this is being made available to librarians, who probably never thought theirs would be a job that put them in danger.

Auckland council's director of customer & community services poses for a pic.
Dr Claudia Wyss, Auckland Council’s director of customer and community services. (Photo: Auckland Council)

Wyss knows there’s a bigger picture. She can understand why this is happening. (You may think it, but it’s not necessarily all Wayne Brown’s fault.) “Many people are tapped out. They’re tired. There’s a high degree of uncertainty,” she says. Snapping at those around them is, she believes, being triggered by their anxiety and frustration. “When humans lose control over a situation, they understandably get very frustrated,” she says. But it just keeps happening. “I feel frustrated for our teams. I don’t want them to experience this. They’re facing the brunt of the abusive behaviour. They’re really suffering.”

What gives her hope? Wyss says she’s a “glass-half-full” type of person. As bad as things are right now, she firmly believes they’re going to get better. She calls on anyone feeling the pressure of this moment to pause and take a breath. In some situations, it may be as simple as recognising that your words or actions impact another member of the human race. Even though people can be horrible, she believes things will change, that people will be nice again, that she can stop issuing body cams to her animal control staff sometime soon. “Things are cyclical [but] we’re humans. I believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

* Name changed to protect identity.

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