The customer made a complaint to the insurance company. After his car was damaged in an accident, repairs had to be done, but he felt they were not done enough. An engineer from Ageas was sent to inspect the vehicle, but no further action was needed. Rachel Undy is the operations leader at the company. It was mostly sexist abuse that was very angry and offensive. The customer contacted Ageas 98 times over the course of the year.

Undy says that they refused to speak to him but his emails continued with the same language. She recalls that at one point, he made viciously crude remarks to her, before directing his ire at the male engineer.

Undy has seen an increase in the number of aggressive customers over the past couple of years. There are signs on surgery walls that say "Don't take it out on our staff", at train stations that say "Don't take it out on our staff", and at a family restaurant that says "Don't take it out on our staff". According to public-facing staff, there has been a surge in abusive treatment since the Covid epidemic began. The British Medical Association revealed in May that criminal violence in GP surgeries had almost doubled in five years, while the number of shop workers who faced abusive customers has risen 25% since February this year.

When the good times roll and there are plenty of jobs and homes for everyone, it’s easy to be nice

Half of those dealing with the public had experienced abuse in the past six months, a 4% rise, and 27% had been physically attacked. Legislation allowing stronger penalties for abusers was one of the new policies. A plan to restrict access to some services for "vexatious" customers was announced last month.

The frontline workers have to deal with an added layer of emotional legwork just to get the job done. In support of the Work Without Fear initiative, Bradley said it was hard to hear people hope their children will die. Undy described the months of abuse unleashed on her and the other staff as draining, frustrating and insulting. When the customer's insurance policy was canceled, he was asked to sign a community resolution form by the police, which he did willingly.

According to Michael Muthu Krishna, associate professor of economic psychology at the London School of Economics, violence has been on the decline for a long time. It looks a lot better than it has in the past. In recent years, loneliness and mental health problems have eroded confidence and resilience, only to face recession and climate change. During the Pandemic, empty supermarket shelves, medical shortages, and petrol pumps running dry were some of the things we experienced. Many people have been tipped into poverty due to the cost of living crisis I was able to continue.

"Anything that increases stress is going to increase your anger and frustration, and your likelihood to lashes out at someone." It might be enough to explain what happened during the Pandemic.

Angry Britain illustration

Illustration: Sam Peet/The Guardian

The economic explanation is also pointed out by behavioural science. It's easy to be nice when there are lots of jobs and homes. There are things that piss you off, like when someone slips into that space. You just find another space if there are lots of places. When there are enough places to go around, there's no reason to have broken bones. He says that this is a positive-sum environment where success doesn't hurt your ability to do well.

When economic growth slows, he says, "other people's success is predictor of your failure." This changes the dynamic. You are going to see road rage if you have been driving for 30 minutes and you finally see a parking space. Abuse continues to rise even as we try to get back to normal. People are not sure what's going to happen. It has been difficult for many people. We are going through more systemic shifts where it looks like the Pandemic has triggered some more longstanding zero-sum psychological environments where the competition moves from being productive to destructive.

The World Economic Forum's global risks report shows that this dark behavioural trend was already in motion before the global financial crisis. One of the risks to global businesses is due to the decline in human empathy. There is a new phenomenon of people feeling disconnected and isolated due to technology and urbanisation. In the top 30 chart of risks, there is a category called "profound social instability."

A Transport for London ‘Don’t take it out on our staff’ poster at a bus stop

A Transport for London ‘Don’t take it out on our staff’ poster at a bus stop. Photograph: LDNPix/Alamy

It's possible that the dehumanising effects of online communication have trickled down to the streets, along with the extreme, polarising and reductive effects of online payments. "The internet allows us to form new tribes along the lines of whatever we happen to be interested in or believe, and those new tribes are shaping our societies in ways that we are still coming to terms with," says Muthu Krishna. Any small group of people can start to advocate for their interests. It is true of lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer groups. It is true of Arab spring groups, but it is also true of white supremacist groups. It may be a good thing in the long run, but it is fundamentally destabilizing.

We are in for a tough few years, according to Muthu Krishna. We are not powerless to stop rage. The ride will be a smooth one if we are prepared for it. Zero-sum psychology is when a situation where people's expectations are not met is created. He says that a great human strength is that we can adapt to different levels of comfort. He suggests that being prepared for the circumstances ahead might make people realise that we are all in this together. There are underlying things that have to be addressed if that is not true.

‘The impact of verbal abuse on individuals is not insignificant.’

‘The impact of verbal abuse on individuals is not insignificant.’ Photograph: vm/Getty Images

There is an effect on the social media site. It's the Fomo's fear of missing out that causes it. Ten million people are looking at that person in Mauritius, and they feel very dissatisfied. Research shows that if your commute takes you through neighbourhoods that are wealthier than your own, you are more dissatisfied than if it takes you through neighbourhoods that are worse than yours. There is no harm in reducing our exposure to such deflating stimuli if we know that many of the so-called best lives are false.

It's important to spread the word that being nasty to people who are trying to do their job only makes things worse. According to Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service, if we abuse staff, who are already working under increased pressure, they might quit, too. She says that the effects of verbal abuse on those working from home takes a toll. Some people have dealt with this on their own. The impact on individuals is not insignificant if you take a lot of contact centre calls. It continues to build. There has been a rise in people saying that they don't know if they will stay on and a rise in sickness as well.

If people feel socially anxious, that could turn into frustration and anger
Gillian Sandstrom, University of Sussex

In early July, Edinburgh airport had to temporarily close its customer service line because it was flooded with angry customers trying to get their luggage back. The phone lines have been temporarily suspended in order to allow our teams to work through a lot of airport queries and to protect them from verbal abuse.

If staff don't resign, they won't be able to provide a good service or diffuse a heated situation. Most people in customer-facing roles care and want to do the right thing. They like to have a conversation with someone in the shop to make sure they are doing well.

Recognising how cheering and trust-building these random daily exchanges with strangers can be can be used in the fight against abusive behavior. Most of her time is spent talking to strangers or researching what happens when we do something. She conducted a study in which she found that after talking to a stranger online, people felt more comfortable with other people. It can give people the benefit of the doubt and change how you think about other people.

A ‘Respect goes both ways’ sign in a Nationwide building society window in Windsor.

A ‘Respect goes both ways’ sign in a Nationwide building society window in Windsor. Photograph: Maureen McLean/Alamy

If you initiate a pleasant interaction with a stranger, you might just jump-start their trust in their fellow humans, and send a beautiful cascade of goodwill through the community.

Sandstrom said it doesn't take long to build a habit. The more you train yourself to think about the other person, the more you'll be able to remember that they are also human. It's because it feels like a big effort at the beginning. We all have to exert conscious effort to take another person's perspective into account. A tense exchange is something that is going to happen if we don't try to do that.

These precious friendly encounters that people once took for granted, were one of the things we lost during the lock downs, and it doesn't take a leap of imagination to see how that could have fed into those abusive situations. She says that if people feel socially anxious, that could cause them to become frustrated and angry.

There are other ways to get people to empathise with one another. Sandstrom says research shows that reading fiction can help people feel better about themselves. To avoid being dehumanised by others who are disconnected, we need to be more individual. She says to wear something that expresses your individuality.

She says that talking to strangers makes people feel more connected. I think that is because you are showing someone that they are not the same as everyone else. We live in an individualism that makes us feel like we are against the world. It's important that we feel like we're not alone, that we're connected to other people, and that other people are ok.

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