Systemic Discourtesy

I spent more than 17 hours on the phone over a three-week span between Thanksgiving and Christmas with a company’s representatives. (So, how were your holidays?) The first call was 3 ½ hours on hold followed by a 30-minute conversation to make the purchase I intended. Due to a series of errors made by the representative in that call, I made 18 additional calls totalling more than 13 hours in order to rectify those errors. (I also emailed and even Twitter direct-messaged the company, with no response.) Had I given up, I would have been out a significant sum of money. 

Now, one of this company’s core values is courtesy, and of all the representatives I spoke with, not one was discourteous. In fact, with the exception of one average representative, everyone I spoke with was extremely courteous. They were, almost to a person, among the most delightful, polite and energetic phone representatives I have ever spoken with. And yet their system was anything but courteous: obviously, there were interminable hold times, but there was much more. Their attempts to escalate my call to the right department repeatedly dumped me back into the same entry-level, can’t help queue. When their automated call-back feature was activated, so I wouldn’t have to listen to the hold music I had long-since memorized, the callbacks got rerouted from the escalation queue back to the entry-level queue. When I was given a phone number for the escalation team, it went to a phone tree with four options, none of which could get me to the escalation team. And none of my emails/DMs were returned, besides an auto-reply.

I raise this for a reason. We hear a lot about systemic biases; some people talk about systemic racism, while others talk about systemic biases in mainstream media against traditional values. And often, those who oppose the people making those claims of systemic bias react by saying “Well, that can’t be, because *I’m* not biased.” In fact, people usually equate a charge of systemic bias with an accusation that they and every other person who participates and/or supports that system is a bigot.

What I learned from my recent phone travails is that individuals can act with extreme courtesy in an extremely discourteous system. I would argue, at least in this case, that even the most discourteous elements of the system I encountered were likely designed not by people hoping to produce discourtesy, but by people who were trying their best to be courteous. They just were blind to the unintended consequences.

Now, you can find voices who believe that the biases embedded in our systems are intentional and that their defenders are in fact bigots. In our culture, the loudest voices tend to find the mic. But systems can be biased even if their inhabitants, designers, and fans are not.

So, what to do? I would argue that it’s necessary but insufficient to avoid being “THAT guy,” the one who wasn’t particularly courteous. We should avoid being that guy, but we should know that even being the epitome of unbiased won’t fix a biased system that we’re in.  We should focus on changing the system.  I think that’s why people differentiate between “not being racist” and being “anti-racist”.

Me? I have realized that shame isn’t a great tool for change. When I have resorted to shaming others, I have felt myself becoming a worse person, and I seldom see improvement from those I want to change. I’ve written to the company’s president to offer my story and point out the flaws in the company’s system, which may not be successful, but provides me a way to change a discourteous system without making me a worse person. Because the way to address systemic biases is to change systems.

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