Politeness Theory and the Millennial Style of Customer Service
Everyone knows that customer service is changing. What was once an important, human component of a company has now become the territory of a site like Amazon, which beats out traditional service with something as inhuman as algorithms. But what’s the real causal factor here – what changed our preferences to be so … anti-interaction?
The more we started talking about this at Zeus Jones, the more I started thinking back to something I learned about in linguistics class. In linguistics, you study every dynamic that happens in a conversation, from words that are used exclusively to kill time (like, um, well …) to phrases that “negotiate toward silence,” like “It’s getting late” or “Let me read over that for awhile.” (Have you ever noticed that some people don’t have that skill, and would seemingly keep a conversation going forever? That’s another story …)
What I was thinking back to was something called Politeness Theory, created by Penelope Brown & Stephen Levison. Politeness Theory studies the power dynamics in conversations, particularly what they call “face-threatening acts.” Face is the public self-image that everyone is trying to project, and there are two types: Positive Face and Negative Face.
This is related to self-esteem. It’s the interactions we have with others that make us feel valued, understood and related to positively.
Ignoring someone threatens positive face.
This is related to freedom. It’s the desire to be uninterrupted, unimpeded by others, free of distraction.
Bothering someone threatens negative face.
Basically, digital culture has done something somewhat paradoxical – it has allowed us to create rich interactions and form deep relationships, while preserving our negative face. For example, a 17-year-old might be sitting in their parents’ basement, eating chips in their pajama pants, and developing a close romantic relationship on iChat.
We have grown attached to this ability to socialize within our own private bubble, to interact on our own terms and to take advantage of the nature of chat and email to take more time thinking about what we say. We aren’t as used to in-person or phone conversations with strangers, and they take us more by surprise. That’s why we like to deal with customer service issues over email, or investigate products we might like in the peace of our own home, by ourselves.
Beyond that, young people often feel like they are the submissive party in conversations with salespeople, who tend to assume they don’t have as much money as older people or might steal or make trouble in the store.
Brown and Levison list some of the interactions that threaten negative face, and many of them are the exact ones that happen to us in a retail setting:
• Pressure to perform an act (orders, warnings, advice). For example, “That shirt would look great on you.”
• An unsolicited comment on their identity (compliment, expression of affection). “Where did you get that bag? I love it.”
• Mention of a future act or agreement between people (offers, promises). “Just so you know, everything in that section is 20% off.”
As young people are increasingly jaded or bothered by these types of exchanges, it’s worth thinking about a new role for customer service. Negative face is just one component of politeness – people don’t want to be ignored either. Rather than perpetuating the idea of an “aggressive salesperson,” how can you relieve employees of the pressure to recite a script or spew out selling tactics and empower them to do something more?
One solution would be to think of employees as teachers or curators, who can find interesting editorial ways to make your selection navigable to your customers, and provide context that makes it meaningful. The solution that works the best for the growing populace will be one that uses the strengths of both digital and human interactions to create better experiences. This starts with having a smarter website, but extends into the way a company treats their employees. Rather than thinking of them as hard sellers on the floor, giving them opportunities to grow their role by making service more content-rich and educational will excite them, and come off as more authentic to your customers.