I don't necessarily make a habit of watching Oprah, as I have many conflicting feelings about her. But I saw one show in the past few months about rudeness, and was alarmed at some of the behaviors exhibited (by hidden-camera footage) of restaurant diners and gas station patrons.
One convenience store clerk was interviewed, and she wept as she admitted that so many of her customers don't even make eye contact with her, don't even bother to respond to "Hello" or "How are you?" She said she feels as though she is less than human.
Approximately ten years ago, I worked in a video store.
One night after work, as I gave a ride home to a co-worker, she talked about how one man had treated her that evening, berated her in front of other customers and humiliated her, all because of something that turned out to be his mistake. (He'd placed the wrong movie in the wrong case.)
My co-worker, exasperated by the whole situation, asked me, "I know this is a peon job, but I still deserve respect, right?"
Unable to find a job in my field after graduating from college, I took a job at Panera Bread, and as a new trainee, I was sometimes treated very poorly by impatient, annoyed customers who made snide, none-too-subtle comments about my job performance (or lack thereof).
I had a college psychology professor, Dr. Mark Cosgrove, who talked about sometimes seeing a student sleeping through his lectures, and how sometimes it's very tempting to single out or embarrass that student, or judge them. But, he said, "I have to remember that there is a person and a world behind that sleeping student, and I need to be sensitive to that."
I have held on to that sentiment, and have attempted to carry it through my life as a guide to interacting with people.
Naturally, I do not follow it perfectly, and I still have many moments of insensitivity and carelessness.
But if a server takes an extra few minutes to refill my water, I remember to think, maybe they're having a rough night. Maybe her boss yelled at her, maybe he's covering for someone else who's sick, maybe s/he's not feeling well.
Or maybe serving in a restaurant is not his/her strongest skill, but s/he had to take this job to support their family.
And could I do their job any better?
I seriously doubt it.
I'm absent-minded and forgetful, not to mention very clumsy and accident-prone.
I try to be patient with those who serve me; bank tellers, restaurant workers, mechanics, movie theatre ushers, convenience store and grocery clerks, etc., because I have been in their position, and I know that when one spends all day dealing with the general public, a little tenderness and sensitivity will go a long, long way.
There were other customers I met while working at Panera, too.
One day when the computer system kept failing, making it nearly impossible to take and fill orders in a prompt and correct manner, one young couple with a cute little baby came through my line. I was very honest with them about the circumstances, noticeably flustered, and must have looked as though I might crumble before their eyes.
I offered to deliver their coffee drinks to their table, and when I did, they regarded me with warm, compassionate smiles, and as I walked back to the counter, the man followed me, grabbed my shoulder, and slipped a five-dollar bill into my palm.
"Hang in there," he said, "I know you're doing your best."