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“When you perceive yourself as a customer, it is possible that you are less able to view others (service personnel) as independent persons with feelings,” says Huy Tran.

We become less polite when we are shopping

A new study exposes how our behaviour changes when we buy stuff.

“A common perception within the field of marketing is that businesses should treat their customers like kings or queens. Unfortunately, this does not mean that they are rewarded with friendly and grateful customers,” says Huy Tran, a Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of South-Eastern Norway.

He has spent the past few years studying what happens to us when we want to buy something from someone. On 13 December 2021, he publicly defended his doctoral degree and his findings.

“Something happens to us when we are buying something from others,” says Huy Tran.

Five clear negative outcomes

Huy Tran has identified five clear negative outcomes:

  1. We are more likely to act rudely towards employees and service staff due to increased expectations regarding our entitlements.
  2. We view the persons who serve us as objects instead of people.
  3. We are less concerned about the people around us.
  4. We are less able to forgive other people based on an understanding of who they are as persons.
  5. We are less polite in written communications.

Dysfunctional behaviour

You may perhaps have noticed this yourself? Something happens to us when we are buying something from others. We don't always talk to the staff in a shop in the same way we talk to our friends or family. There is something about the role of customer that means that we take on different expectations and requirements, which naturally vary from person to person. Some people change their character so far that they become unkind and unpleasant.

“The study has shown that at the very moment you step into the role of customer, you may start demonstrating a more dysfunctional behaviour. This can be perceived purely and simply as rudeness by the persons serving you, either in a shop or online,” says Huy Tran.

He has heard numerous stories about how such dysfunctional behaviour among customers can cause stress and fatigue syndrome among the people who provide them with a service.

“A recent example is from the American TV channel CNBC. In 2021, they published an article about airline employees in the U.S. who were requesting harsher penalties for difficult passengers. They had to go as far as asking for help from the authorities, because the problem had become so significant.”

Subtle hints – that feel uncomfortable

Former research has already shown how some customers who are high and mighty become crass and demanding. Huy Trans’ research project is innovative in that he has also uncovered relatively subtle changes in behaviour that he describes as ‘a bit excessive.’

Subtle behavioural nuances that are perhaps not dramatic enough to be noticed by other customers, can nonetheless be uncomfortable for persons working in the service industry.

“When you perceive yourself as a customer, it is possible that you are less able to view others (service personnel) as independent persons with feelings,” says Huy Tran.

As a customer, you focus more on yourself than others, are more demanding and more likely to act more rudely to others.

“Overall, this can have a considerably negative impact on those who work in the service industry, and it can also harm your own self-esteem when you notice that you are less respectful in such contexts,” says Tran.

Carried out experiments

Huy Tran carried out five scientific studies to identify what happens to us the moment we take on the role of customer.

He carried out a series of experiments, starting by dividing the participants into groups. The group members were assigned identities, such as customer, while the others were assigned either an alternative identity (such as guest) or had no form of special identity manipulation.

Subsequently, different scenarios were described to the participants, or they were asked to react to various presentations that had been developed. The goal was to record differences in the propensity for dysfunctional/rude behaviour.

More self-centered as a customer

The main findings were that those who perceived themselves as customers responded dysfunctionally to a greater extent than the others, by:

1. Being more willing to behave rudely in service situations.

This was measured by asking the participants to evaluate the behaviour of fictional persons in different scenarios, an indication of the extent to which they themselves would behave in the same say in a similar situation.

2. Associating certain types of service staff with less attractive characteristics than other persons.

This was measured by means of an association test where the reaction time was shorter when service staff were associated with characteristics such as ‘easy to replace’, ‘have instrumental significance’, ‘defenceless’, ‘easy to exploit’ than when they were associated with more positive qualities such as ‘creative’, ‘independent’, ‘sensitive’, ‘committed.’

3. Demanding higher compensation for errors made by service staff.

This was measured by asking participants to specify what they thought was reasonable compensation after being overcharged by a shop assistant and having to wait a few minutes for a refund after the error was discovered.

4. Showing a tendency to focus on themselves to a greater extent than on the people around them.

This was measured by asking the participants to choose which pronouns they thought were hidden behind specific words in text in an unknown language (a language only used in the Star Trek universe, which cannot be translated in Google Translate. Those who identified as customers were more likely to assume that the words were in the first-person singular rather than the first-person plural. This is an established method by which to measure ‘me vs. others – focus.’

5. Expressing themselves more rudely in written communication with a service employee. (This was measured via machine learning — analysis of emails participants wrote to a fictional librarian to reserve a book.) The analyses classified the language in the emails sent by those who had been assigned identity as a customer as ruder when compared with the others.

What can we learn from these findings?

“Not only is this obviously something we should all keep in mind when we are acting as a customer, it can also be useful knowledge for all businesses. It may not be that smart to reinforce the traditional role of the customer, as this can be instrumental in creating such negative consequences. Instead, try giving customers a different kind of identity, such as ‘guest’, ‘partner’ or ‘student’,” says Huy Tran.


Tran, Huy Quoc: Customer identity and dysfunctional behaviours: the case of impoliteness. University of South-Eastern Norway, USN School of Business, 2021.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

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