The Meddler, I

I don’t like getting angry. I don’t like losing my temper. In the first place, it makes me feel like I failed, and in the second place, I’m a little too good at being angry. I’m really scary. So I let it happen very little.

On Wednesday of last week, I almost completely lost my temper at work (bad enough), and in front of a guest (even worse, in my opinion), Bee, and in front of two of my students (setting a bad example). I apologized to them all, several times, later. Luckily (maybe because I was not wearing any purple pants?), I did not lose it entirely but my internal temperature was really very high indeed by the end of the incident.

travel coffee mugWhat was the matter? You’re possibly going to think that this is an insignificant matter, but I don’t agree. We all went for coffee to one the (usually excellent, with usually very good staff) cafes on campus, and as usual I brought along my own coffee cup. I do that a lot, primarily since it means that I do not use any paper cups as a result, and secondarily because it keeps the coffee warmer for longer, is close to spill-proof, and is much nicer to drink from. I’ve been doing this for years. The routine is usually this: I ask for a small coffee, they hand me a small coffee cup, I smile and say I already have a cup and hand it back, I pay for the coffee, and I pour myself a small coffee and leave. It’s not always in that order, but it is close enough.

This time, I asked for a small coffee, and indicated that I’d have it in my cup, as usual. The staff member said it was a “medium”, and so I’d have to pay for a medium. I explained to her that I don’t want that much coffee, I’d like a small, please. I told her that I will not fill up the cup. I never do. She ignored me and turned to her manager and asked him what size he thought my cup was. He said it was a medium. I tried to explain to him. He did not listen, and left. She insisted that I must get a medium.

I took a deep breath and stepped out of the line, deciding to just not have a cup of coffee rather than argue the principle, risking getting more than a little ticked off. It is not the extra 10 cents that bothered me. What bothered me was (1) that I’ve been doing this for years, (2) that they would not even listen to a simple explanation, (3) that -worst of all- I could simply have bought a small coffee with the cup they would give to me and then pour the coffee into my own cup and then throw away the cup (or hand it back them them to make the point).

After a minute or two I decided to reengage. The principle was just too important to let go – and how come they were decided that customers -the faculty, students, and staff that (as a university service department) they exist to serve – are so untrustworthy that they cannot trust them to pour a small into a medium-sized cup? How come I am being denied the choice to have a small cup of coffee? I asked to see a manager, and the server said he’d left. But some other manager-type came along and we argued for a while, and he still was not listening. He eventually let her sell me a small – presumably because it was looking pretty bad and there were several people waiting, and not because he could see the point I was trying to make. By now, I was simply explaining to him that a basic rule of customer service ought not to be that you tell the customers to their face that you are assuming that they will steal ten cents worth of coffee from you in front of your face. (He’d used that they don’t want to trust customers as the reason for the whole thing starting.) I’d given up on the environmental point entirely. So the argument ended with me seeing red and simply pointing and repeating “basic customer service, sir!” “basic customer service!, sir!” at him… There’s no way on earth that ever makes one look anything other than a jerk. Especially with an English accent, in such a setting. Sigh. I hate it when that happens.

Anyway, I forced myself to become cheerful as rapidly as I could -since I was in company- apologized as much as I could and we moved on. On Thursday I got to thinking about this again. Was it an anomaly or not? If this is now campus policy, this really is not a good thing. Do the people who are making policy on campus really think this is the way to go, both from a customer service point of view and from the point of view of our environmental footprint as the largest private organisation in the city of Los Angeles? Perhaps it was just an anomaly. I decided to test this, so I asked a student of mine -who has a similar coffee cup- to ask for a small coffee the next time he visited and let me know what happens. The same thing happened. They required him to have a medium coffee.

Of course, you realize, this means War.*


(This story will continue in a later post…)

*In the words of Bugs Bunny (channeling Groucho Marx).

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13 Responses to The Meddler, I

  1. ruidh says:

    I would have just taken their cup and poured it into my larger cup. Yes, I know it needlessly wastes a paper cup. But that is a small price to pay to avoid idiocy.

  2. Moshe says:

    At UBC they have a measuring cup they’ll use to pour whatever size coffee into whichever cup you are using. They also charge 10 cents less if you bring your own cup, and they sell those nice reusable cups that look a lot like the one in the picture. So, where there is a will there’s a way…

  3. Clifford says:

    Yes, Moshe! Thanks. This is my central point. We can do better. I can just sit back and accept the status quo, or I can try to help to change it. I chose the latter. See the next post on this.



  4. Jude says:

    One of the only times I went to McDonald’s (I’m a vegetarian, so it’s not a place I frequent), they handed me the food in a bag, even though I was eating in the restaurant. I complained. They explained that all food was delivered that way.

    I’m disheartened lately by watching people I used to feel neutral about (or respect) throw away aluminum cans, which in my town can be donated to benefit senior citizens.

    I’ll never shop at Barnes & Noble again because the clerk refused to give me the educator’s discount because I’m a librarian, not a classroom teacher.

    So yes, Clifford, this was a small thing, but the principle (basic customer service) isn’t.

  5. Francis Caestecker says:

    Oh, I hate how these big multi-nationals don’t respect customer-service at all. Not so long ago, I was walking into a fastfood restaurant, and after standing in line for quite some time, I ordered some menu “to go”. The lady came back, and put it on the plateau. I repeated: “Excuse me, but it’s to go, please.” She looked at me, as if I was some stupid young punk: “Hey, you could have said that in advance!” I was really pissed then, especially since I said it in advance, and if I didn’t, she still didn’t have the right to treat me that way. We have a saying in Belgium: the client is king. I feel like this get’s disrespected more and more, especially in fastfood restaurants. I’m not expecting to get pampered, but rudeness crosses the line. However, I told her I said it in advance, and she apologized.


  6. Carl Brannen says:

    I have a certain amount of sympathy to the people who find themselves working in fast food and coffee joints, so I’ve been able to keep myself calm when talking to them. I would just pay the extra 10 cents. But it’s not that I (or anyone else) never gets pissed off. I’d tell more but I’m too ashamed. Being a good apologizer is a good thing.

    As it turns out I also am avoiding Barnes and Noble, but because of their program where you have to pay for a card to get a discount. I get free discount cards at the supermarket and I will Roast in Hell before I either (a) pay for a card that gives a company monopoly rights to my (voluminous) book purchases or (b) pay more for books than other people at such a store. Fortunately, I managed to make this point calmly to the poor folks who have to work at that nasty place.

  7. candace says:

    My goodness, I remember that cup.

    I confess that I am a very confrontational person by nature — half of the time to my detriment and half of the time I get things accomplished because of it. Still, I am trying more and more to keep my fists of rage and fury under control at all times.

    But you know what? I would be fucked off about this, too. And I have to say (hem hem) I am actually quite impressed that you were so confrontational about it since the usual limp Eenglish reaction is to tsk, mumble an apology, and slink away in no particular order. Sometimes being a jerk is justified: the customer is in no way always right, but in this case I think you were.

    I look forward to seeing a creative solution! Justice will prevail!

  8. Clifford says:

    Candace… the English would say that I’ve “gone native”.

    Preparing follow-up post right now…


  9. Pingback: The Meddler, II - Asymptotia

  10. Gordon Pasha says:


    remember the variant of Murphy’s law that goes “Never argue with a fool,
    people may not know who’s who”


  11. Clifford says:

    That’s brilliant!! …I’d not heard that one, but it makes perfect sense….



  12. anonymous snowboarder says:

    As a regular at a local (east coast) bagel shop for quite a few years I can toss this out to you:

    1) working the counter at these types of places is a thankless job. Try paying attention to the way people order/re-order/change their minds for a few weeks. And then these same people get really irate if the person serving them “screwed up” their order!

    2) these people don’t make a lot and generally are treated poorly. I know I’m a bit of a whacko but every year I get a dozen of the really small bottles of champagne(ish) stuff for the counter crew at new years. Tipping is not always practical but even just learning the names of the people serving you if you are a regular is a nice touch.

    3) in regards the small/medium cup thing. while you are certainly well intentioned and an honest person – many people are not. I have watched people who drive very expensive cards take sodas from the cooler, put them on a table with their jackets, go to the counter to order food and never mention or pay for the sodas. The store owner knows this happens and has a difficult situation – accuse them of theft or just being forgetful? Needless to say he tries to keep track of who he has caught pulling this stunt.

    So while I do sympathize with your (and others) points, the reaction on the other side can also be a result of us buyers too.

  13. Clifford says:

    Thanks… but I don’t agree that this is an entirely analogous situation (in the aspects that count). First, you’re pouring the coffee right under their noses next to the checkout… and second, we’re talking about 10c here… and third, this is not entirely a commercial business for its own sake, this is a service department of a huge university… and fourth, as I’ve said before you should not run a business in a way that assumes that your customers are stealing from you. If you are worried about them mis-measuring the coffee, simply pour the coffee yourself and hand it to them (I hate that business of just giving you the cup to do it yourself anyway…. really annoying, but I accept it.)