Dear Dad Who Was Waiting in Line at Panera,
It was pretty crazy in Panera at lunchtime yesterday. A ballet recital had just ended at the theater across the street, and a crush of unexpected people descended on Panera. The people who worked there were running way behind on just about every order. It was irritating. It was maddening. Some might even say infuriating.
You were hungry. Your kids were probably hungry too, although they were not acting like the lunatics that mine act like when mine are hungry. Yeah, your kids were fine. You were the one acting like the lunatic.
I first noticed you when you started speaking very loudly and rudely to the employees preparing the lunches. “I want my food NOW,” you demanded and smacked your hand on the counter. Then, as meals came up, you found mistakes. You barked out, “Remake this. Reheat this. Redo this. Do it NOW. I said NOW.”
The more you berated and blustered and criticized, the more the manager sweated and fumbled and the more his workers messed up.
You are a paying customer, and you have every right to expect and receive accurately prepared meals within a reasonable time frame. I have no issue with your criticisms, just with your behavior..
Your demeanor, tone of voice, and choice of phrases painted a picture of someone who suffers from an excess of entitlement. You were acting like the guy who bullies people to get his way. It was clear that you see yourself as important and you saw the employees at Panera as idiots who should be serving you better.
Your tween boys stood beside you in their soccer uniforms, watching, learning, and absorbing every minute of the whole disaster. You looked at them and raised your eyebrows and nodded as you addressed the situation, letting them know that this is how to respond when things don’t go your way.
There was an older woman standing next to me. She was the worst kind of bystander. She looked at me and nodded in agreement towards you, adding, “These people working here can’t get anything right.”
Hell no, I’m not joining in the rant against “these people.”
I told her, “There is never an excuse to treat people so rudely. He is being horrible.”
She was startled and started to defend you. “Well, he may be having a bad day.”
You know what? She is right. Maybe you are. My guess is that you are probably a really involved dad. I’m sure there are times when you act like a great guy. And maybe you are so accustomed to people at work doing your bidding that you don’t have a lot of patience for errors. But there is never an excuse for treating others as if they have no value. It’s how we behave when we are pissed off that shows our true beliefs.
As I watched you continue to intimidate the Panera employees, I felt really angry. Shaky angry. Like, so angry that I was ready to tell you off. And as my own hot little temper prepared to explode, I suddenly remembered a discussion that I had held earlier in the week with a group of high school juniors at Evanston Township High School.
We had been analyzing bystander behavior. The students told me that they believed the best way to stand up to bullying is by fighting the bully and smacking him down. I suggested to them that they should focus less on attacking the attacker and more on supporting the target. I cited research from the Youth Voice Project, where thousands of kids who have been bullied said it was more likely to make things better when bystanders offered them support, but it was more likely to make things worse when bystanders confronted the attackers.
The kids spoke with me about how hard it is not to lash out and attack the attackers when they are in the heat of anger. And here was my chance to put myself in the position of the kids I counsel. If I told you to stop being so rude, what did I think would happen? Did I really think you would say, Oh, wow, you are right. I am being an a-hole to these people, and I am really sorry. Chances are, you would lash out at me, furious that I dared to comment on your boorish behavior. The situation would probably escalate.
So I chose not to confront you. It was not easy. You received your food and stalked off. But I felt uncomfortable with myself, because doing nothing is not the answer either. Everyone in line was just looking away, pretending that nothing had happened.
I thought about how I always tell kids that they can offer support to a target at any time, not just in the moment of an attack. So I walked up to the counter. I tapped the manager on the arm, and he looked at me, beads of sweat on his brow. I told him I was sorry about how you had treated him and that it was unacceptable for a customer to be so rude. I told him that I could see he and his employees were working hard.
He asked me if we had received our order yet. I told him we had not. It was a large order – three children’s meals and four adult’s meals—and he took my receipt and handed it over the counter to one of his employees and said, “Make this one next.” Given that we had to be back at the theater for yet another dance recital in twenty-five minutes, I was happy to accept his kindness.
It’s been over twenty-four hours. My jaw still tightens when I think about how you treated the employees. I’m still uncertain as to whether or not I should have said something to you directly. There is a fine line between minding my own damn business and calling you out on mistreatment of others. I cannot say with confidence whether confronting you would have been appropriate bystander behavior or obnoxiously judgey. Or both. I may never know.
But I do know that offering some empathy to the manager and his employees was a safe way to take action. I’ll remember this. I’ll remember you, too, and I’m hoping that you were just super hangry. Your boys seem to be nice kids, so I’m rooting for them. And for you. I hope you do better.
Want to learn more about my approach to bullying? Check out my award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.