We've all heard the mantra: The customer is always right. It's something that is ingrained in our minds when entering the customer service industry. It's also a phrase patrons tend to use as ammo to justify a reaction or overreaction.

Patricia Little has had her fair share of rude encounters over the years. She worked in Saskatoon's restaurant industry as a full-time server for four years. During that time, she said one incident of bad customer behaviour stuck out the most.

"I was at a table and we were out of something as sometimes restaurants are," she recounted. 

Patricia Little

Patricia Little has had her fair share of rude encounters over the four years she was employed as a full-time server. (Submitted by Patricia Little)

"It was a breakfast restaurant and I think it was like the turkey hash.... This couple acted like we were out of eggs and was just like, 'What do you mean you're out of the turkey?'"

She said their frustrations soon turned to shouting, calling Little an embarrassment. During this time, Little just stood at the table in silence.

"That's what you have to do when you're serving," she said.

Silence is a move Matthew Grella has also adopted when faced with disrespectful customers. For the past 10 years, he has waited tables off and on in the Bridge City.

He said customers are hard to read because a positive experience could go wrong with just one mistake.

"One time I had a really, really enjoyable experience with a couple of guests who I was serving and it had gone really well right from the beginning," he said.

That all changed when he brought them the bill.

matthew grella

Matthew Grella has worked in Saskatoon's restaurant industry for the past 10 years. (Submitted by Matthew Grella)

"I was taking other payments and noticed they'd had a card on the table when I shifted my perspective — it was a little hidden. I went over to the table and finally was taking their payment … and got a lot of really sarcastic comments about how long it had taken me to get over there."

He said the sarcastic wrath continued as the customer berated him about his poor service skills. After he made an attempt at an apology, Grella decided to complete the transaction in silence.

"There was literally nothing that I could do to make her happy at that point," he said.

"It shakes you. You carry that with you and it's just like, 'Was I really that bad that I deserved to be spoken to like that?'"

Social dominance and behaviour

So, why do some people feel the need to act the way they do and say the things they do?

According to Melanie Morrison, a psychology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, when it comes to demeaning and disrespectful behaviour there are three contingents.

'If it's something surrounding the food or the environment or something, then you can ask for some changes.' - Melanie Morrison, University of Saskatchewan psychology professor

The first deals with issues of social dominance. This includes those that are dominant in society believing that they truly deserve to be more powerful and dominant over others.

Morrison said these are people that are often the leaders in an organization with underlings lower on a hierarchically structure.

"There's still that belief that they have a socially dominant position, they have more power over this individual and they'll treat them in a demeaning way because of that."

The second contingent includes the slightly marginalized groups that don't occupy socially dominant positions in society.

Power trip

"When they go into a restaurant, they can exact power. They can become somebody who has been given a bit of power over a server in that moment," she said.

"They can treat them in a demeaning way and be powerful in that environment because the conditions allow them to be."

Lastly, the third contingent includes people who are flat out impolite and it doesn't connect to a sense of power at all, she said. People who fall into this group are just inherently rude.

Morrison said people who are more empathetic with server's mistakes are generally those who have had previous experience in the restaurant industry.

"There's nothing wrong with having expectations," she said.

"If it's something surrounding the food or the environment or something, then you can ask for some changes. That would be OK, but look realistically. Take a breath. Think about it. Look realistically at the server — is that the server's fault?"