The Importance of Being Karen in America
We have all witnessed it. Maybe you saw it at a department store, maybe you saw it at a restaurant, or maybe even the supermarket. If you tried to explain it to your friends, you would most likely struggle to convey the exact feeling of discomfort that you felt at the scene. They would nevertheless know exactly what you are talking about, having encountered the same thing at some point, and having felt equally uncomfortable about it. Thankfully, the internet and collective imaginations of the many uncomfortable witnesses have agreed on a name for this phenomenon: Karen.
It is easy for us to hate the Karens of the world. When we see an unfortunate cashier getting yelled at simply for explaining Walmart’s 90-day return policy we cannot help but sympathize with the cashier and look at Karen with the utmost contempt. When we see Karen making a scene at the lineup of the food court McDonald’s because there were pickles in her cheeseburger when she asked for no pickles, belittling the server and demanding to speak to the manager, all we would like to do is throw that cheeseburger in Karen’s face. However, if we are to ever understand this kind of behaviour, and perhaps even find a solution to it, we must think about this issue more critically and search deeper.
In 1909, Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of the London-based department store Selfridge’s, for better or for worse, coined the phrase “The Customer is Always Right”. This phrase has since become one of the central commandments of Western (particularly, North American) business philosophy and consumer culture — and might just have planted the seed that would eventually grow into become the Karen Phenomenon we know today. Selfridge’s maxim meant that no matter how outrageous the demand, or how unreasonable the expectation, the business should comply so that they do not lose a customer or damage their client base due to any bad publicity because of an unhappy customer. Thou shalt not refuse thy consumer.
In many ways Harry Selfridge is the ideal figure to help explain the origins of the Karen so many of us fear and loathe, as he represents the meeting-point for two quite different consumer cultures. Selfridge was originally from the United States and later, when his circumstances improved as he rose through the ranks of the retail industry, he was able to move to England and establish Selfridge’s, the chain of high-end department stores operating throughout the United Kingdom. So, in a way he really was responsible for bringing some of that entitled-customer mentality over to Europe.
Despite Selfridge’s attempts at transplanting this more vulgar brand of consumer culture to Europe, the fact remains that the large majority of Europeans continue to have a very different attitude toward the marketplace and face-to-face business transactions. Louis Hartz’s “Fragment Theory” can help to explain a lot of this. In the Founding of New Societies (1964), Hartz laid out the origins of former European colonies and proposed that their current political ideologies had developed and evolved differently than those of their European mother countries due to the absence of various aspects of traditional European culture. According to him, these new societies are then best thought of as fragments of their European origins — having kept some parts of the former culture, while leaving others behind. While Hartz was focused mostly on political culture, there is no reason to think that his idea would not extend to the realm of consumer culture and business etiquette as well — as both of these are integral to the economic system of any society.
It is important to explain the ways in which the former European colonies developed different consumer cultures, and what allowed the Karen phenomenon to emerge in North America. It starts with considering the differences in geography. North America is a huge place, geographically speaking. As Hartz points out, America was able to embrace the liberal worldview and continue developing due to its vast space and abundance of resources. There was more than enough free space for new entrepreneurs to settle and create businesses, that could eventually expand and become chains. With hard work and ingenuity, we saw the growth of McDonald’s, Walmart, Macy’s, and countless other businesses we continue to rely on today as consumers. Naturally, as these businesses grew they displaced smaller local enterprises who were not as competitive and took over both the economic and physical landscapes; the chains of command within the businesses grew longer and longer, and the distance between the consumer and shopkeeper became greater and greater, to the point where store managers today have simply become messengers for the head offices.
Things are slightly different on the other side of the Atlantic. While native chain stores do exist for various specialty goods and food retailers (Lidl, FNAC, Carrefour etc), and even some foreign chains like McDonald’s having gotten a foothold, they are still not nearly as prevalent as in North America. Even in the suburbs of major European cities, while it is possible to find shopping centres, the retail landscape is still dominated by smaller, local businesses. For the most part you are still dealing with small, local businesses, with a much shorter chain of command, whose real owners are readily accessible. In this setting it is much more difficult to be shamelessly rude to employees and ask to “speak to the manager” because of every minor inconvenience — and conversely, it is also much more difficult for the businesses to be dishonest with the consumer. Often times, it is likely that the owner of the restaurant or grocery store lives in the same neighbourhood as the customers — how uncomfortable would it be to go into a store, make a Karen-like scene, then have to face the owner in the street the next day? In Europe, there is a much higher probability that you would know your local grocer or butcher by name, but in North America you can spend a lifetime in a city and not know the name of a single employee of a soulless grocery chain like Kroger or CVS.
Another interesting difference to consider in relation to the development of the Karen Phenomenon is the level of dedication to customer service in both continents. Whenever people from North America travel to Europe they are always keen to tell everyone about the differences they noticed; differences in food, in the architecture, in fashion. Interestingly, once they have gotten through the fairy-tale parts of the trip (the canals, the churches, the castles etc), you will inevitably hear a comment about the horrible service they had at a restaurant or cafe (the stereotypical rude Parisian waiter comes to mind) and how “this would never happen in New York”. The customer service experience in North America is radically different while shopping or going out to eat at a restaurant, and both Europeans coming to visit, as well as North Americans themselves, will attest to this to this fact. At a restaurant, the servers are made to help out in every way possible (or rather, compelled to by the tipping culture), they will go through the specials, make sure the food is brought out on time, and try to tend to the client’s every need in an almost uncomfortably desperate way. It is the same thing in department stores, where the sales reps will follow you around, and almost nagging, ask if there’s “anything they can help you find”, trying to make their commissions. Almost makes you wish you had stayed at home. But if we dig deep enough, we will find the roots of this divergence in attitude toward customer service in the proliferation of liberal market principles in America that grew much more rampantly than in Europe. Without the same institutional aristocratic control over private property and land, and with laws inspired by the principles of John Locke and Adam Smith, more and more people in America were motivated and able to break from tradition and undertake free enterprise. Naturally, they supported laws and institutions that allowed free enterprise to flourish, and while this was great for encouraging entrepreneurial spirit and the creation of business and wealth — it did not do very much in the way of producing a welfare state. It is the same market liberalism that became such a pillar of North American economic culture, which has also made the jobs of people working in the service sector so expendable, and their personal financial positions so unstable, that it is no wonder people receive the royal treatment when they go out to dinner at Pizza Hut. The common understanding between the employer and the staff being that the slightest mistake or bad interaction with a customer could cost them their job — as the company could always find another person to fill their role.
So, as this deification of the consumer has continued, and become the norm for what is expected in terms of service, Selfridge’s phrase, “the customer is always right” has metamorphosed into its second stage: “let me speak to your manager!” The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that this is not entirely Karen’s fault. Karen is simply a product of her environment, and a product of the consumer culture and business etiquette that the collective members of North American society have tacitly agreed to. In a sense, oftentimes, Karen is simply doing her duty as a consumer by demanding the various businesses she interacts with to fulfill the promises they have made to her — and we the witnesses get mad because we lack either the time or the courage to make a scene in defending our rights as consumers.
Having considered the potential origins and causes of the Karen Phenomenon, it is important to also consider some potential solutions for North Americans, as most people would agree that while defending your rights as a consumer is a noble act — it nonetheless manifests itself in abhorrent public behaviour. So what are we to do? I propose a two-pronged approach. Firstly, we should be doing what we can to encourage more local businesses. While they may not provide the same abundance of choice, local businesses can be much healthier options for the areas they serve. Not only are they better for the environment as they reduce emissions associated with transport, they are also safer bets for the economy, reducing the dependence on international commerce, as well as the consequent risks from its fluctuations. Local businesses help create stronger communities, as members are closer to the owners of the establishments they frequent and therefore less likely to act like Karens. Secondly, we can simply make more of an effort to act when we notice a Karen outburst. Once again, because of the different evolutionary trajectory of North American political culture as a fragment, they do not share the same propensity for revolution and revolt against perceived injustices as their European counterparts. Consequently, people in North America are a lot more conflict averse and a lot more hesitant to point out inappropriate behaviour to a person’s face. I recall being on a train travelling to Bordeaux for the first time, along with a class of extremely noisy teenagers in the same train car, as well as two or three other adults who were visibly disturbed by them; it wasn’t five minutes until one of the gentlemen got up and very confidently yelled at them and told them this was no way to act in public, after which they quieted down. We can all benefit from taking a page out of their book, and discourage this kind of behaviour when we come across it, just as the gentleman on the train had done.