When did incompetence become okay?

Jan 26, 2016 | General Advice

Published: The Good Men Project (January 26, 2016)

Have we decided, as a society, that professional incompetence is something we must tolerate? Indeed, dare I say, that it is even acceptable?

This isn’t an entirely rhetorical question. Most people are happy to pay lip service to the importance of reliability and efficiency, and there is little question that Americans are second-to-none when it comes to our collective work ethic. Quantity of labor is not the same as quality of labor, though, and claiming to despise incompetence is quite different from taking an active stand against it. Unfortunately, if my own recent experiences are any indication, our culture has moved away from demanding competence of those around us.

Take the post office. A few weeks ago, my friend Liskula Cohen helped me pick out a pair of eyeglasses (seen below) from her website frontroweyewear.com and arranged to have them delivered through expedited shipping. Day after day passed, and the package was nowhere near my doorstep. It wasn’t until a little proactive prodding on both our parts that the location of my new frames was ascertained, and even then I needed to wait an additional 48 hours before they actually arrived. Yet when I told this story to my friends, several insisted that I was somehow to blame for not being patient. Even though Cohen had spent the extra money to have them delivered quickly, many assumed that the burden should fall on us to tolerate not receiving our money’s worth, rather than on the carrier to provide it. It’s just a few extra days! You don’t know how hard it is to work in package delivery! Why make a big deal about it instead of just being patient? At no point did anyone challenge that the postal carrier had, quite literally, failed to deliver. Nevertheless, in the eyes of many, the sin of falling short of one’s professional responsibilities was lesser than that of the aggrieved party actually making a fuss about it.

A few weeks earlier, I had an even more galling experience at a local department store. My mother and I had decided to do some early holiday shopping, but when one of the items we intended to purchase had a defective bar code, the cashier told us that she was a seasonal employee and needed to call a manager so she could ring up our merchandise. Half an hour passed as the hapless cashier made phone call after phone call and – when that failed – walked from station to station throughout the store, desperately trying to find someone who could help her. During that time, a line six people deep formed behind my mother and myself, all of them increasingly irate at the hold up. Finally a supervisor arrived and, appropriately, offered my mother and myself a discount as an apology for our inconvenience. After thanking him, I then pointed out that the half-dozen people who had waited behind us also deserved a discount for their trouble. The supervisor agreed… At which point one lady in the line snorted and declared, “Well, I don’t need a discount,” thus heroically denying everyone besides my mother and myself the deal to which their inconvenience had entitled them.

My most recent encounter with proud ineptitude occurred while I was waiting at a doctor’s office. Although my appointment had been scheduled months in advance, the doctor left me in her waiting room more than an hour after the time I had arranged to see her. Indeed, had I not spoken up, I may have waited even longer. Because I had other appointments that day, though, I finally walked to the front desk and explained to the receptionist that, because I had other responsibilities that day, I would need to leave without seeing her. “If you do that, you’ll be charged for canceling without 24 hours notice,” she warned in an ominous tone. “If she does that,” I replied, “I will cancel all future appointments and find a new doctor. After all, if she cares so much about her schedule, then she has no right being so inconsiderate of mine.” At that point I walked out the door and down the hallway… only to hear hurried footsteps behind me. It was my doctor. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Rozsa,” she exclaimed. “I promise this won’t happen again. We’ll see you right away.”

This brings me back to my opening question: Have we decided that professional incompetence is something that must be tolerated? Why are so many of us inclined to silently allow our time to be wasted, then lash out at those who want their packages delivered on time, merchandise purchased without hassle, and appointments upheld mutually?

For one theory, I turn to a 1960 essay by conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. on the same subject. It was aptly titled “Why Don’t We Complain?”

“… we are all increasingly anxious in America to be unobtrusive, we are reluctant to make our voices heard, hesitant about claiming our right; we are afraid that our cause is unjust, or that if it is not unjust, that it is ambiguous; or if not even that, that it is too trivial to justify the horrors of a confrontation with Authority.”

While I agree with this insight, I’d like to add one of my own. At a time when so many Americans are overworked and/or underpaid, there is a natural instinct among socially conscious individuals to view complaining as an inherently oppressive act. On one level, this impulse is commendable; not only does it keep us from behaving like boors, but it reminds us to be sensitive to the plights of those whose jobs are unsatisfying, exhausting, and fail to adequately reward them for their labor. This is one of the major moral issues of our time – if not the major moral issue – and it is important that we keep this in mind not only when we discuss politics or vote, but in our ordinary interactions as consumers.

At the same time, there is something to be said for the old saying that two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because a worker who has inconvenienced us is being wronged by his or her employer, it doesn’t automatically follow that our (admittedly lesser) wrong of needing to deal with incompetence ought to be dismissed. In fact, the worker’s hardship and the consumer’s inconvenience are often caused by the same underlying problem. If a business is understaffed, its employees may not be capable of meeting customer needs in a timely fashion. Similarly, if the workers are underpaid, they may suffer from the mental and physical exhaustion that accompanies a life mired in poverty, rendering them unable to adequately fulfill their duties even if they so desired. There could be any number of reasons why incompetence exists in a given organization, and those reason may have nothing to do with the faces we see and everything to do with the guys on top… who, naturally, we don’t see.

Nevertheless, it is important that we not lose sight of why it is important to expect competence in our day-to-day lives. This doesn’t mean that we should be rude, no matter how aggravated we might feel, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we should allow our anger to get the better of us. At the same time, there is something disturbing about the widespread notion that it is preferable to silently endure incompetence than speak out against it. By way of explanation, I refer one last time to Buckley:

“When our voices are finally mute, when we have finally suppressed the natural instinct to complain, whether the vexation is trivial or grave, we shall have become automatons, incapable of feeling.”

Photo courtesy of author, featuring eyeglasses from FrontRow Eyewear