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Asking the Public for a Little Respect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not to be rude about it, but our public servants say they are tired of being treated like, well, servants.

Fed up with a ballooning number of run-ins with an increasingly boorish public, government agencies are drawing their own versions of Roberts Rules of Order for a society that has lurched from “Excuse me” to “Go ahead, make my day.” Consider it a collective call by bus drivers, politicians, judges and teachers everywhere for a little respect.

Or else.

An Orange County school district has adopted a criminal misdemeanor policy for irate parents who harangue school staff.

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City councils across the state are booting speakers who make derisive comments on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.

Some federal judges in California are weighing punishments for lawyers who have pushed the limits on insulting judges.

Out in the trenches of public servitude, teachers, sheriff’s deputies and Social Security workers are learning “verbal judo” from career institutes and pricey consultants, practicing techniques to calm the increasingly churlish tempers of clients. Bus drivers are attending “Pushing My Buttons” seminars after being not just verbally insulted while they drive, but spray-painted in the face or spit on.

It’s triggered by the surly, me-first behavior that experts--yes, there are manners experts--call a hallmark of our times. After all, how can you get what you want in a crowded, pushy world if you don’t say loud and clear that you are really, really mad? Rudeness is rewarded: Witness the celebration of insulting behavior on shows such as “Howard Stern” and “Jerry Springer.” Tired of waiting for that no-good clerk whose salary is paid for with your tax dollars? Act out.

Of course, this is government bureaucracy we’re talking about. Sometimes the hostility comes from valid anger directed against uncaring government workers armed with wretched regulations, not to mention the long lines it takes to get to those workers in the first place. Recognizing their share of the blame, many public agencies are lifting a page from corporate America, teaching their workers a little customer psychology.

Mark Goulston, a Santa Monica-based management consultant for Fortune 100 companies, has seen an increased demand for his services from the public sector in recent years. Goulston, who typically charges $2,500 for daylong seminars in improving customer relations, has worked with Los Angeles County Superior Court judges, district attorney offices and social service departments.

“The motivation here is often to get productivity from people whose nature may be less ambitious than their private sector counterparts,” he said. That lower ambition often translates into poorer customer service. “In the public sector, most [customers] feel like they’re being talked at, as opposed to being talked with. They’re treated as objects instead of people.”

Xina Renata understands that feeling, after a recent clenched-teeth session at the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Costa Mesa.

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“They weren’t listening,” Renata said, admitting that she had raised her voice as she tried to explain why she didn’t owe $1,000. She did get the fines waived, but complained, “I was treated like an ignorant idiot.”

The DMV, where every person is not just a number but a whole string of them, was one of the first agencies to teach employees to approach tough customers on a personal level, talking about the weather or a child’s good grades to soothe them.

But calming an irate Californian deprived of wheels is proving increasingly daunting.

“They’re punching walls, cussing at us. Kicking trash cans over. They’ll start pounding on the counters, yelling,” said Kathie Northcott from her perch behind the information desk at the DMV office in Costa Mesa. “Once or twice a month, security has to walk them outside.”

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Myron Berry is a veteran supervisor at the Costa Mesa DMV office, where half a dozen separate queues move at speeds reminiscent of Soviet bread lines. Yet he still is shaken by the motorist a few months ago who, ranting about a $300 late charge on his car registration, screamed, “I see why people like Timothy McVeigh do what they do--why they can bomb a building like this.”

Berry immediately dropped his plan to waive the $300 charge.

Use of ‘Verbal Judo’

What Berry could have used was a little verbal judo, says Capt. Greg Kyritsis, commander of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Training Center.

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Verbal judo is a series of techniques developed by an Arizona ex-police officer. It teaches public workers how to sympathize with angry people, no matter what, and steer them toward resolution--of the conversation if nothing else.

Here’s how it could have worked for Berry’s situation, according to Kyritsis:

“He could have told that man, ‘Sir, I understand why you would want to bomb this building, yes I do. Now, what can I do to help you?’

“The problem is keeping a straight face when you have to say stuff like that, but it works,” Kyritsis said.

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In other words, be polite against all odds. In a culture where sarcasm is now woven into the fabric of daily life, that can be difficult, especially since deportment and etiquette probably weren’t part of your junior high school curriculum.

Judith Martin, author of the widely syndicated column “Miss Manners,” said a basic piece of the problem is that many people are no longer taught common courtesy. The huge baby boomer generation is the best example, she said. As newly minted adults, boomers were at the vanguard of the 1970s Me Decade, which made it acceptable, even admirable, to place individual fulfillment above compromising for the greater good.

“We’re all born behaving like rock stars staying in a hotel: sleeping odd hours, trashing the place and screaming for service,” Martin said. And in the huge baby boomer population, “we have an entire generation now that grew up being taught nothing different.”

So true, agreed Johns Hopkins University professor P.M. Forni, who is conducting a wide-ranging project on civility.

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“This goes back to the crisis of authority that we witnessed in the 1960s--the times of counterculture, and the mortal wounds that the principle of authority received in the wake of the insurrections and turmoil in that era,” Forni said.

Forni said there is no question that bureaucrats, bus drivers and anyone who represents government have become acceptable scapegoats.

There are no studies tracking Americans’ attitudes toward civil servants, but statistics reflect the wide erosion of trust in authority. In 1955, eight out of 10 Americans said they trusted government. In a 1992 poll, only three out of 10 said they “always or mostly trust government.”

Combine that with a recent survey that found that nine out of 10 Americans believe rudeness is now a serious problem, and it’s easy to see why public workers are targets.

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As Santa Monica-based psychologist Jeffrey Hutter said: “When you deal with civil servants, at that moment they become the face of the system. All that frustration comes out.”

Los Angeles Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg sees it as a matter of economics. Less money is being allocated for services, while people are demanding more. “We’re on a collision course that’s making people insanely angry. They expect more than they’ve ever expected from government in services, and yet we have fewer resources. So everybody is angry at us all the time. They have to wait in line, we can’t trim their trees for years. . . . It doesn’t matter what level of government you’re at--city, state, county, federal--all of us are wrapped up in this.”

But Forni thinks manners are less than perfect on both sides of the counter.

“Politicians and public servants seem to show standards of behavior that certainly are not lofty. That certainly augments this sense of distrust and resentment.”

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Public Abuse of Bus Drivers

Try telling that to your average Los Angeles bus driver.

The often vicious abuse directed against them is spelled out vividly in a list of workers’ compensation reports for Metropolitan Transportation Authority drivers for 1997-98:

“Passenger spit in operator’s face, exposed to human saliva. . . . Passenger fondled operator. . . . Sprayed with paint and struck by passenger. . . . Struck by passenger, contusions to right side of face.”

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The MTA last year instituted classes in cooling passengers’ hot tempers, giving its 3,500 bus and rail operators annual lessons with such titles as “Pushing My Buttons” and “When I Am Paying for a Service.” So far this year, the number of incidents against drivers has dipped. MTA Executive Officer of Operations Ellen Levine attributes the drop, at least in part, to the training.

“Is the public nicer? I don’t think so,” Levine said. “I think what’s nicer and is better is our employees’ ability to interact and verbally disarm” hostile passengers.”

Then there is Anita McLellan, a Mission Viejo teacher who was directing morning traffic in the school parking lot this spring. McLellan told police that when she asked one driver to slow down, rather than heeding her instruction, the woman sped toward her and shouted in full earshot of schoolchildren, “Get the hell out of my way or I’ll hit you!”

In another incident in the same school district, Capistrano Unified, one father lay down in front of his child’s bus to protest its late arrival. He later wrote a letter of apology, but the district decided enough was enough.

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In March, the board passed a politeness policy for parents and other campus visitors. Like a discipline plan for a recalcitrant child, the policy calls for staff first to issue a verbal warning to act nicely. But those who refuse to stop yelling, using obscenities or otherwise acting rudely could be slapped with misdemeanor charges.

Others are fighting back, too.

Judges in the Central District of California, which stretches from San Luis Obispo to Orange County and is the largest federal court district in the country, are considering adopting rules to discipline lawyers who falsely accuse a judge of dishonesty, illegal activity or discrimination.

The Fullerton City Council last year approved rules requiring public speakers to “observe civility, decorum and good behavior” after speakers aggressively questioned Mayor Julie Sa during council meetings in 1996 about whether she was a U.S. citizen. One speaker mocked Sa’s Korean accent.

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Los Angeles City Councilwoman Goldberg knows firsthand that elected officials are receiving increasingly nasty verbal abuse. Goldberg, who is lesbian, said her hate mail, spearheaded by a southern televangelism campaign, now often begins “You fat, Jewish lesbian. . . .”

A proposal made earlier this year to the L.A. City Council, which has yet to act on it, would require “at least a minimal degree of decorum and respect” during meetings. Councilman John Ferraro came up with the idea after numerous rowdy sessions, including one in which a speaker inexplicably accused him of causing O.J. Simpson’s murder acquittal because of his Italian heritage. The rules would allow the council to order someone to stop speaking, and even remove those who use “abusive, obscene and slanderous language” as well as make racist attacks.

Fresno, Burbank and Rancho Palos Verdes have adopted similar measures over the past two years.

But not so fast, say civil libertarians of the government’s crackdown on its contentious citizenry. They contend that the 1st Amendment protects much of our behavior, unpleasant though it may be.

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“It’s censorship,” fumed 68-year-old Leonard Shapiro, whose booming, often critical voice has been heard in the Los Angeles council chambers for 18 years.

“Outside of causing direct harm to someone, you should be able to say whatever you want at these meetings,” Shapiro said. “If you feel you have been libeled or slandered, you can sue. But you can’t stop people from saying it.”

The Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs the way public meetings in California are run, clearly states that a legislative body “cannot prohibit criticism of its policies, procedures, programs or services.”

But a 1994 California attorney general’s office opinion said the Brown Act does not protect “personal attacks” against officials.

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Some free speech experts dispute that interpretation, saying the government has no authority to regulate speech at meetings, even when the speech is false or in poor taste.

“The podium before the city council is, in a democracy, almost a sacred zone where the public can say whatever is on its mind,” said Jim Wheaton, senior counsel for the Oakland-based 1st Amendment Project, a public interest law firm. “Public officials have to have thick skin. They have to take it and be tough.”

Barring the thickest of skins, the question remains: Why do government workers put up with all this abuse? Why not just call it quits?

Believe it or not, many government workers like the public.

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As Santa Ana-based Social Security receptionist Dee Chacon put it, although 20% of her clients are “real stinkies” the rest are perfectly nice. Some write her kind notes. Others give her gifts. Unfortunately, because of government rules, she must decline such gifts. Which she does--politely, of course.

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Times staff writers Tini Tran and Shelby Grad and correspondents Susan Deemer and Frank Messina contributed to this story.


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