Entitlemania-How’s the Water?

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Family-Life Experiences

Posted: 03/1/2010

I had a bit of an epiphany as I watched Tiger Woods stand at the podium and begin to atone for all of his stuff. I really don’t care about Tiger’s private life, but there was something about his statement and his circumstances that helped to clarify something for me. Despite his canned and robotic delivery, Tiger is one of the first people I’ve heard in a long time actually use the word entitled in his conciliatory statement. (And we’ve certainly had enough public apologies lately as a basis of comparison.)

For those of you who missed it, here are a few excerpts:

I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply (to me). I never thought about who I was hurting. I thought only about myself… I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them.

 I was wrong. I was foolish. I don’t get to play by different rules…

 My failures have made me look at myself in a way I never wanted to before…

 Character and decency are what really count.

Even people who didn’t buy the scripted, staged, PR event admitted that he was brutally honest in his self-evaluation. Yes, it looked contrived when he repeatedly lifted his head, stared into the camera, and stated I am sorry, but no one can say that he didn’t address most of the issues head-on. I don’t care who coached him or wrote his speech, I give him credit for being direct and candid.

Tiger Woods is a very public figure who got caught. He was forced to take responsibility, publicly apologize, and to re-evaluate his entire life because he got caught. If he hadn’t been caught, he might have continued down the same path indefinitely.

When I listened to Tiger’s statement, I couldn’t help thinking about the 19% of customers who are impolite, disrespectful, or downright rude to customer service industry workers, and to people in general. Readers of this blog know that the 19% statistic comes from more than 200 former and current customer service industry workers I polled as part of the on-going research for my book. These customers, entitled, condescending and rude to service industry workers, have an inflated sense of self and think that common-sense rules regarding civility and mutual respect don’t apply to them.

There are so many reasons why narcissistic people think they are above the law. Like the late billionaire, “Queen of Mean”, Leona Helmsley, who claimed, Only the little people pay taxes, they suffer from inflated egos, and superiority complexes because of diplomas,  pedigree, wealth, and looks, to name a few. A major part of the problem with these everyday entitled jerks is that many of them never have a cathartic, watershed moment that rocks their world and forces them to re-evaluate their actions and the way that they treat people. No one pushes back and confronts them or their behavior. They don’t “get caught,” so they continue to run roughshod over people. In fact, many of these people are enabled by their families, friends and colleagues, and their boorish behavior is encouraged because it’s not contested. Their entitlement and narcissism becomes self-fulfilling. When workers talk about rude, obnoxious, arrogant and abusive people, the entitled people are so impervious that they don’t even know that workers are talking about them.

One of my favorite stories was included in a commencement speech that the late author David Foster Wallace delivered in 2005 to the graduating class at Kenyon College:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story [“thing”] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning…

So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think”. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious…

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

I’ve had countless conversations with workers who describe some of their best customers as self-aware and cognizant of how their words and actions impact those around them. I think we could all use a little adjustment of our natural default settings. What do you think?

11 Responses to “Entitlemania-How’s the Water?”

  1. Alex Lincoln says:

    I thought this was an interesting post. Being the chef at a country club, I have to deal with a lot of entitled people. These people pay so much money to be a “member” in a “private” country club, that they can justify almost any action they make. Just like you said, a lot of them are reinforced by their families and golf buddies, so nobody tells them it is unacceptable behavior, so they just keep it up. In fact it gets worse. I can’t change it. I’m the chef. They pay my bills. I am there to serve, and they know it. The worst part is I feed these people 3-4 times a week, so we all get to know each other, which in turn, makes them feel like they can treat me more like a punching bag. As they say, you always hurt those closest to you.

  2. Fenwick says:

    If we all adjusted our approach and attitude to be centered around “what is best for the Team” and not just “me” ( Team in this case being fellow mankind ), in all human to human interactions, the world would be a much more enjoyable place to live.

    Sense of self and purpose are important, but recognizing that “we are all here for each other” and that we all need to take care of each other is essential for survival.

    Those “entitled people” who think that they alone are more important than anyone else, will soon find themselves alone.

  3. I agree with you about entitlement, although those people don’t exist in my life anymore, because I don’t attract them:>) In the restaurant business they seemed to come out on Sat. night. I remember it well. It was like a church meeting with people showing each other that they could afford to be there. At the time we were the most expensive restaurant in all of New England and New Jersey. And talk about entitlement. It was unbelievable. Especially with reservations. Most of the time they would show up without one and knew they could get in , because of who they “were”. Sometimes I had to tell them “unless you’re a carpenter and have some wood in the car, your not getting a table tonight”.

    As far as Tiger goes except for who he is and was married what red blooded American young verile man doesn’t want to bed as many girls as he can? when I was growing up it was a badge of honor. Although truth be known very few of us ever scored, but we talked a lot over coffee on Sunday morning:>).

    Sex addict is not the right term for him. He used his entitlement to get what every young man wants in his life. You don’t have to agree with me, but the whole situation is about money. And what else is new in this country. We are a bottom line country and as long as we make money we don’t really care if it kills you (i.e. the drug czars).

    Thank you,

  4. Dava says:

    What I find ironic about the whole entitlement attitude is it’s usually folks who depend on us a lot more than they think. The whole “I pay good money and if I have to, I’ll take it somewhere else” argument that pops up right away when they don’t get what they want underscores that they’ve learned to rely only on the status their money has bought them. I realize everyone (not just the entitled) use that phrase as a bargaining chip, but it seems with the entitled that is their only tool.

    If they don’t get what they want, they don’t know how to ask nicely for it.

    It’s sad, really. And stupid. I’ve worked in enough service jobs to know you don’t piss off the home team.

  5. EMEM says:

    Keep in mind; Tiger’s words were the words of his therapists. He’s got a long way to go. He’s just like the morons we serve at times (in our industry) with unacceptable behavior, thats a norm for them…never changing until a life-altering event happens. It’s good to talk about because hopefully it makes us all think.

  6. Bob C. says:

    I think about the words in your post as I sit here preparing how to teach my sophomores the word “condone” in the vocabulary part of today’s English class. You gave me a perfect way to approach the word, to teach a concept, and to get young people to think. Condoning behavior is a major problem in our society today. It is not limited to the entitled; it transcends all social situations and cultures. When things are wrong, when people are wrong, when anyone treats any other human being with anything but respect, we need to speak out. Thank you for doing so in this blog and in your book. You have stimulated thought. Let’s hope that thought stimulates action. Oh, by the way, I have a new word to teach for tomorrow…. entitlemania… what a great word.

  7. Bob C. Jr. says:

    Where does this entitlemania start and how do we end it? It seems like it starts at home. Those whose parents are entitled become entitled themselves, and have no regard for how their words and actions affect others. Some people are taught from a young age that they can do no wrong, and there is always someone else to blame. Schools are a prime example of this where often parents back their child instead of reinforcing what the teacher or coach has told them.
    It is the responsibility of all of us to end this cycle. We should try to stand up to a customer, friend or family member who is mistreating a grocery store clerk, a waitress or waiter, a bartender etc. I have yet to do this, but reading this blog has shown me that it might be time to start.

  8. Micaela says:

    As Mr. Wallace says, we are all hard-wired to be self-centered. Working on stepping outside of yourself and looking at things from someone else’s perspective is hard work and not something that comes naturally to any of us. Working in the service industry could be viewed as great training for this since everyday our job is to leave behind our own wants and desires and view life through our customers’ eyes. We are constantly adjusting ourselves to suit someone else’s needs, both personally by “feeling out” each customer and trying to sense how much or little they want in the form of banter/conversation and attention and in the physical plant itself: the lights, music, food, beverage and temperature of the restaurant. Does that give them the right to treat us poorly? No. Does giving someone that kind of power mean they do? Yes. I like to focus on small victories when it comes to people like this, getting them to say hello back to me is where I start and sometimes people surprise you, once you jolt them out of their self-centeredness for s split second amazing things can happen.

  9. Lauren Clark says:

    Wow, Tiger Woods and David Foster Wallace in the same post! I agree with your assessment of Tiger’s apology, Patrick — I have to say I was impressed that he faced his entitlemania head on. As they say, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. It would be great to gather that 19% in a big, ol’ AA-style meeting for recovering dickheads.

  10. “To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties…” I think I’ll have that printed subliminally on my menus…

  11. CD Berkeley says:

    It’s amazing how many examples we’re surrounded by every day that illustrate this notion of entitlement – those that barrel onto the T or bus before anyone can get off, those that don’t say thank you after walking through a held door, those that talk loud on their cell phone or walk in the middle of a crowded sidewalk. All these are just a reflection of the same type of examples you can find in service. These are the same people that cut in line or talk down to a server. I really do try to do as David Foster Wallace suggests – be self aware, accountable, present. Definitely not always successful but I try. Wouldn’t it be great if, at least once a day, we all did? It definitely would make the swimming a lot more fun.

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