by Megan Power (@Power_Report) Suggesting that only Karens call for the manager focuses attention on the complainant, instead of the unjust policy or service failing.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Soon after South Africa’s covid-19 lockdown started to bite, a financial provider I’d relied on for many years dropped a bombshell. There’d been an “oversight” in some paperwork finalised by the company a few years back. It would require a huge chunk of cash, notably mine, to fix.
It turned out that the person in charge had unfortunately “missed something”. It took me the better part of 30 minutes to get that person to admit it. Even then, there was scant remorse, or empathy —certainly, no apology. The flippancy and refusal to take responsibility was galling; the exchange that followed was fraught.
Labelled me a “Karen”
On overhearing the tense conversation, my teenage daughter, with tongue firmly in cheek, labelled me a “Karen”. It lightened the moment somewhat but brought home an element of the globally popular meme that’s always bothered me. Karen is a slang term used on social media to describe an entitled, obnoxious, middle-aged white woman who picks fights with anyone she finds offensive. According to dictionary.com, the nagging Karen is generally stereotyped as a divorced suburban mother from Generation X. Central to the stereotype is Karen’s insistence on speaking to a manager, usually in shops and restaurants, to lay a complaint. Karen is embodied in a viral meme portraying a woman with an asymmetric blonde bob, known as the “Can I speak to a manager” haircut.
Karen is essentially that clichéd “difficult customer” who tears strips off the coffee shop barista for “disrespecting her choices” by using full-fat milk instead of the requested skim in her latte. The one who calls the health department, and threatens a lawsuit, when she finds a stray hair (likely her own) in a takeaway pizza box.
Some say the Karen persona has neither race nor gender and describes more a type of inappropriate behaviour or attitude. However, Karen is widely considered to be white, female — and racist. Recently, she’s even become a covid-19 meme, used to mock women in the US who’re opposed to social distancing for various reasons. In some circles, the meme has been slammed as classist, ageist and misogynistic. But, regardless of how it’s perceived or used, it’s a trope that’s gained traction over the years and seems here to stay.
If it goes some way to expose rude and entitled bigots, brilliant. If it calls out racism and abuse of power, even better. But if there’s a chance that it could unwittingly prevent people from standing up to harmful consumer practices or shoddy treatment — because that seems like a Karen thing to do — that would be a real pity. Especially in South Africa.
Skin in the game
I probably have more skin in the game than most. I spent six long years as a consumer columnist, using our fairly young but far-reaching Consumer Protection Act to empower ordinary people to understand their rights and call out business when they were undermined. I encouraged them to be proactive, identify transgressions, ask for a manager, and request (demand, if need be) remedy. When and if this failed, I mediated on a customer’s behalf, working with consumer lawyers grappling with ambiguity in the largely untested legislation, to find resolution. These days, I work with customer-facing businesses (from insurers to cellphone providers, healthcare to education) to identify gaps and overcome obstacles in their processes and services. A basic but essential part of customer journey testing involves assessing why and when someone asks for a manager — and what follows when they do.
I worry that some people, especially youngsters, may conflate what they should be doing as active consumers (which includes escalating issues when things go awry) with being a toxic Karen. The “Can I speak to the manager” tag risks sending a message that challenging organisations which fail to provide good, safe products and services is somehow not appropriate. The outcome could be that consumers who’re short-changed, treated with contempt or exploited will walk away. While everyone’s better off not witnessing shopper meltdowns every time a queue’s longer than five people, I’d certainly rather the unscrupulous cellphone-shop salesperson who misled the pensioner widow into signing a R3000 a month contract didn’t get away with it. Or the unethical store manager who refused to refund a student’s dangerously defective gas heater. Or the smirking waiter who body-shamed a man battling to fit comfortably into a restaurant booth.
Suggesting that only Karens call for the manager focuses attention on the complainant, instead of the unjust policy or service failing. If calling a manager to voice a grievance is perceived as hysterical and something only horrible people do, where does this leave sincere, and often disadvantaged, consumers who need to escalate a complaint but are now uncomfortable doing so? It unfairly restricts consumer redress; forcing them into conflict with employees, often with little hope of resolution. It conveniently shields middle management and executives from criticism and accountability, too. It’s tempting as well for lazy or disingenuous organisations to use the meme as a tool to justify the dismissal of well-placed consumer indignation.
Context, nuance and subtlety
I don’t think it’s safe to assume that everyone in the audience recognises the difference between the haughtiness that informs Karen’s demand to see a manager and the exasperation that pushes an embattled consumer to call for the ear of someone senior. Understanding the distinction requires context, nuance and subtlety, usually not the strongest features of social media echo chambers.
I see the Karens out there. I also see the millions — silent and nameless — whose rights continue to be systemically trampled on by corporates and businesses which have no shame. It’s precisely why consumer activism and advocacy work remains so important: the vast majority of consumers in SA, including the most vulnerable, tend not to call a manager.
They, and the generation of consumers who follow, should be continually encouraged to do so. Outspoken consumers force change, both big and small. That we can now buy covid-19 face masks and sanitisers at normal prices is thanks to brave and determined consumers who, very likely, complained to a manager before taking allegations of price-gouging to the authorities. These are consumers who refuse to be victims of corporate greed at a time when communities are at their most vulnerable.
Anyone whose thoughtful and considered actions could lead to a fairer deal for consumers should take the opportunity whenever they see it. Not only for themselves but for those not yet able, or willing, to do so. It doesn’t make you a Karen. It makes you the antithesis of one.
First published on www.marklives.com