IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What the Heck? Why Are We Cursing at Customer Service Agents?

Everybody has a favorite curse word, and sadly, they may be using it in web chats with customer service representatives.
Image: A man holds a swear word sign
Dimitri Otis / Getty Images

Everybody has a favorite curse word, and sadly, they may be using it mostly in web chats with customer service representatives.

The messaging platform LivePerson analyzed 38 million customer service chats with an unusual goal: to gain insight into the cursing habits of consumers across the U.S., as well as to measure acts of politeness.

Part of the point of the report was to create a benchmark for future understanding of the issues.

"Right now it's hard to say if cursing [to customer service agents] has gotten better or worse because we don't have any data yet to compare it to," said Rurik Bradbury, global head of research and communications at LivePerson, adding that though the company does provide solutions for other types of messaging, the vast majority of the conversations analyzed in this study were web chats.

The data revealed that men cursed 16.5 percent more than women do, and were more likely to use "hard" curse words, which we won't list here. Women tended more toward "soft" curses, like "gosh," and "poop." The top five soft curses were "stupid," "shoot," "goodness," "suck," and "crap;" the top five hardest curse words were, well, too hard to share here.

"These findings are fairly in line with my expectations,” remarked Bradbury. The basic message? “Men are more vulgar and tend to go macho when they feel threatened.”

LivePerson's research also looked at which states curse the most and found that the potty mouth winner was Virginia, followed by New Mexico, Alaska, Iowa, and Utah. Hawaiians cursed the least; Iowans were most likely to use hard curses, and Virginia was most inclined toward soft curses.

The data also highlighted which states tend to use the niceties "please" and "thank you" most frequently and found that New Mexico came in number one here, followed by Iowa, Oregon, Colorado, and Louisiana.

Most Uncharitable to Charities

LivePerson's data zeroed in on industry type and found that people curse the most at customer care agents working in media and are the least polite to charities, foundations and non-profits. They curse the least at financial institutions and are most polite to pharmaceutical companies.

Bradbury wonders if this behavior doesn't have to do with the customer's expectations. You may not anticipate a charity to say, flub up a donation, and as such you'll log on to give them a piece of your mind.

"If you have a problem you need to resolve with a non-profit, you may be angry from the start that you have to do it," said Bradbury. "It's probably not a problem you expect."

When it comes to say a bank or a pharmacy, consumers may be more prepped for a lousy situation: the check didn't clear, or the prescription wasn't covered. As such, we may actually be on our best behavior and what’s more, a bit shocked when a customer service interaction actually goes well.

"Financial companies and pharmaceutical companies are very large industries where customers may feel they have less leverage," said Bradbury. "It's more of an 'I'll be surprised if they can help me, and happy if they can' scenario.'"

What the Heck Is Wrong With Us?

The study calls to light a greater question: Why are we so gosh-darned mean to customer service agents? There's really no excusing the behavior, but there are reasons that we lose our cool.

Nancy Friedman, president and founder of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training, finds that it often comes down to wait time. Nobody likes to be put on hold, even if it's in a web chat.

Customers may also get annoyed by the automated nature of the a web chat; Friedman notes that many customer service reps use a "drop-down screen with preset phrases," and that they can add new phrases as they go along. Ultimately, this makes a smooth banter difficult to form, and that can be annoying for the customer.

April Massini, a relationship and etiquette expert, thinks that customers find web chatting with customer service agents irksome because the nature of the chat lacks the empathetic qualities of an IRL exchange.

“In a real life customer service conflict, there’s feedback in facial expressions, whimpers, apologetic tones, or angry rants,” said Massini. “But none of those exist with chat customer services, so customers become more frustrated.”

Be Nice to The Rep, Because It's Not Easy

But even if the chat feels robotic, the representative at the other end of the chat window isn’t a robot, it is a human who is probably working hard to please you and is likely multitasking.

"Most chat operators service several screens at a time, which is stressful," said Friedman. "The customers normally do not know this fact."

Janet Kozak, a content strategist, worked in retail for years and much of her job entailed “engaging with both satisfied and unsatisfied customers.” Her customer service interactions then were done in person — a setting she found to be simpler than the digital space, where there’s no face to a name, no voice to a complaint.

“Working with customers via instant messaging and email is a game of winning over the customer with as much kindness as possible in the shortest amount of time,” Kozak said. “In person, it is easier to communicate things like listening and empathy through non-verbal cues. But in the digital space I have to work harder to type out what I understand so that the customer knows they've been heard. I always try to smile as I write, be as outgoing as possible, and even include friendly emoticons as well. Believe it or not, these tricks do wonders to diffuse situations and take things down a notch if a customer comes at me heated.”

It’s a perk to have a customer care agent who thinks about ways to show you they’re listening and want to understand and help. But perhaps, rather than just insisting the reps act more human, we should focus on behaving less like monsters.