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Why do some old men age disgracefully?

by Philip Brasor

It’s a universal belief that life is unfair, though there are many ways in which people manifest this belief. Some withdraw from the world, while others engage with it in an attempt to correct imbalances. Sometimes this engagement takes the form of anger.

The grumpy old man is a cliche that requires no explanation. In the Nov. 24 issue of the weekly magazine Shukan Asahi, a neurologist says the layer of the brain that moderates rational thought deteriorates as we age, and thus the filters we use to maintain decorum fail. It’s why older people get angry more easily than younger people do, especially in public and with strangers. The article submits another, less physiological factor: Once a person retires they are less beholden to behavioral restrictions dictated by social norms.

The article tries to come to grips with a phenomenon called “buchigire rōjin,” or “old people who fly off the handle,” which seems to be a problem right now, judging by the amount of media attention it has received. Asahi gives several examples of the phenomenon, including an old man who loudly scolded a young woman on a train because he thought her daughters were “laughing too loud”; and older people waiting at a hospital pharmacy for their medical bill screaming at the clerk because they are being made to wait. The clerk, who, according to the terms of the social contract, is “lower” than the elderly people yelling at her, responds to the abuse with increasingly desperate apologies, which provokes their anger even more.

The comic potential of such a scenario is ripe, but the psychological toll this behavior takes on that part of the workforce charged with being the public interface for organizations has become a serious matter, apparently. An essay on the subject in the Dec. 3 issue of the Asahi Shimbun references a story by novelist Keishi Nagi about minds infected with “poison,” and how these poisons are ejected in words and actions “so that the person can remain alive.” By definition, someone or something must be the receptacle of these poisons. Often, they are loved ones, but increasingly, claims the editorial, it is strangers whose job is to be on the receiving end of toxic exchanges.

The essay cites a survey, conducted by the UA Zensen labor union, of 50,000 people working in retail. More than 70 percent of the respondents said they had been the target of “malicious complaints” often couched in “abusive language.” Many were threatened, and some were even forced to bow and scrape (dogeza) before their interlocutor. The examples provided are chilling. A customer calls a store about returning defective merchandise and keeps the operator on the phone for nearly an hour, continually calling the person “stupid.” A long line at a cash register is not moving as quickly as one customer would like, so he starts yelling at the cashier and doesn’t stop, even after concluding his transaction. Fifty percent of the people surveyed believe that such extreme behavior is on the rise, and, according to Asahi Shimbun the main source of this “poison” is older men.

An article in the Nov. 28 Tokyo Shimbun advanced the theory that “society is becoming more intolerant” with even scarier examples. A customer asks a store clerk to check the price of a particular item, and when the clerk leaves his station to do that, the customer starts ranting, “Don’t make me wait.” He continues the tantrum for three hours, prohibiting the clerk, and other employees in the vicinity, from leaving until he’s done.

Mentioning the same UA Zensen survey, Tokyo Shimbun enumerates the forms of such abuse — threats, condescending lectures, sexual harassment, even extortion. According to UA Zensen, the abusers tend to be educated men with fairly good incomes but who are somehow “dissatisfied with society.” Under normal circumstances, customer complaints are valuable to companies because they are used to improve products and services, but in these abuse cases there is no intention of making a bad situation better, only the raw expression of an entitled grievance. “The perpetrators pick on weaker people in order to release their frustrations produced by everyday existence,” says Tokyo Shimbun.

These people, who have been dubbed “monster customers,” were also covered in depth by NHK with a panel discussion on a Dec. 2 news show. One pundit quoted the old Japanese saying, “The customer is God.” Abusers understand that service people will meekly absorb their scolding. One university communications instructor said that social media has fed the phenomenon by “encouraging frankness,” and an NHK reporter blamed the incivility on a perverted sense of omotenashi, Japan’s seemingly unique brand of hospitality, which, he says, requires service employees to humor bullies.

The panelists agreed that these men act abusively because they no longer wield authority now that they’re retired. Most appear to have held management positions, and when they see something amiss their impulse is to immediately set it right. One woman in the studio said her retired father spends all his waking hours dialing toll-free customer hotlines to complain about anything that strikes his fancy.

“We used to direct our anger at the TV,” said the instructor, adding that such vehemence was safe because TVs are inanimate. Now there are innumerable outlets for our displeasure that respond, and those who can’t countenance feedback seek out interlocutors who do not have the power or permission to talk back. The panel made it sound as if this latter aspect were uniquely Japanese. One participant commented that Japanese complain about the insufficient courtesy of service people overseas, but as long as they are doing their jobs, he said, why do we demand they be so solicitous of our feelings?

The neurologist in the Shukan Asahi article recommends that grumpy old people get more sleep, which sounds like common sense. Another possible piece of advice, but to the victims of monster customers: Ignore them.