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Adults are throwing tantrums—in restaurants, planes and at home. Blame the pandemic

The whipsaw of renewed gloom from the Covid-19 Delta variant following the burst of optimism from spring vaccinations makes the current pandemic phase more grueling than past ones, psychologists say  (Photo: iStock)Premium
The whipsaw of renewed gloom from the Covid-19 Delta variant following the burst of optimism from spring vaccinations makes the current pandemic phase more grueling than past ones, psychologists say  (Photo: iStock)
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Restaurant servers, airline workers and customer-service trackers report a wave of blowups rooted in pandemic-related stress

In line recently at a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Florida, John DiDonna worried that a nearby shopper was standing too close for Covid-era comfort. Mr. DiDonna asked him to take a step back. The shopper, he says, stepped even closer.

Mr. DiDonna says he snapped. “Do you love me that much?" he barked. The other person argued back; Mr. DiDonna retorted with “a sprinkling of four-letter words," he says. “Afterwards, I was mortified."

The theater producer in Seminole County, Fla., says he has a shorter fuse these days after 18 long months of the pandemic, grappling with decisions about masks during rehearsals, employee vaccinations, and whether and how to continue performances. “It’s the navigating that’s exhausting," he says.

If it seems like more people have a short fuse lately, you’re not wrong—at least, not according to the restaurant servers, airline workers and customer-service trackers who say they have seen a wave of tantrums. At home, at work and out in public, many of us admit to blowups, which we soon regret.

The whipsaw of renewed gloom from the Covid-19 Delta variant following the burst of optimism from spring vaccinations makes the current pandemic phase more grueling than past ones, psychologists say. It’s getting harder to muster empathy or regulate our knee-jerk reactions, they add.

“When you anticipate something is going to be temporary, you’re able to absorb a higher level of stress," says Pauline Wallin, a psychologist in Camp Hill, Pa. “When things don’t work out as expected it makes us more prone to be aggressive with ourselves and with one another," she says.

Companies that track consumer behavior are observing unusually high levels of crankiness and dissatisfaction. Customer satisfaction is at the lowest level since 2005, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracks the behavior of 300,000 consumers across 46 industries. Weary consumers are prickly and demanding, and companies may not have the resources to provide all the products and services they did before the pandemic, says Claes Fornell, founder of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based data analytics firm ACSI LLC, which conducts the survey and provides customer-satisfaction analysis to subscribers.

The pandemic has caused product shortages, labor shortages and a supply problem, he says. The gap between supply and demand—combined with unusually high levels of stress—is generating frictions that sometimes result in aggressive interactions, he says.

Airlines have been one hot spot. The Federal Aviation Administration has initiated more than 750 investigations related to unruly passengers so far this year, compared with 146 in all of 2019.

Restaurant staff say they are seeing more patrons act out. A recent poll of food service workers—including servers, bartenders and hostesses—found that 80% said they either witnessed or experienced hostile behavior over virus-safety measures, according to the May survey of more than 2,000 workers by One Fair Wage, a nonprofit advocacy group, and the University of California Berkeley Food Labor Research Center. Reports of poor treatment ranged from rudeness to sexual harassment to sparring over mask policies, says Saru Jayaraman, a social sciences professor at UC Berkeley and lead researcher on the report.

Betenase Mamuye, a 23-year-old server at Kaldi’s Social House in Silver Spring, Md., says policing mask-wearing has become part of her job, which makes serving matcha lattes and Very Veggie sandwiches more complex—and tiring. She recently asked a customer to put on his mask when getting up from his meal—to which he responded, “That’s stupid," she says.

Pre-pandemic, “normally you’d get one confrontation a week, and you bounce back," says Brandi Felt Castellano, co-owner of Apt Cape Cod, a restaurant in Brewster, Mass., that shut for a day this summer to give staffers a paid break after what she described as a spate of rough customer behavior.

Her waitstaff withstood insults all summer long from customers demanding to know why a table wasn’t available to them or why a cup of coffee didn’t come out sooner, she says.

“It started affecting the way the staff feels—about themselves, about wanting to come to work." A sign when they closed for a day in July told customers: “If you cannot be kind, you cannot dine!"

Tensions are spilling into other workplaces. Jessica Carlson, a director of supply-chain operations in Washington, D.C., says she recently snapped at her boss and threatened to quit. The frustrations of virtual communication with her co-workers provided the immediate spark, but pandemic stress has been wearing on her for months, she says. “For me to go to my boss, hysterically crying and say, ‘I’m quitting,’ is uncharacteristic," she says. “I snapped."

Her boss, James Wells, says he just let her talk. “Everyone has their moment where they need to vent," he says. They had a calmer and more substantive conversation later.

The pandemic’s emotional toll is especially hard to absorb because Ms. Carlson can’t rely as much on her usual stress relievers. She says crowds and masks have made gym workouts less appealing, visits to the beauty salon are harder to schedule because of space restrictions and she is cautious now with visits to older relatives.

Anthony Villane, a sales director in Arlington, Va., says he yelled at his wife recently after a home renovation snafu in which some appliances were installed incorrectly. In retrospect, Mr. Villane says his anger wasn’t really about the appliances but grew out of the pandemic stress of recent weeks.

His two children are going back to school but aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated. He has concerns about how the Delta variant will affect classrooms and quarantines. And the family’s pandemic puppy has acquired a taste for slippers. “I was overreacting to all these external pressures," he says.

The argument, he and his wife say, blew over after a few minutes. “He apologized without saying the words but I knew he was dealing with overwhelming frustration," says his wife, Rebecca Villane. “And who could blame him."

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