How to Ask Your Customers to Wear a Mask

To stem the spread of the new coronavirus, Costco now requires all customers to wear a mask. No doubt many other retailers will do the same, if they haven’t already done so. 

Businesses inform their customers of new policies in whatever ways they communicate to the public: through signs on the premises, newsletters—both paper and electronic, and web pages.

When crafting these messages, it’s important to remember that rules have a tone of voice. That tone can be respectful or disrespectful and customers can perceive the difference, even if only unconsciously. 

store aisle and shelves
Photo by Nathália Rosa on Unsplash

Compare the following two statements:

1. You must wear a mask in the store at all times. Any customer who fails to comply will be asked to leave.

2. Due to health concerns, staff and customers wear masks while in the store. We appreciate your cooperation.

The first statement punches you in the face. It contains an order and a threat. It seems predicated on the presumption that some people will not want to comply. Those people seem to be the focus of the rule and apparently they warrant a threat.

The second statement is much more respectful to the customer. It simply states what’s happening in the store. It applies equally to staff and customers. 

If you think that the value of courtesy is overrated here, I suggest you look again. The undertones of the first statement send subtle—but clearly perceptible—negative messages to customers.

The first statement is clearly divisive. The store sees the world as “us against them.” Unlike the second statement, which suggests that we’re all in this together, the first statement immediately alienates you by pointing out that “you are not one of us.”

The first statement sounds like an angry parent scolding a child. It immediately sets up what practitioners of Transactional Analysis call a Parent–Child dynamic. They are making an order and you must obey. In contrast, the second statement reflects an Adult–Adult dynamic, treating you as a grown-up. 

The store that produced the first statement sounds like it’s ready for a fight if it needs one. I can’t help but wonder what has happened in that store to put them on the defensive. Are they having a lot of trouble in this regard? Maybe I should go to a store that doesn’t seem to have so many of these problems that it needs to underscore the consequences of disobedience. 

If the store with the second statement has had recalcitrant customers in the past, I can’t tell from the statement. More importantly, they are doing me the kindness of not lumping me in with the people who have caused the problems. They are expressing their appreciation for good customers rather than pre-scolding the bad ones. 

The first statement makes me wonder if the atmosphere in the store is tense. Clearly, this is obviously a sensitive issue for them, and instead of being used to compliance they seem more used to non-compliance. 

I think I’ll just go to the store down the street. If an argument breaks out in the first store with one of those bad customers that it seems to attract, I’d rather not be there to see it.