The Now-Mandatory Standing Ovation

Have we taken the idea of how we express public appreciation too far?

I found myself mulling that question recently after attending a performance of the U.S. Air Force Heritage of America Band. The concert was uplifting, entertaining, and relaxing, especially since I enjoyed it in company with my wife and a couple of friends.

The band’s performance of “The Armed Services Medley” was especially inspiring, stirring feelings of patriotism and pride in the role of family members who had served in the various branches of our military. As you might know, the piece is a medley of the hymns of each military branch, and whenever the hymn of a particular branch in which one served, or a family member served, is played, one stands in that veteran’s or service person’s honor.

Our friends stood for the Air Force Hymn, honoring their grandson, who is training to fly a C-130 gunship. My wife stood for the Navy Hymn, honoring her father, who fought in World War II aboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. St. Paul, and her brother, who served aboard an LST during the Vietnam era. And I stood for the Marines Hymn in memory of my nephew, Captain Justin Peterson, who was killed in Iraq.

But I was disconcerted when, at the end of the concert, the audience gave the band a standing ovation. It’s not that the band didn’t perform well; they certainly did. But was it worthy of the highest expression of appreciation an audience can deliver, a standing ovation?

I’ve noticed over the years a growing tendency for audiences to give standing ovations for every performance, regardless of quality. People seem to have forgotten (if they were ever taught) that standing ovations are to be reserved for truly exceptional, outstanding, over-the-top performances. We now seem to think, however, that every performance deserves such a response. Whenever it happens, my wife and I glance at each other and mouth the words, “Here’s our ‘mandatory!'” Or, as I overheard my friend say to his wife, “Here we go again!”

Maybe this situation stems from the idea that we must make everyone feel like a winner. We want to encourage people to do their best, so we stand, applauding wildly for even the most mundane, mediocre performances. We wouldn’t want to make the performers think we didn’t like the job they’ve done, would we? And in rewarding all performances with standing ovations, as though they were the best we’ve ever experienced, we devalue the truly great performances.

We’ve done the same thing in the matter of tipping. We’ve come to expect that for every service we receive we must reward it, regardless of its quality. A tip was once considered something extra given as a reward for outstanding, above-and-beyond service. Now it’s deemed to be the expected, even the employee’s right.

At some point, someone set the standard tip at 10 percent, but now it’s grown to 15 percent–at a bare minimum. And many businesses require that all tips of whatever amount be dumped into a collective pool, so that everyone, regardless of how well they’ve done their jobs, shares equally in the “take” for the evening.

I still don’t understand the math. People argue that with rising prices, wait personnel deserve the higher amounts. They ignore the fact that as prices rise, so does the amount of the tip, even though the percentage remains the same. For example, if the ticket totals $50, a 10-percent tip is $5. If, because of inflated prices, the ticket increases over time to $100 for the same food and/or service, the tip increases to $10, although the percentage has remained at 10 percent. Yet, we’re now expected to tip 15 percent. (It’s interesting that we don’t apply the same logic to our tithing in church or our charitable giving!)

But back to my original premise. We certainly should give honor and recognition when it is due, but we should not dishonor and devalue the recognition by making it the same for every performance regardless of merit or quality. Standing ovations should be rare occurrences, not the norm, the standard, or what is expected.

Call me a cantankerous curmudgeon if you like, but I’ll remain seated for “okay” performances and reserve my standing ovations for truly great performances. And I’ll tip according to how well I’m served, not according to some percentage externally imposed.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson


Caveat Emptor!

In a recent series of blog posts, I sketched the lives and contributions of some exemplars, men who were noted for character qualities worth emulating. Included among those qualities in many instances was honesty and customer service, service such as John Wanamaker exemplified, proven by his slogan “The customer is always right.” Ironically, this week my wife encountered the polar opposite, the attitude of a huge conglomerate that apparently thinks that that slogan is for only weak or small companies. The episode reminded us of the proverbial consumer caution caveat emptor, “Let the buyer beware.”

After nearly a decade of telephone, internet, and (most recently) U-verse TV service with AT&T, we needed to reduce our ever-increasing bills from them, so my wife called near the end of our contract in July to see if she could renegotiate a better deal. During all such calls, she habitually takes copious notes, including the precise time the call is made, whom she talks to, what is discussed, and the final disposition of the issue. That particular call to AT&T resulted in the lowering of our monthly bill to (according to the AT&T representative) $89 plus taxes.

Over this past weekend, we received an e-mail notification of our next AT&T bill’s coming due. When we saw the amount, we almost had heart attacks. Rather than the quoted $89 plus taxes, it was $135 and change. This afternoon, my wife made “the call.”

She not only got an AT&T rep who could barely speak English but also a background cacophony that made hearing nearly impossible. She had to have the rep repeat nearly everything, sometimes multiple times. Since my wife’s phone was on speaker phone, I could hear the chaos all the way downstairs, and I’m convinced that I heard children and once even Morse code being sent in the background of the call center. (I will not call it a “customer service” center!)

Frustrated by not being able to hear or be heard, Connie finally asked to speak to a supervisor, thinking that her call would be transferred to a quieter office. After numerous times being placed on hold, she finally got a supervisor on the line. After explaining the error in our billing for the umpteenth time, she was again put on hold so her call could be referred to some kind of “specialist.” (My personal opinion is that it was someone supposedly trained in dealing with angry customers–or an expert in giving customers the run-around.)

This expert listened to the complaint and Connie’s explanation of the error, shuffled some papers in the background, and then declared that they had no record of the earlier conversation with the rep who had given us the contract price of $89 plus taxes. She finally admitted, however, that the conversation had indeed occurred but that we couldn’t have had that price quoted since that plan didn’t exist.

My wife read to the specialist directly from the notes Connie had taken of the phone call in which the rate had been quoted. The specialist again denied having any record of it. Rather than following the rule “The customer is always right–even when the customer might be wrong,” it boiled down to “The customer is wrong–no matter what!”

We ended up dropping the U-verse portion of our service. When I could tell that the phone call was nearing its unproductive conclusion, I rushed over to the TV set and turned it on to see how long it would take before they shut us out of U-verse service. The U-verse had already been terminated! Not even 30 seconds later, before the phone conversation ended!

Now all that we’re paying for–so far anyway–assuming that Connie’s conversation ever really occurred (and only the omniscient gods of AT&T will determine that) is internet and e-mail service. But you can bet your bottom dollar that we are already searching for an alternative provider for those services, and we definitely won’t be recommending AT&T to our friends and relatives! (We are open to any suggestions of honest, reliable providers that our readers might be eager to recommend.)

So the ages-old consumer warning is still applicable today: caveat emptorespecially if you’re dealing with AT&T.

He Cut His Teeth on the Golden Rule

Although JCP is currently going through some tough times and people associate it with declining, often gang- and crime-plagued malls, such was not always the case. And it was not always known by the bland, nondescript monicker JCP. What originally made the company different from the modern company was the life, philosophy, and influence of one man: James Cash Penney.

Humble Beginnings

Penney was the seventh of twelve children born to a poor farmer/Baptist preacher and his wife near Hamilton, Missouri, on September 16, 1875. His parents wasted no time instilling in him their life values: love of God, honor, hard work, self-discipline, self-reliance, respect for learning, and the need to treat others as they themselves wanted to be treated.

Because money was scarce and his parents wanted him to learn its value, Penney began working when he was only eight. With money he earned, he bought his own clothes. He raised and sold livestock.  When he graduated high school, while continuing to work the farm, Penney got a job as a clerk in J.M. Hale and Brothers dry goods store. Just as he seemed to be learning the ropes of selling, he contracted tuberculosis and doctors advised him to move to a drier climate. He relocated to Denver, Colorado, where he quickly got a job in another dry goods store. Saving his money, he also opened a butcher shop, but it failed because Penney refused to treat one influential customer differently from his other customers.


The following year, Penney accepted a job working for Callahan and Johnson, owners of a small chain of dry goods stores named the Golden Rule Store. The partners liked Penney’s honesty and work ethic, and they soon asked him to go to Wyoming to open a new store. Penney did so and soon used his savings to buy into their partnership and open his own Golden Rule Store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, on April 14, 1902. He and his wife and baby lived in the store’s attic. (Interestingly, Penney’s store was located beside a saloon, a business the very antithesis of everything he believed in.)

Penney operated his store on several principles that demonstrated his philosophy of life and business: high-quality products offered at fair prices on a “cash-only” basis and proper treatment of both customers and employees, whom he called “associates,” a radical concept for the time but common practice among retail stores today. Soon, he had three stores in Wyoming. By 1907, Callahan and Johnson had sold the entire business to Penney.

Penney’s goal was not to have simply a chain of stores but “a chain of good men,” so he hired and trained associates carefully, ensuring that they worked according to his principles. By 1912, he had 34 Golden Rule stores, and their combined sales exceeded $2 million. He changed the name to J.C. Penney Company and moved the headquarters to New York, where he could be closer to the manufacturers of the goods his stores offered. But he continued to operate them by the Golden Rule. The company motto was “Honor, Confidence, Service, and Cooperation.” By 1924, he had opened his 500th store.


But Penney faced his share of trials like everyone else. He eventually overcame his TB. But his first wife died of pneumonia in 1910. He remarried, but his second wife also died in 1923. He married yet again, and that marriage lasted until Penney’s death in 1971.

Despite one grief after another, Penney continued steadfast and used the profits from his business to help his fellowman. He established farms to raise pure-bred Guernsey and Angus cows to ensure pure milk and meat for the public. He started a retirement community for preachers. He spoke widely and wrote numerous books and pamphlets to encourage people, especially youngsters, to work hard, live clean, exercise initiative, and treat others as they would want to be treated.

When I was a child and my parents took me with them to shop at the J. C. Penney store in Knoxville, Tennessee, I stared in awe at the huge portrait of Penney that greeted us as we came through the main entrance. It hang in a prominent position over the escalator that descended from the second floor. To me, he looked so calm, quiet, confident, and dignified, and even as a child I knew that he was successful. There was something different about him and his business. And I knew that my parents enjoyed shopping there.


Penney died in New York on February 12, 1971, and was buried in a Bronx cemetery, but what a legacy he left! For many years, the store remained the same. But in recent years, it has changed. The name, the logo (several times), the policies, the atmosphere. We seldom shop there any more. Apparently, many others also have gone elsewhere because the company is struggling today. I wonder if it’s because they’ve lost the vision and rejected the philosophy of the founder. The company would do well to review his principles and make adjustments as necessary.

Here are a few things that this exemplar said that both businesses and individuals could benefit from.

  • “I do not believe in excuses. I believe in hard work as the prime solvent of life’s problems.”
  • “I never trust an executive who tends to pass the buck. Nor would I want to deal with him as a customer or a supplier.”
  • “It is always the start that requires the greatest effort.”
  • “Responsibilities are given to him on whom trust rests. Responsibility is always a sign of trust.”
  • “I cannot remember a time when the Golden Rule was not my motto and precept, the torch that guided my footsteps.”
  • “Success will always be measured by the extent to which we serve the buying public.”
  • “It is the service we are not obliged to give that people value most.”
  • “A merchant who approaches business with the idea of serving the public well has nothing to fer from the competition.”
  • “There is in everyone more latent than developed ability; far more unused than used power.”
  • “Men are not great or small because of their material possessions. They are great or small because of what they are.”
  • “Determine to do some thinking for yourself. Don’t live entirely upon the thoughts of others. Don’t be an automaton.”
  • “We get real results only in proportion to the real values we give.”
  • “I believe a man is better anchored who has a belief in the Supreme Being.”

Recommended Reading: J.C. Penney, Fifty Years with the Golden Rule (Harper & Brothers, 1950) and Orlando Tibbets, The Spiritual Journey of J. C. Penney (Rutledge Books, 1999).

[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]