I was in a city with a population of about 125,000 people last weekend. My hotel was a little further from downtown than I had hoped so I ended up taking several taxi rides. I was spending more than I had budgeted for transportation so on a day when I had extra time, I searched for a different mode of transportation. I asked the front desk staff at my hotel for my transportation options. They told me to rent a car or take a cab.
I had a hard time believing that in a city of 125,000 people there were no other options so I decided to call cab companies to see if there was one with a simple flat rate to downtown. When I called one company, I asked if there were any other transportation options. The woman told me there was a bus system, said she didn't know much about it, and gave me their website.
I looked up the schedule, mapped out my route, and walked to my desired bus stop. Another woman was already there and soon another woman who was on her way to work joined us as we waited.
It was through conversation with these two women that I learned about the stigma attached to riding the bus. They told me that some locals would judge me if they knew I had taken the bus instead of renting a car or taking a cab. It was then that I realized why no one had offered me the option of the bus before. I was not their "typical" rider.
A quick search on Google defines a stigma as a "mark of disgrace associated with a certain circumstance, quality or person." It is often paired with a perception of shame or dishonor. The stigma associated with using the bus system is that riders are low income, lower class citizens.
I rode the bus anyway. I didn't care if there was a perception problem with it. It was the alternate form of transportation I had been searching for, and it turned out to be a great, pleasant experience. I felt safe. The bus was clean. I chatted with the two women and the bus driver. Several other passengers said hello as they boarded.
The two women from my original bus stop were incredibly helpful to me. They gave me all kinds of insight and helped me locate places on my map. From my perspective, the stigma attached to the bus service wasn't accurate.
After the two women got off the bus, I still had a short ride to my stop. It gave me just enough time to wonder about stigmas and how they impact communities. I wondered about what other stigmas exist in communities. And I wondered what stigmas exist in my own community.
Stigmas are often perpetuated through rumor and not grounded in truth. What was interesting to me about this situation was the very people the stigma was about (those who ride the bus), were the same ones perpetuating the stigma to me. Indeed, we are often our own worst enemy.
What damage can perpetuating a stigma do to a business, a service, or a community? I noticed while I was riding the bus that there were ads inside the bus, like many buses have. Every third ad was an ad from the bus company itself. The ads explained the bus experience as new and unexpectedly pleasant. Clearly the bus company was attempting to fight the stigma. How much more impactful would it be if the passengers and the community helped in that fight?
The thing is, every community has a stigma (or many) attached to it. But are they always accurate? Do we help perpetuate them when we really shouldn't? Is there a stigma you know about in your own community that you really don't know the truth about? Are you helping to stop spread the stigma? Are you helping to bring change to it?
My bus experience is just one example of a stigma in one community that is clearly hurting a business and leading people to provide less than desirable customer service to visitors. There are other examples. We should make an effort to be more aware of what we say, how truthful it really is, and know that what we choose to believe really can make a difference in the impression a community leaves on others.
Jackie Krawczak is the executive director of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. Her column runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays. Follow Jackie on Twitter @jkrawczak.