7 things I’ve learned working in service positions

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As a recent college graduate, I’ve been in my fair share of odd jobs: waiting tables, babysitting, dog walking, catering and house sitting. I’ve changed diapers, cleared away food, and served all kinds of people with varying social skills and manners. Working these jobs, I’ve come up with a short list of things to keep in mind when you are being served. They might help us all treat service workers with the respect and dignity they deserve.

1. Looking people in the eyes goes a long way.
We are not robots or statues, and when you acknowledge that, it makes all the difference. Even better, ask us our name, chat with us a bit, or just generally acknowledge our inherent humanity. I realize you’re busy, but treating me like an equal will guarantee that I don’t spit in your coffee.

2. Don’t expect us to love our job all the time. 
Service work can be tiresome, tedious and sometimes trying. When I’ve been on my feet all day and there’s a line out the door, I will do my best to be polite. But you might not be the best part of my day, and technically, smiling for you is not in my job description.

3. Don’t hit on people while they are at work.
I can’t count the number of times that I was working the register as a 17 year-old and had a 30 year-old man ask for my number. Beyond the questionable age difference, this situation put me at a severe disadvantage when it comes to saying no. I was stuck behind a register, unable to walk away, faced with a customer who I am being payed to please. Telling that guy “no” just got a lot harder. Please, don’t put me in that situation.

4. Never suggest that we are paid too much for the work we do.
Service workers are almost never paid enough. Period. I don’t care how much training goes into your coorporate job, I just cleaned up your dirty napkins and changed your baby’s diaper, and that is work. Don’t be a cheapskate: tip.

5. Treat people as you would like to be treated.I will never forget being a little preteen and reading this phrase in Ann Brashares’ book “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”:

Rule #1. The customer is always right. Rule #2. If the customer is wrong, please refer to Rule #1.

This is what our bosses tell us, but this is not actually true. Just because you are paying for a service does not mean that you can abuse the person performing it. Folks in the service industry are constantly being told how to behave and to excuse even the most rude and dehumanizing behavior, yet that script rarely gets flipped. Please hold yourself to the same standard of courtesy that you expect from us.

6. If you live in or near most U.S. coastal cities, learning Spanish is always useful.
Some people will argue that assuming that someone speaks Spanish sends the message that they do not look educated enough to speak English. Be aware and sensitive to this. That being said, 90% of the time when I practice my Spanish with people who are serving me, I get nothing but friendlier people, and better service. It proves that I care about the person beyond the service/product I am paying them for, and that I’ve made an effort to learn about the population on whose backs my country is running. Of course, the same could be said for the many other immigrant populations who work hard in the U.S., and if you have time, learning Mandarin, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, or Tagalog is also recommended. But Spanish seems like a good start.

7. Working part-time at a coffee shop during college isn’t the same as supporting a family on a minimum wage job.
I am beyond grateful for the jobs that I’ve worked over the years. They’ve taught me about responsibility and professionalism. But they’ve also been a stark reminder of my privilege. Chatting with the cooks during a lull at the restaurant, or sitting with the other nannies while the kids play at the park, I’ve made some of my deepest and most diverse friendships. But during those conversations, I always knew that for me, this job was temporary. For them, this was life. So when I complain about how hard catering is on my body, or how little restaurant work pays, I know that I’m lucky. I will always treat service workers with dignity and respect for the hard work that they do.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted October 1, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    I work in the service industry as well, and I have a few issues with this:

    1. I don’t care how awful a customer is, show some professionalism. Spitting in someone’s coffee, or contaminating their food in any way, is unprofessional. And it can get you fired. No matter how that person treats you, don’t be an asshole in return.

    2. Smiling IS part of the job, actually. Yes, everyone has a bad day. No, we can’t be in a cheery mood all the time. But yes, smiling IS part of your professional responsibility as a server. When you’re not in front of customers, frown or remain expressionless all you like. But when you’re serving the public, smile even if it kills you.

    4. I have to agree, to a point. No, service workers certainly do not get paid enough. Wages need to improve …. vastly. However, tips should neither be expected nor demanded. That is not only rude, but it is something that a customer gives ONLY if they are pleased with the service AND the food. See number one and two for example references on pleasing customers. Also, it is their choice, and always their choice, whether or not to tip regardless of you spewing sunshine from your every orifice, or the food being fit for Kings.

    Any numbers I’ve excluded from this are ones I agree with wholeheartedly. So know that I’m not tearing this up for the hell of it. As I said, I work in the service industry, and know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s the reason that, when I go out, I’m always cheerful, considerate and civil to those who are serving me, whether it’s at a restaurant or grocery store, or any other place doesn’t matter. But I had to say something about those few points of interest that I disagree with vehemently.

    • Posted October 2, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for commenting Elizabeth, it’s always fun to hear from readers. I agree that professionalism is part of the job (the spitting in your coffee was a joke), but I still don’t think that we can expect service workers to be always smiling. That’s a recent shift in how we view service work, as not only a service or a product, but an experience.

      Emotional work is work. Smiling all day is much more exhausting than just performing a service. And if we were paid for this additional labor, or even compensated fair, living wages, then I might retract that statement. But I get really frustrated when restaurant servers are expected to be beyond cheery all day and are still paid minimum wage.

      It’s also important to note that a lot of these demands (emotional labor is what Arlie Hoschild calls it) are often exceedingly gendered. These are things we expect of women not just in the work place, but during their personal life as well. And yet women are STILL paid way less than men!

      For a bit more on “emotional labor,” check out Sarah Jaffe’s piece:

      “Much of this work has been women’s work for decades, in some cases for hundreds of years. Noah comments that the increasing levels of emotional or affective labor involved in the American workplace is harder for men, but let’s not forget that even in service workplaces, men make more than women. Women are 60 percent of the fast-food workforce and 73 percent of the tipped workforce—but women in restaurant work make 83 cents to a man’s dollar.”

      http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/14535/grin_and_abhor_it_the_truth_behind_service_with_a_smile/

      And if you want to continue this conversation, feel free to find me on Twitter! @JulianaBrittoS

    • Posted October 2, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      Watch it, there — your privilege is showing (and yes, this is coming from someone else who’s privilege shows from time to time, so that’s saying something)

      The thing about always smiling, always putting on a happy face for customers is that, after a while, you start smiling like this: http://images1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20121113171624/zimwiki/images/e/e0/NICK.png

      And, for some reason, people can tell when the person smiling at them isn’t truly happy to see them. And, beyond my comprehension, when this happens, people tend to be even more unhappy than the people serving them with Stepford Smiles pasted on their faces. So, if smiling for the customer is, actually killing you, you’re still not doing your job — people tend to not like the folks serving their food to suddenly drop dead from the grins.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:25 am | Permalink

      I have to completely disagree with that it is my job to smile. It is my job to help and be polite, but I am not required to smile. I won’t take my bad, long day out on customers because as an adult I won’t do that, but neither will I force myself to put on a show.

      • Posted October 9, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        I have to agree Megan, smiling is not within the description!

  2. Posted October 2, 2013 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    I believe in justice and I have experienced many injustices working in the services. Underpaid yet dumped on by others. I don’t care about professionalism, we’re not talking about writing a book here. If someone is rude to you in real life you do not have to passively accept that, and I really hope most of us don’t. Therefore, if you are getting paid (measly) to serve someone french toast and they are unecessarily (when is it necessary) rude to you, you most certainly do not have to smile and be polite. It’s called having some dignity and respect for yourself. I don’t care what the “rules” are for employees you do not have to take that crap. Loved this by the way and I completely agree with everything. Just because we are working doesn’t instantly make us robots without feelings or human characteristics that deserve to be respected. “Teach others how to treat you”.

    • Posted October 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree Taylor! Thanks for the comment, it’s great to hear from readers.

  3. Posted October 2, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    It seems like the general contour is that the lower your social standing, the more you just have to grin and bear it…real feeling, real emotional (especially the negative sort) is a luxury only afforded to people in a position of privilege. If you don’t have power, your feelings don’t matter, so better not let them become a burden to your overlords!

    I go to Starbucks every evening because it’s a safe place for me – but at the same time, with all the slender young women smiling all the time, it also feels really alienating and male gaze-y. My natural inclination is to get annoyed at the employees for being so fake, but I realize it’s not their fault: if they don’t seem fake to someone like me, they’ll seem sullen and “negative” to somebody else (and lose their job). Can’t win either way… =\

  4. Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    When I got my degree in English years ago, I thought I was done with service jobs. When I had my first child almost 10 years later, my life changed in so many ways. One was that making the decision to raise my 4 kids myself was the most loving decision I could make, but it consigned me to being a “bottom-feeder” in the job world for the rest of my life. Once the youngest was 2, I took on multiple p/t jobs to supplement our income, but I always had to work when husband was home, so nights and weekends. Once the kids were older, I started to substitute-teach, thinking that my enhanced knowledge of how to actually discipline children would make me a more desirable teacher. Not so. I’ve now been subbing for 11 years, and don’t even get interviews for new jobs anymore, and I make less than an aide, which is barely minimum wage. So I continue to work retail at night and weekends also.

    Anyone who says they like people has never worked retail. Instead of complaining about the crappy service you’re getting, or the fact that the person isn’t radiating peace, love and positivity at you while they wait on you, try remembering they work for minimum wage with no benefits, and those jobs don’t give raises or promotions at all anymore. I haven’t had a raise for all of the time I’ve worked p/t retail, which is almost 20 years at various jobs. I get scheduled for long hours with only a 15-minute break to choke down what little I can chew that quickly. Customers are rude and demanding, leaving their garbage from drinks and snacks all over the store for us to clean up, yet if I complain I’m told I should quit and let someone who’s more “upbeat” have the job. The bosses continually demand more and more be accomplished so they get bigger bonuses at the end of the year. No bonus for me, and job reviews are a joke because since there’s no raise ever offered, there’s no incentive to do better. The male bosses “hit on” the younger women they hire, and expect the older women to take up the slack while they’re taking extended lunch breaks with the babes. Eventually the shit-level will get too high and I’ll quit to move on to the next crappy retail job. Where I’ll also be told that I’m expected to smile and kiss ass for my meager pay.

    A college degree is no guarantee you’ve escaped minimum wage hell. But I’d do it all over again for the memories of raising my kids to become the accomplished adults they are. I just wish it didn’t have to be so demeaning for me. Society only values at-home moms with lip-service. Try answering someone who asks you what you do, and you reply proudly, “I’m an at-home mother,” only to see their eyes glaze over while they look around for someone more “interesting” to talk to.

    • Posted October 9, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      Fiona,

      It sounds like you work really hard for your children. That’s amazing, and beyond admirable.

      Service jobs really can be frustrating, huh? I think that there needs to be better structure within them so that those who occupy these positions long term receive benefits for their commitments.

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