Respect the Cook

This is a plea for respect.

Please... respect service industry employees. Respect them. They're doing something that isn't as easy as you might think it is.  

Who, you ask? Who should we respect? 

Fast food employees. Waitpersons at the restaurant chain near you. Delivery people. They help you check out your library books when you can't do it yourself. They pick up your confidential documents for shredding. They deliver your packages. They clean your toilets and wipe away the messes you can't be bothered to clean yourself. They make your double nonfat, no foam vanilla latte. They pile turkey and lettuce on bread at your request. They fix that problem with the light over your cubicle that keeps flickering. They call out your number when your order is complete. They take you from point A to point B.

Respect them, because their errors are often not forgiven by those they serve, or those they work for. Respect them, because the nature of what they do often inhibits us from understanding them, or them us. We don't know how their brains really work or what their real capabilities are. We don't know how they got there. We don't know what responsibilities await them at home. We can't know, not in that environment. We should stop pretending we understand how their brains are forced to work on the clock. We don't have the right to judge.

We often assume that if we're too respectful, too 'chummy' with the person taking our order, they'll relax and forget about us. We often assume that if we show a service worker too much respect, they won't be properly afraid enough to get our order right. We're afraid to show humanity because, as customers on a quest for getting what we pay for, getting our money's worth, we're obsessed about being taken advantage of by people who don't seem to care to begin with. So, consequently, we clench. We find ourselves barking orders and scolding people we don't know, just to avoid a screw up that hasn't happened yet.

We forget that service workers face a daily struggle between their good sense and a string of narrow, arbitrary rule sets which have been shoved down their throats. They're not robots. They're forced into a system that requires them to think like robots. It is a near impossible plight to work within the confines of a company's strict criteria and simultaneously please a world full of messy, demanding human beings. We forget that by treating a service worker as less than human, even if we think it results in a better outcome for us, we end up dehumanizing ourselves.  

A service worker is often inhibited from interacting with customers in a way that seems 'rational' or 'sensible,' since keeping their job is often dependent on stripping the common sense and humanity from their behavior. Try to understand - the lower down you are on the food chain, the less your personality is allowed to inhabit what you do. 

Like you, they're not always in a good mood and they don't always get it right. They're often under-trained, under-supported, understaffed and underpaid. Sometimes they forget your table. Sometimes they ask you questions you find idiotic. Sometimes they don't seem to be paying attention to you at all. At times, service employees seem like a bunch of apathetic, bored, careless losers. Sometimes, this is really the case. I'm not making a case that careless, dim witted people aren't out there. My point is this: we need to stop smugly assuming we can judge the good from the bad. We need to stop telling ourselves we're better than them.

I know what it's like working under these conditions. Sometimes, apathy is the only way to get through the day. If you only understood what these people go through, you'd think twice about ever talking down to them again or assuming they're too stupid to work anywhere else. You'd understand that if they didn't restrict their cognitive peripheral vision for you, there'd be absolutely nothing left of them for when they got home to their families. Every time you throw a little respect someone's way, you're giving them a small bit of something they can hold onto and bring back with them at the end of that day. It adds up. If they get a hundred genuine gestures throughout the day, you'd better believe it makes a difference.

But what if they screw up my order, you ask?

All people will mess things up at some point, even when you're paying them to provide a service. I know it's human nature to get angry and impatient. Just remember, though - we all screw up at some point. The difference between low level service workers and the rest of us is the nature of the petri dish they're stuck in day in and day out. It's unlike the one you may be used to, and under that microscope, their mistakes are often taken as a reflection on their intelligence and worth, even for those who should know better, which is sad, and demoralizing, and dehumanizing. 

When you're being served by someone and you lose your patience, understanding and empathy go a long way toward diffusing it. If you haven't been there yourself and worked these sorts of jobs, then summoning empathy can be near-impossible. If you don't know what it's like to be thrust into food service, and menial forms of customer service, and presented with seemingly arbitrary, rigid rule sets, you can't know what it's like. Working within in those rigid, brain-sucking confines of a fast food job, or any menial service task, decreases cognitive function by design. It doesn't matter how smart you think you are. You must ask questions and present customers with choices they may find dumb. It doesn't make you dumb. It makes your predicament dumb, and there's a difference. 

Yes, there are stupid, mean people you'll encounter in the service industry -- people whose attitude is their fault and not simply a symptom of circumstance. Exceptions abound. There are people who you should complain about. But remember - difficult souls are everywhere and in every industry. They're in positions of power. They're executives. They're salespeople. They're middle managers and graphic artists and novelists and museum curators and event planners. The difference with bad attitudes in industries outside America's 'bottom rung' is power - or perceived power. Workers at the bottom don't have the luxury of chalking their surly attitudes up to the price of their genius or leadership. They don't have the luxury of saying 'I paid my dues, and now I can treat everyone else like crap.' They have to take it with a smile.

The next time you place an order for food from someone across a counter, or from your table, be sure to remember this. Service workers, particularly food service people, don't have the luxury of acting like their customers do. They don't have the luxury of looking at the world like anything other than an employee of an organization that demands they behave in a certain way and ask certain questions. That's what they're there to do. They're not to be pitied or consoled. 

They deserve respect. A smile or a nod their way that says, "I see you." A thank you. They're being paid less than you to perform a task you probably couldn't do any better for the hours they put in. They're your colleagues.  

It's a remarkable feeling to smile at someone who you sense hasn't been smiled at all day. It's intoxicating. That - in itself - is a reason to treat the sanitation worker, the fry cook, the delivery person, the order taker, the wait staff, the dish washer, or the lowly clerk with the respect they certainly could lose at some point, but should never have to earn from you.

Don't snap your fingers at them.
Don't call them stupid.
Don't ridicule things they have to say and do in the execution of their jobs, no matter how dumb it may seem to you.
Don't threaten them.
Don't ignore them.
Don't treat them like robots, even if they speak to you like robots. They're required to; you're not.
Don't make demands.

Do smile at them
Do thank them.
Do ask things of them politely 
Do wish them a good day - or even a great day.
Don't shy from small talk if you can see they're not overwhelmed.

And lastly, if there's something you're not getting from them, it's okay to ask for it. Just do it respectfully. 

I'd like to say that affording respect to workers our society devalues is its own reward, but in the event you're just not seeing it that way, I'll leave you with one final lesson, and it comes from Fight Club's 'co-founder,' Tyler Durden:

"We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us."


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