A Seat for Respect

A couple of weeks ago I went to visit my dentist. Like most people, the prospect of the dentist is unpleasant; the experience is in every possible sense awkward. Indeed, gloved, cold hands poking around in your mouth, the metallic tap of dental instruments and gargantuan perspex eye wear were not designed to be relaxing. The discomfort is moreover exacerbated by the expectation that whilst in this predicament, you are able to speak - and not just speak, but give a detailed account of your life in the six months that have passed since your previous appointment. 

This visit however, was disconcerting for an entirely different reason. Amidst the dentist’s picking and peering, suction and foot tapping, he asked me what I now, post-studies, was doing for work. Unable to answer immediately, I got up to rinse my mouth, before explaining that I work in a small independent cafe, both as a manager and a baker, whilst also making cakes to order from home. Without comment, he gestured for me to resume my seat, upped tools once more and continued. A few seconds passed before he finally spoke. 

‘Fancy, all that education and you end up working in a cafe’.

At that moment, I felt both enraged and defenceless. He, elevated, with his picks and scrapers at work on me, silenced and completely in his control. The symbolism of this situation, this feeling, is not a new issue for those of us who work in the service industry. Indeed, there is a widespread problem, chiefly an epidemic of lacking respect.

I have worked in the service industry for over a decade, starting aged at 16 in a local hotel, moving on to work in bookshops, finance, and most importantly for myself, in food. Though the vast majority of the customers I have encountered during this time have been wonderful, courteous and polite, there have been a number throughout the years who have not - and that’s understated. I have personally been summoned with the click of a customer’s fingers, prodded, been heralded with ‘oi’, been patronised, been accused of lying, been shouted at, been sworn at, been inappropriately propositioned, unwillingly man-handled and done so with composure and where possible a smile. Maddeningly, I am by no means the exception, or even unlucky, for my colleagues have all in their own working life history experienced much the same, with one friend even asked to name a price for hiring herself for the evening - and not for waitressing. Though a lack of respect in service is common to both sexes, I have found that sexual harassment is more inherently directed at women. Certainly, my male colleagues often report their subjection to rudeness, but have never been issued with a warning of ‘spanking’ or ‘being a troublemaker’ with an accompanying wink, which are further examples of phrases uttered to myself on delivering a cup of coffee.

The subject of sexual harassment is complex, though unfortunately just a facet of the issue in ill treatment towards service staff. I have often wondered at the rationale of those who behave impudently towards myself and associates. I have joked, though only half-joked, of a psychological shift that seems to take place when encountering a person in a uniform, specifically an apron. This shift seems to dehumanise the apron-wearer to the perceiver, whereby they are now identified as a means to their own end, at their disposal, and thereby theirs’ to ordain. Being recognisable as the ‘serving’ other, our words seem to carry less weight, and certainly customers often consult multiple apron wearers on the same issue, as though needing confirmation from three of four of us before accepting what has been said. As such, it feels we are regarded as a third, or even a quarter of a person. I have been tempted on occasion to fashion a pin-badge which simply reads ‘human’ and attach it to my apron, if only to see whether this tentative reminder would be sufficient to break through the psychological blurring of my status when uniformed. Do not misunderstand however the uniform as the issue; it is a social issue of expectation and entitlement. In our ever hardening society, people have been conditioned to recognise a stimulus (uniform) and this stimulus evoke a learnt response (self-superiority). Uniforms are in fact necessary, and valued amongst staff, as they ought to be in general opinion. 

In addition to the perceived social elevation of the customer, I truly believe that people simply do not understand the skill and dedication required in a service role. Certainly, on your bad days (we all have them), there is no hiding out of sight, you must be composed and sociable. You must have excellent product knowledge, sales skills, maths capability, be tech savvy, be methodical, physically fit, be a morning person even if you aren’t, work long days, know suppliers, have a mind for stock control, remember names and faces, manage parties, run orders, take orders and do all of this simultaneously with a welcoming smile. Hospitality is a much under appreciated career choice, their is an art to it that doesn’t come without hard work. To this effect, I have encountered numerous students, though not always students, who had viewed service as an easy weekend job to support them through university, or just for an extra bit to spend. Such new appointments go one of two ways. In the first instance, there is a tumultuous first couple of shifts until they establish a succinct rhythm of service, which is hellish for both supervisor and new employee, but ultimately worthwhile and enjoyable to both. This happens less often than the second instance, in which a new starter arrives and leaves within days. There is no shame in this, service is hard and it takes a very particular drive to excel within it.

This post is not intended to be a rant. Conversely I simply wished to put down in words that which is not said often enough. The service profession is one of the most exciting and varied sectors to work within, but it is in trouble. Social perceptions reduce the industry and those who work within in to a lesser worth, and by reciprocation outsiders do not respect the job or those doing it. This simply has to change. Good service is driven by good staff, but even the best staff will not tolerate insolence forever, and we risk losing talented people as a result. I would implore anyone within service who experiences disrespectful behaviour to call it out, and stamp it out. I am fortunate enough to work for an employer where staff are treated as family, with zero tolerance to rudeness. This is only so however if such rudeness is known, and as such it is so important to make someone’s personal offhandedness public, shift the onus so that you are not uncomfortable, but they are, change the hierarchy so that they are made to feel small and ashamed. So, the next time someone wants a seat in the cafe, or to buy a book, or whatever the service scenario may be, they do so respectfully or not at all. 

On a side note, I intend to change dentist.