Traveling causes me to think a lot about the experience of working in the service sector. As someone who doesn’t cook often and spends too much time on the road (er, in the air), I get more than a few of my meals, snacks, and cups of coffee from delis, convenience stores, cafes, food courts, and (though I’ve cut down considerably!) fast-food places. Here are some random thoughts and reactions:
I may rail about the omnipresence of Starbucks and the way they’ve crowded out some of the independent cafes, but I cannot recall ever receiving rude service there. The (usually) young folks who work behind the counter are typically friendly, courteous, and efficient, and they get the orders right.
True, a few of them may come across as overly cheery, especially in this age of “whatever” indifference, but when I see an attitude like that on display, one of my thoughts is “that kid is going to be successful.” Why? Because even in that comparatively low-paying job with its finite set of basic job skills, that young individual is developing socially intelligent work habits that will pay off in the workplace.
Fast Food Restaurants and Food Courts
What is it about these settings that dehumanizes too many workers and customers alike? The same workers can take orders from the same customers for months or years on end, without any warm words or even much of a friendly acknowledgment between them. All too often there is no personal connection or shared community; one group comes to eat, the other to work.
I contrast the fast food experience to that of going to the small healthy/organic convenience store across the street from my home, the City Feed & Supply (Jamaica Plain, Boston), labeled by one of my friends as my “extended refrigerator.” Whether it’s ordering a cup of coffee, hot chocolate, or a sandwich, the service is personal and friendly. In the literally hundreds (thousands?) of times I’ve been there, I’ve never had an unpleasant experience.
Convenience store stop: what 40 cents can buy
I don’t know why this little transaction sticks with me, but here goes. During a storm chase one summer (I am learning how to chase tornadoes and bad weather), our group made one of our countless stops at a roadside convenience store. I filled up a small cup of soda only halfway (too much liquid intake is taboo during chase times, as frequent bathroom stops can risk missing something worth seeing) and took it to the cashier. The lady running the cash register looked at my half-filled cup and cheerfully said, “oh, I can’t charge you the full price,” and took about 40 cents off.
It was my decision not to fill the cup to the brim, and I had every expectation that I’d be charged the full price. But it’s that kind of friendly courtesy in such an impersonalized world that makes your a day a little nicer…AND builds loyal customers. If I had lived around there, I’d be happy to patronize that business over and again.
Electronically preoccupied customers
Something bugs me about customers who are so preoccupied with their cell phone conversations or i-Pods that they can barely yammer out their order to a server or cashier before returning to their critically important tasks, or even display irritation when they are “interrupted” by a quick question about that order.
Not only is it a distressing sign of how we’ve become so wired that we’re sacrificing the quality of being present in the moment, but also it’s disrespectful, perhaps unintentionally, to the individual on the other side of the counter. It basically proclaims to that person, hey, I’m caught up in my little world, and you’re a prop there to serve me.
On the way up or long-term destination?
For some, these jobs are a first step up the ladder. For many younger people it’s a way to make some money for school, or perhaps an interim gig while waiting for a job that will put them more directly on the path to success, however they define it.
For others, it’s a longer term destination. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: The job pays some of your bills, you punch in and punch out, and you can pretty much leave it behind you during the rest of your day.
But especially at fast food places in the heart of large cities, I often sense weariness and even anger and despair behind that counter. There’s a big difference between the college-bound kid working a first job at McDonald’s and an older person (or maybe even a younger person) for whom that job is about the best she’ll be able to do for quite some time, maybe forever.
No great insights or revelations here, but hopefully some deeper understanding of how people can bring very different circumstances to jobs that, on the surface, are very similar.