“Hi, how’s it going?”
“I want the soup. Wait, what is polenta?”
“Well — ”
“Is that that corn based thing?”
“So, it’s — ”
“No I don’t think I’d like that. Give me the soup.”
This is the conversation I have been having for eight years. Eight years of people speaking at me as if I don’t exist except to service their needs.
On days when it is particularly bad, I joke with my coworkers that I’m a “service bot” and do my best robot dance. It’s cheesy, but it helps me make sense of the absurdity of having another human being speak to me like this. It also helps me remind myself that I deserve respect.
If most of these people met me in a different context — a college class, or my nonprofit job, or through mutual friends — they would never consider speaking to me like this. It’s like I’m suddenly less worthy of their respect and decency when I put on an apron and make their coffee.
The barrage of microaggressions in customer service is endless and exhausting. Bad customers yell and cause a scene and create those ridiculous, over the top stories we get excited to share with our coworkers over beers at the end of the night.
But more commonly, customers do seemingly innocuous things. They forget to say hello. They don’t reciprocate when you ask them how they are. They become impatient even when they know you’re working your hardest. They assume you’re stupid or incompetent if you don’t do your job the way they want you to. And they see you as nothing more than a tool to get what they want.
I know this conversation well, and not only because of my time in the service industry. It’s the same conversation when the guy in my political science class uses the term “illegal immigrants” and isn’t corrected, or when a friend makes a rape joke and people laugh, or when I am talked over and ignored in a meeting. This conversation is held at political podiums and protests and classrooms and homes every day — from a different mouth and with different words, but with the same intent and effect.
It is the conversation of dehumanization.
We have created a service culture in which we allow customers to dehumanize service workers. Customers use phrases like “the customer is always right” to create a hierarchy in which they’re more deserving than we are. They, along with our bosses, fight against raising our wages or creating reasonable labor laws. And on a larger scale, they willfully ignore (or actively perpetuate) the systems that make the people picking and preparing their food, washing their dishes, and delivering their takeout disproportionately migrant women of color, women who are too often underpaid and exploited.
More Radical Reads: 10 Ways to Check Your Privilege With Fast Food and Other Service Workers
The problem is not simply that these remarks are hurtful, humiliating, and tiresome. It’s that they also uphold the systems and institutions of marginalization and dehumanization at large.
So how do we work toward radical self-love when we’re regularly being put down, condescended to, and simultaneously told that this is simply part of the job description?
It is already a daily struggle to be kind, gentle, and loving to myself. And some days, the best I can do after work is to curl up in a blanket with a $4 bottle of wine and let myself cry it out. But for the most part, we must commit ourselves to proactive and robust self-care. For me, this means positive self-talk, self-directed empathy, loving thoughts, and the affirmation, again and again, that I deserve decency.
This also means using our voice where we can at the institutional level. There are already businesses changing the landscape of the service industry.
This past summer, I worked for a restaurant known for its paid sick leave policy for employees and, more colloquially, being an awesome place to work. And it was one, not only because they paid us a living wage or gave us consistent hours or cared about us when we got sick or had emergencies. But also because the culture promoted by the staff was one built on mutual respect.
One time, as I was ranting about a male customer who kept calling me “sweetheart,” my manager simply told me, “You know you don’t have to put up with that.” I was genuinely taken aback. It had been ingrained in me to expect and swallow this kind of rude, exploitative, sexist garbage simply because of my position. For the first time, I was told I didn’t have to put up with being talked down to or treated poorly. It forever changed the way I approach customers – with the expectation of mutual respect.
More Radical Reads: Smiling Under Capitalism: 14 Ways LGBTQ+ Workers Face Discrimination in the Service Industry
But the industry doesn’t look this way for most workers. My ability to work for restaurants that offer paid time off, insurance, and a culture of respect is a privilege, created and sustained by my many other privileges. I am white, able-bodied, young, and English-speaking, all of which allow me to have higher expectations of my employer and the people I serve. For more marginalized people, access to this kind of work environment is even harder, if not impossible.
We should not have to be strategic, discerning, flexible, well-connected, or lucky in our job placement to expect a living wage, consistent hours, and respect from colleagues, bosses, and customers.
Trying to make change in an industry so inundated with historical and systemic challenges can seem impossibly hard if not downright impossible. But we can begin very simply.
If you are not a service worker, take some pointers from any kindergartener you know. Make eye contact. Smile. Say hello. Be kind. Be patient. Be thoughtful. Say thank you. Say goodbye. Re-humanize those serving you.
If you are a service worker, spend some of that strong, resilient, fabulous energy required for your position on radical self-love and self-care. Remind yourself that you deserve respect, regardless of — and oftentimes because of — your job.
[Feature Image: A photograph of the interior of a restaurant. In the foreground of the photograph are two wine glasses and a red candle. In the background of the restaurant are two people sitting down with their backs to the camera. In the far background is a person with long dark hair working as a server.]