I am an awkward fine diner. I never know which fork is for the salad, I always drink from my neighbor’s water glass, and I’m pretty sure I’ve used my butter knife to try cutting my steak at least once. I’m an awkward fine diner because I never feel sophisticated enough to be in those restaurants, with my knock-off purse and my substandard dress among the chic and refined.
But if you put me in a hole-in-the-wall in the middle of a run-down neighborhood, I sure feel fabulous. Rich. Respectable. Uncomfortably so.
This unspoken hierarchy in the context of public establishments and business transactions is a curious one. We may not even be fully aware that it exists and that it affects our expectations, behavior and reactions. But it does. In a restaurant, we look at the décor, the prices, the reputation. We form quick judgments about the appearance and perhaps the accent of the person who is serving us. We behave and interact accordingly, to at least some subtle – or not so subtle – degree.
I saw a Facebook posting recently by someone who experienced what was unarguably very poor customer service, in any context. The cashier had cursed and thrown paper at this acquaintance of mine. In response to this person’s Facebook post describing the incident, however, another person commented, “They work those jobs for a reason.” What reason is that? And what gives any outsider the right to automatically assume with such confidence that only a certain type of person with only a certain level of competency, morality, and worth, would end up working a customer service job in a casual, run-of-the-mill restaurant?
I worked at a coffee shop while I was in nursing school for my Masters in Nursing at a well-regarded university. As I poured coffee and fetched napkins and mopped floors, I could feel that unspoken stigma towards me and towards my coworkers, many of whom were quite brilliant. I have to confess that I felt a strong need to explain that I was only working that job in passing, on my way to my Masters. See, I have bought into that mindset as well. I’m guilty too. But I hope I’ve changed and am still changing for the better since my time in that coffee shop. Because I’ve seen that for many people who work “those jobs,” their reason for being there is because they are incredibly hard-working, sacrificial, and humble. Some have travelled unimaginable roads that I am not strong enough to endure, in order to secure “those jobs.” They are their family’s heroes, their community’s heroes. And they serve some people who come in with their fancy cars and poor coffee shop behavior, day after day after day. Those friends of mine are my very misunderstood heroes. Not all people in “those jobs” are worth-less. And not all people in the CEO chair behave any better by virtue of their job title, nor are they worth more.
Why we have allowed this curious aspect of shame to pervade even our dining experiences and day-to-day business transactions is a question worth asking. I am an awkward fine diner trying not to feel ashamed about my lack of class. I am a blessed middle class working woman trying to remember not to shame others who very often work much, much harder than me, receive much less in return, but deserve so much more.
How about you? Have you ever witnessed or been a part of a dining experience or business transaction that became very awkward because of this aspect of shame?