“Apple, chips, or bread?” I asked one of them like I’d ask them all, simply trying to chisel the ever-growing line of hungry and impatient paying customers.
They all looked the same, but we did too.
We were the tan-hatted, green-aproned products of a corporation given a script to up-sell and distinguished only by what color sharpie we chose to use on our name-tags.
“I’ll have the apple chips!” said the idiot customer with naive enthusiasm.
I responded with an emphasis on every word, “Apple–comma–chips–or—bread.”
I was eighteen at the time. As I matured so did my grace and technique, and, years later, I even developed creative strategies to appease my individualist instinct despite the mundane realities of the minimum wage job. Eventually, at my store, I became known as the schmoozer who could get away with saying almost anything to a customer because I served it with a baby-faced smile and a side of oceanic pupils.
“No tomato,” the customer demanded with hunger in his eyes barking like a pit bull.
“Okay, extra tomato!” I’d retort.
“NO tomato! NO TOMATO!”
“I’m kidding. I got it. No tomato,” I said with a smile. “What else can I get for you?”
While I wouldn’t suggest this strategy for everyone, it worked for me. Not only did I feel like I was being a little more my authentic self, but my approach would crack a smile on a customer’s face, and it broke down the emotionless barrier that made two unique and special human beings nothing more than a product and a payment.
Allowing myself the freedom to be me, something that corporate wasn’t actually taking away from me, was an invaluable turn in my ability to be an effective employee. And as I reflect on this season of my life today, I take away two lessons, packed in a styrofoam clam to-go, you could say.
I Can Be Me Wherever Me Is
In general, we hang our true selves in the break room, and fake a smile to satisfy what is expected of us as we battle to keep all of our emotions in. Those who deal with anxiety and depression inherently struggle with allowing the world to see them exactly as they are, especially when their jobs depend on it. But, really, we’ve all succumb to the pressures that rob us of ourselves by sacrificing our individualism on the alter of cultural expectation.
Don’t trap yourself in the world of others’ expectations, and don’t allow yourself to entertain the thought that someone else has the right to take you away from you. No person, corporation, community, or internal tornado of emotions can take away your unique personality or your quirky ways. Yes, it’s wise to maintain a level of regard for your surroundings, and it’s good to have the self-control it takes to not blow up on anyone who blinks at you wrongly. But, there are outlets for your authentic self no matter where you are, and you should be active in exploring those small opportunities.
I still wore the hat, the apron, and the name tag–I was a compliant employee–but altering my mindset in the workplace changed my experience, attitude, and approach for the better. I even liked my job more, started climbing the promotional ladder, and stayed there for years after. Ultimately, embracing myself with confidence helped me to twist the sterile interaction between a product and a payment into an actual human connection.
Acknowledge The Individual
The second reflection from this experience is about the insurmountable importance of acknowledging the individual in everyday interactions.
Like most who have worked in customer service, I am a better customer because of my past employment. And I know that the pubescent college kid, tapping on a register, donned in corporate attire is as much a unique and special human being as the walking wallet looking for grub, parroting, “Customer’s always right. Customer’s always right!”
This might seem like a ridiculous concept to take time to clarify, but unless you’ve worked in customer service, you might not realize the condescending extent to which some patrons will go to get what they want, when they want it. It’s incredible how people will trample over others to appease their appetite. And not just in a restaurant.
So, no matter which side of the register you’re on, if you’re a jerk, stop being a jerk. But, if you’re not a jerk, great. You can still make conscientious efforts to recognize people as people. It doesn’t have to be hard. There is amazing power in something as simple as a name.
I Said Her Name
There was a cashier at my neighborhood Ace Hardware.
She was in college. Quiet. Invisible. I don’t remember that she even looked me in the eye when she cashed me out. And as she replayed the motions she’d learned in training with the lack of enthusiasm she’d acquired from experience, I read her name-tag.
I questioned, Is it a long A as in “why should I care about her name; she’s just doing her job”? Or is it a short A as in “she is a human too, no matter her workplace or attire, and she is worthy of even the smallest ounce of recognition”?
I thought about taking the easy way out, and leaving the typical “thanks” on the counter like a quarter tip. But, instead, I asked her, “Is it Dāvea or Davea?”
At that, like Lazarus from the dead, she came alive. Her eyes cracked the horizon of the register, and her lips drew like a scarlet curtain to reveal ivory teeth, pure like a line of ballerinas.
“Dāvea,” she said.
“Great. Thanks Dāvea.” I smiled back.
“You’re welcome, Doug.” Her smile lit the way to the exit.
How’d she know my name? It’s not a twist ending. I’m an Ace Rewards member so my name popped up on her screen, but, in that moment, instead of being customer number 116 (or whatever), I became Doug. That’s my name. It’s not much, but it’s everything. It is a small representation of all that I am–my strengths, my weaknesses, my past, present, future–my humanity.
That day, Davea and I had a tiny yet meaningful moment of mutual respect and honor. It was a moment that brightened each of our days.
There is amazing power in something as simple as a name.
“But, I’m bad at names,” you say.
No one is bad at names. It only takes effort.
Taking This Idea Elsewhere
The concepts within this blog post have the potential to influence us in more ways than one. Why recognize the individuals in a restaurant or an Ace Hardware without making it a part of our daily routine?
I fear that in this consumer culture in which we keep the world at arms length through the overuse of social media, we are caught in a web of dehumanizing one another. Your liberal aunt becomes nothing more than a democrat who supposedly kills babies. You think because your friend is conservative, he’s a racist bigot, one lost hair away from being a skinhead. The election was divisive, race relations are on thin ice, the battle of the sexes is an all-out war, and we live in a meta-narrative written for us, by us. Our shallow interactions with one another is the fuel to ignorant hatred and the dehumanizing of individuals with differing world views.
The internet, especially, is a web in which we’re tangled, rolling up like flies in a cocoon.
Our culture is obsessed with doing the impossible: trying to prove the innermost thoughts of one another as if that is what defines each of us, and we approach a Facebook post as if it is the doorway into a person’s soul. But, we are not defined by what we post, our political views nor our work uniform or even our names; we are defined individually by our everyday interactions with one another.
Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
How do you love? How do you care? How do you respect? How do you make people feel?
Don’t get lost in a meta-narrative. Get to know people on an individual basis. Listen to them. We must be more than product and payment. We are persons. Humans. Unique and special individuals who deserve respect, empathy, and acknowledgement.
This proposal is, of course, nothing new, but it will take a massive cultural shift in order to make it happen. If you don’t know where to start, it’s easy: with a name.
I made a note in my phone called “Names Matter,” where I collect the names of baristas or bartenders so I’d be able to remember them.
There are a lot of tricks to help with names. What tricks do you relay on?