The power dynamic between customers and anyone who works in food or retail is imbalanced. It’s like road rage: it’s become socially acceptable to treat service workers without dignity or respect.
I got my first retail job at 14. I stayed there for 10 years, putting myself through school. When I moved to the west coast, I immediately got a job working in coffee. All said and done, that’s 16 years of retail and food service. More than half my life has been spent behind a counter, facilitating transactions with a smile. I can say, with confidence and experience, that for a lot of people, retail and food service employees are lower than low. They deserve to be harassed. Like punishing a dog for misbehaving. They can’t fathom that they’re in the wrong.
If you want to avoid being an employee’s cautionary tale, or the unbelievable customer everyone gossips about behind the scenes, follow these simple rules and treat all humans like humans, not service drones.
Don’t ask people who are serving you out on a date.
This is mostly directed at cis/het men asking women out, but scum exists on every level, so this absolutely applies to everyone. This may be a newsflash to some, but part of our job is literally being nice to you. In fact, when presented with difficult situations, we often have no choice but to laugh and smile. Otherwise we could risk losing our jobs. For that reason, it is never cool to flirt with service workers unprompted. When I was 17, I worked at a used bookstore. A man in his 50’s began coming in specifically to see me. He’d leave presents for me when I wasn’t around: handmade candles, books of handwritten poetry where he called me his moon maiden, illustrations, etc. When I complained that this behavior was incredibly uncomfortable, even pointing out that I was underage, my boss shrugged it off. “He’s the customer, and he hasn’t done anything illegal.” Eventually, he just disappeared and I have no idea what happened to him. I was lucky it didn’t escalate further. My point being, even my boss took the side of this scumbag and I felt like I had to suck it up and deal with this total creep. Don’t be someone’s creep.
That being said, I have seen relationships flourish between customers and service people, with one very important note: the employee was the one who initiated the relationship/flirting. Let us set the boundaries.
Temper tantrums are not age appropriate, ever.
My first coffee shop job was on a beach. I quickly became one of the shift leads, and my first summer there, I was training a 16 year old girl. It was her first job ever; she needed special documentation from her parents to even have this job, due to her age. Her first day as an actual employee and not just a shadow, I put her on the register. She was doing fine. Kind of slow, but what can you do? That’s what learning looks like. A middle-aged man completely lost his marbles. He was red-faced, screaming at her for not knowing how to do her job, spewing spit on the counter like a rabid animal. She looked like she was about to cry. I stepped between them and said: “Sir, you are yelling at a child. You need to stop.” This only really succeeded in him redirecting his ire at me, but that was fine. I’d been yelled at by unhappy customers for years. I’d been called a bitch and a moron; I’d been accused of harassing people who had spent the last five minutes chewing me out; I’d been told, firmly, that “they were the customer, I was the employee, this is what happens.” In truth, this never happens between fellow service people. We never abuse each other in this way when we’re shopping or getting coffee or going out for brunch. Because we know this is a hard, often thankless job. Really, the “customer/employee” dynamic they’re describing, where a customer gets to treat another person with rage and disrespect, only happens when on some level, you decide to treat those workers differently than you treat other humans. We’re being abstracted like a line of code until nothing is left but a caricature for others to yell at.
Here’s the biggest secret of all: we actually want to help you. If there’s a problem, if you have a complaint or want to return something, we want to resolve it. We just also want to be treated like fellow adults while we do it.
Stop talking about our bodies. Seriously.
I’ve had customers comment that my outfit (a simple pair of jeans and a t-shirt) was meant to get more tips. I’ve had customers give me unsolicited weight-loss advice. They’ve asked me how I lost so much weight. I’ve been asked to dress sexier, to dress more conservatively, to wear makeup, to stop hiding my face. And, I’m sure you’ve heard about this one, to smile more.
For fuck’s sake, let us work in peace.
And for the record, smiles aren’t on the fucking menu.
Stop assuming you know our lives.
I’ve had customers bowled over by the fact that I went to college. Even more so if they find out I have a Master’s degree. You want to hear a secret? Professional academia is hard and competitive. Being a barista paid roughly 3x more than teaching English to teens. Like, have you seen the economy? Professionals across the board are getting part time service jobs to make ends meet. Rent can’t be covered by minimum wage anywhere in this country. Fun fact: the most amazing people I’ve ever met have worked in retail and food service. Many of them were drop outs. Others were going to school. Some were going back to school. Others were raising families, or just happy with the job they had.
Your job, your salary: these things don’t affect your intrinsic value as a person. Stop looking down your nose at service workers like they’re uneducated, stupid, or failures.
You still expect them to bring you your coffee, right?
Baristas, waitresses, bussers, bartenders: we all live off our tips. Part of the appeal of jobs like this is that you have a chance to actually pay all your bills on a minimum wage paycheck, thanks to the tips. Again, minimum wage can’t cover rent and expenses anywhere in the United States. There’s already a biased expectation when companies and restaurants are hiring: you should work extremely hard, be extremely skilled, and work for peanuts. Don’t contribute to that mindset.
If there’s an opportunity to tip, always tip. Don’t know how much to tip? 20%. Can’t afford that? Then you can’t afford to eat out tonight. Simple.
In short, just treat your fellow humans with respect and dignity. And remember: the people who bring you your food or bag up your groceries are working very, very hard. Maybe smile back?