Dear all patrons who frequent retail or hospitality based establishments,
I work in a reasonably respectable restaurant in an equally respectable part of Brisbane. I’m that girl in the ill-fitting, badly designed uniform. It’s not too bad, for the most part. I get food for a discounted price, and I get to work with some pretty awesome people. The worst part of my job is having to deal with you. And your family too.
What? You ask. Surely those people in the miscoloured uniforms must think the best of you because they always seem so happy! Yes, I smile a lot. I might even smile too wide and show too many of my teeth (you’re welcome, by the way). There’s even a cajoling voice that comes with that smile. You might find it annoying – I know I do, sometimes. I’ll talk to your kids about their holiday, or what they got from Santa for Christmas, or even about their toy car collection. I’ll might talk to you about the weather, or maybe something else. The state of the economy, perhaps. There are many of us. You might even know one or two who are like us. But this begs the question – how much do you really know about us?
A majority of us are university students. Young something-somethings, going on to do great things in life with a fire in our bellies and a go-getting attitude. Unfortunately, we’re also trying to be pseudo-adults, and that means working and saving and trying to contribute to society in some type of meaningful way. And so we’ve landed this job. Or a couple, in some instances. Sometimes, we even act like adults, so we think it strange when we’re not treated with the same respect we assume is second nature to those who are older than ourselves.
I don’t know when it became acceptable to be impolite to other people without expecting the same in return. Granted, we are in the store to work. We’re paid to do certain things, and there’s a certain level of competency associated with this transaction. But when I signed on the dotted line underneath ‘employee’, I certainly did not expect the type of treatment I had unwittingly thrown myself into.
There are some of you who are lovely, and who I would gladly stop and talk to every time you come in. I’m sure my colleagues in the trenches would not hesitate to agree with me there. But there are some of you who are monsters, through and through. There must be some type of trigger that extracts the maturity from adults as soon as they cross the boundary into a store. Strangely, this doesn’t occur to children or younger adults, though this might be because they didn’t have this maturity to begin with. Often it’s the kids who apologise for the parents, and what a world it’s turned into, where this type of behaviour is considered commonplace.
There are hiccups, as there are with any workplace. We don’t do it on purpose. I swear we don’t. We don’t do it to make your lives hard. We don’t get a kick out of it. When something is out of stock, we really do not have it in the store. We’re physically unable to provide it to you. There’s no kind of special magic or powder we can sprinkle to make it appear just because you want it. There are also certain requests that are, put simply, goddamn impossible. Swearing and being impatient with us is, contrary to popular belief, also not an effective method to get us to produce a vacuum cleaner that we don’t have or to get your very well done steak cooked in five minutes.
My stomach always drops whenever a customer mentions the word ‘refund’. I’m pretty sure two or three gallstones also manifest themselves in said customer to make them even more of a pain in the ass than they’re allowed to be. You’re getting your money back for an unsatisfactory product. Isn’t this what you wanted? The part of the refund process most customers struggle to deal with is the collection of details. We’re not going to us your details for anything other than proving that we didn’t steal the money, or give it to friends or family. What else would we use your phone number for anyway? It’s not like we have a business going on the side where we sell them to a call center that then proceeds to call you every day at 7pm at night. Honestly, they probably have your number already.
I don’t know if it’s because we look young and impressionable, and you’re able to roll over us with the sheer force of your impoliteness, but at some point this kind of behaviour became acceptable. I don’t think you understand that for us, the local coffee shop or that clothing store that only sells dresses in a particular style and size is our office. We moan about our jobs to our friends, just like you complain about yours – in our case, we probably complain about you instead of the mound of paperwork you have piled up on your table. We do work there, just like you office dwellers do in yours, and most of us do a pretty damned good job of it. But we get judged and graded by the general public over our performance. We know you do it – even if it is unconsciously. And if we do even one thing that is distasteful to someone’s sensibilities, we get pulled up on it straight away, whereas the opposite is seldom the case.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, please try and be nice. Even if it’s against what you believe is right (we do it for you!) We’re here to help, especially if you’re polite and considerate. That feels weird to say, because people should be polite and considerate to begin with. We’re people too, with functioning eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings. We have really good days and really bad days. And so I’ll leave you with something to ponder, and maybe even act on – on behalf of all of us slaving it away in shopping centres and pop up stores.
Maybe next time ask that girl at the register how her day’s been. Say thank you to the boy packing shelves, and wish him a good day. Smile. Be kind. Act on the advice you give to your children – treat others how you would be like treated. We thank you for your service.
This piece was first published in the print version of Semper Floreat, volume 1, 2014.