Service With a Smile

There has been only one moment in my life when a person I didn't know almost made me cry. I was at work (a deli in a local farm store), chatting with a coworker when a tall, stately-looking woman in a long coat strode up and rested both of her perfectly manicured hands on the counter. From the obvious upward tilt of her chin to her frighteningly red lips, I was sure that I was witnessing the living incarnation of Cruella Deville; I half expected to see a small fleet of kidnapped Dalmatians at her feet. I walked up to serve her, perhaps a second or two after she arrived, and she immediately gestures to me and my coworkers and says,

"Excuse me, but is there anybody who could possibly help me?"

I glanced back at them, eyes pleading for someone else to step up, but it was already too late, I was closest to her. Ugh. I turn back around, smile, and address her as I do all customers:

"Hello m'am, how can I help you?"

Her eyes narrow and she purses her lips, perhaps deciding how to handle the incompetent teenage server in front her. Her finger then flies up, pointed at some salmon in the refrigerated case that separates us.

"I'll have a half pound piece of that more, no less."

I nod politely, and start preparing her fish. As I'm skinning it and slicing it into measured portions, I can feel her eyes on me...I know she's watching. In that instant, I felt like she wanted me to screw up, just so she could humiliate me further in front of my coworkers and other customers. Naturally, my face turned five shades of red -- not in anger, but in embarrassment. What if I did mess up? What if she yelled at me? Wasn't I doing my best?

I thought of all the articles I'd read that describe the frustrations people face working in customer service. Usually, these articles plead with the general population to go easy on those workers, because they're usually just trying to please people and be as amiable as possible. It sad but true that people can be so unnecessarily rude and pretentious to servers for absolutely no reason. The resounding feeling among us servers is that customers are rude because they think they're better than the server, that somehow being on the receiving end of service makes them more sophisticated or more accomplished. It's not hard to become frustrated with customers after eight hours on your feet and having made fifteen sandwiches. Of course, as servers, all we can do is continue to be polite, quietly fuming about the disrespect.

I finish portioning her fish and weigh it out. It comes out to a fiftieth of a pound under. She sees the weight and spits "no, absolutely not. I need the exact portion". My face is now completely red with embarrassment, and I get a new piece of fish and try again. Unfortunately, my second piece of fish was also minutely off her exact request of half a pound. Seeing this, she lets out an uncomfortably audible sigh of frustration

"Oh never mind" she says, exasperated, "I'll just take it, I can't have you wasting any more of my time."

My face is now an unhealthy shade of red, and I hurriedly wrap up her fish, tag it, and hand it to her. I watch her grab it, turn around, and stride away. Then, I walk past all my coworkers to the break area, take a drink of water, and let out a few choked sobs. I didn't cry, I just let out a couple tears of anger and frustration. This woman had just embarrassed me in front of my friends and managers, and walked away like it meant nothing. I wondered how someone could truly be that rude and inconsiderate.

It was easy to reason that she was just one of many mean customers the articles talked about, the ones who think they're justified to treat service workers poorly. I realize, however, that in the same way she wasn't considering my feelings, I wasn't considering hers. It was a moment of ironic hypocrisy, that I would criticize her for the very reason she was criticizing me. Maybe she was having a bad day, or maybe she had just had a tense conversation. Her interaction with me was most likely a reflection of anger, frustration, or distaste directed at another person or situation. Thus, I couldn't make a real judgement on her character based on this interaction. I've certainly been rude to people when I'm angry or sad, and I would hate if their image of me was based on that one instance.

I'm not condoning her behavior, but I do think this impolite, coarse woman deserves the same consideration we hope to receive from customers. You never know what's going on in someone's life or in someone's day, so it's better to always err on the side of kindness. Mutual respect in the cornerstone of server-customer relationships, so we should reserve judgement and assume that surly customers (or servers) aren't necessarily bad people... maybe just good people having a bad day.

I've served that women twice more since our initial interaction, and both times she was marginally kinder than that first day. So if you happen to be reading this, half-pound-salmon lady, I hope whatever was going on that day has passed, and I'll happily cut you some more fish.

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