I find it hard to walk past Starbucks before 9am and not go in. I don’t know why, because I don’t like coffee and I’ve never experienced BEING WIRED IN THE AM and my favourite Starbucks drink is actually that mango and passionfruit juice that’s 93% ice. While I waited for a train a few weeks ago, I stood in a queue for such a drink. It was 6.55am, and I was tired. The man next to me yawned without holding his hand over his mouth. He was tired. The baristas smiled but their eyes stayed kind of small, like when I wake up first thing in the morning and my boyfriend calls me a little shrew. They were tired.
The lady next to me ordered her drink quickly. She didn’t say “Please”, or “Thank you” or even “I LOVE the chocolate swirls that you guys do. I probably shouldn’t have them for breakfast but 500 calories, 500 shmalories AM I RIGHT” like I have been known to do. Her mouth stayed straight, in a line that only curved slightly when she spoke. She complained when her drink took longer than a couple of minutes to make, then grabbed it from the barista’s hand and swooped out of the cafe.
Seeing this, I ramped up my “Oh, wonderful! Thank you so much!” ordering spiel. I wanted to go back to bed, but so did the entire Starbucks workforce, I figured, so I made a big deal of showing my appreciation for the fact that they were amicably serving a never-ending queue of commuters with morning breath. As always, I kept my voice kind and my mouth turned upwards. The lady taking my order drew a smiley face on my cup. I told her to have a really nice day.
Whenever anyone is rude or indifferent or a bit half-assed – like the stern-faced lady – my mum always says “You don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives.” We’ve argued over this sentence more often than we quarrelled over the length of my school skirt when I was 15. I know that she’s right – of course you don’t know what’s going on in anyone’s life, unless they tell you, and even then they tend to leave the worst bits out unless you have known them for years or they are one of those people that befriends you on the bus and tells you about the funeral they went to that morning. Stuff can get pretty grim sometimes. Someone who’s buying milk on a Monday morning isn’t just thinking about their soon-to-be-made cup of tea. They are a person, with worries and ageing parents and an upcoming mammogram and maybe a mortgage. I get that.
Maybe it’s because I’ve worked pretty much every general-public-facing job going (I am the queen of customer service thanks to my years spent serving potatoes in Spud-u-like, getting patted on the bum while waitressing and helping people choose which coffee machine will improve their life tenfold as a member of a homeware department) but not knowing what’s going on in other people’s lives doesn’t really make their outbursts any easier to deal with.
During my time in retail, one woman called me stupid because I didn’t know what a canister was. I know now, but only due to Google and the expertise of my grandma, who told me that it is actually some sort of a storage jar. When someone says ‘canister’ I can only think of LANNISTER and YES, maybe that is because I have spent too many hours watching Game of Thrones when I should have been getting some much-needed vitamin D but I still maintain that there was no need for the ‘s’ word.
When I was waitressing, a man shouted at me for saying “Hi, guys!” as I approached his table. “WE’RE NOT ALL GUYS; THERE ARE TWO WOMEN HERE,” he yelled, “WHAT ARE YOU, AMERICAN?”
I smiled blandly and said “Can I get you any drink top-ups?”
“NO,” he shouted, “We’ve got drinks. We want to get our fucking food and we want you to leave us alone.”
I had no idea what was going on in this man’s life. He could have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness the day before. His wife – who didn’t look overly happy – might have just said “I WANT A DIVORCE, RICHARD, AND I’M TAKING THE DOG.” I don’t know. But whatever was currently going on behind the scenes for him, did that make it okay for him to talk to me in the way he did?
What I noticed during my public-facing stint – and still continue to see, all the time – is that some people genuinely do believe that they are just that little bit better than McDonalds workers and bar staff and shelf-stackers. There is a pecking order in their mind. I’ve heard too many comments that have warranted my (very forced) “Oh, well, maybe they’ve just had some… erm… bad news?” response to think otherwise.
I’ve experienced what I’d call PROLONGED STRESS. I haven’t felt grief, I haven’t ever had any completely unexpected and awful news, but I’ve dealt with my fair share of shit and I can’t remember one occasion when I’ve shouted at a shop assistant or told the person who made my hot chocolate wrong that they were an idiot who needed to pull their metaphorical socks up. My mum is generous and eternally patient and I agree that we all need to cut people some slack and try to understand that life is hard for everyone. But doesn’t that work both ways? Couldn’t the canister lady who shouted “YOU STUPID GIRL!” in my face and got spit on my nose have paid me the same courtesy? She didn’t know what was going on in my life, either.
Although they weren’t easy, I think working these jobs did me some good. I’m now even more acutely aware of how I speak to the people who serve me, whether it’s in the post office or at my local pub. If I’m out for a meal with you and you don’t thank our waiter or waitress as your food is placed on the table, I automatically start to dislike you a little. If you think it’s funny to leave three pence as a tip, my longing to go home will increase by the second. I feel like you can tell a lot about someone by how they treat the person who takes their order at Nando’s or scans their new chinos at the till. And if it’s not largely with kindness, I wonder if maybe they should try their hand at the customer-serving roles they think they’re better than. They might learn a thing or two.