The ideas in this column are Danielle's. Like my Column 6, it is a cultural critique - she has noticed some trends in American culture from working in retail (at B&N bookstores). It's difficult for me to capture completely, but I'll give it a shot. Dani, tell me if I've got something wrong. Here goes:
Anyone who lives within the advertising range of CiCi's Pizza has heard the radio ad. A woman is welcomed to a fast-food restaurant by a clerk. Immediately she sets upon him; seems she expected the poor kid to open the door for her family (never mind the fact that in the ad, the young man is obviously behind the counter). What's more, she expects him to drop everything that he's doing at the time to take her order. She appears to blame the clerk for the fact that the food is taking forever, expects him to offer her two-year-old a high chair without her asking for one, and is disappointed when he says that he is on his break.
Rest assured, I will never eat at a CiCi's Pizza again.
I'm not cynical enough to believe that CiCi's is trying to send the message that the staff is at the center of fast-food's problems, or even part of them. The chain tries to make the point that fast-food is, by nature, a less pleasant experience than their restaurant. Their major unforgivable failing is this: they forget that the guy behind the counter is a living, breathing, sentient human being.
It's not an uncommon error. Those who have worked in retail all have stories of people treating them as if they were superhuman automatons, expecting them to be everywhere, do everything, and take their absurd and often condescending complaints with an understanding smile. People in clothing stores try on clothes and leave them wherever they feel like leaving them, not even bothering to clean up after themselves. Danielle has told me numerous times that she has had to replace stacks of magazines that people read and leave by their seat. The customer just tells himself, with a presumptuous air, "it'll be taken care of." My friend and former roommate Ben wrote a humor piece about how our fellow Vanderbilt students expected "magical services." The point, of course, is that people don't realize that other humans, ones just like themselves, are doing the brunt work.
If the flippant way in which customers often treat service employees sounds familiar, it's because you've seen it before. It appears in the novels of Dickens and the plays of Shakespeare. P.G. Wodehouse made fun of it brilliantly over a century ago. It is the way the stereotypical rich person would treat their servants - gruffly, uncaringly, as if they were invisible.
In America, people of all classes are encouraged to aspire upwards, that no matter how much money you have, it's better to have more. We are a nation of people who want to be rich. As a result, some middle-class Americans let their aspirations for money spill over into the way they conduct their interpersonal relations - in other words, they want to be rich, and they want to have servants.
Service employees fill this desire of the middle class to have servants. When a customer walks into a store nowadays, their working assumption is that the employee is their personal servant, and so corporate bosses make sure their employees act that way. The result is such inane philosophies like "the customer is always right," "never say no to a customer," and "service with a smile." No employee can even suggest to the most obnoxious customer that they are being rude or inconsiderate lest they risk dismissal. Essentially, the market - a reflection of the desires of the people, according to Adam Smith - has created a group of servants in response to the middle class' desires.
It is important for all consumers - and we're all consumers - to realize that retail workers are forced to act like the customers' servants. Retail workers are in no way servants, and do not deserve to be treated that way. When we are customers, we need to understand the following: No, the customer is not always right. No, it's not disrespectful when an employee doesn't smile. Yes, employees are - gasp - actual human beings. And yes, that means that everyone must treat the employee assisting them with the cordiality and respect that they deserve.