Since the time I got my very first job (nigh on 7 years ago), I've been working in the service industry. Apart from the summer job I got once in a doctor's office, I've worked largely in coffee shops and restaurants - both in the kitchen and waitressing. Although it's certainly not what I want to do for the rest of my life (hence spending $30,000 on my education), there are some things that I quite like about it. I like that there are regulars who come in and like to chat with you. I like that I am able to temporarily brighten someone's day by not just serving them a cup of joe or a plate of fries, but by making a quick joke or flashing a brilliant smile. I have a soft spot for the single elderly people that come in obviously looking for human contact more than they are their medium black coffee, who linger at the counter or sit at the bar and talk to you whenever you walk by.
Much as I adore these sorts of interactions - and adore them I do - I have also had to deal with people who fall into a different category. People who also come to the coffee shop to enjoy a cup, and to feel better about themselves, but do so by going out of their way to make me, the captive audience and (in their mind) inferior counter girl, feel worse about myself. Take, for example, this interaction I had only last week:
A man came in, sat at the counter, and asked for a tea with milk. I took his money, served his change, poured the tea, and put it down in front of him. He immediately gave me a look of absolute scorn and informed me that he would not be drinking it. I peered at his tea with concern. The problem? There was the slightest bit of film along the top, as often happens when you mix cold milk with hot tea. While the science part of my brain understands the problem of adding a cold substance with a tendency to curdle to a slightly acidic hot beverage, the humanitarian part of my brain understands customer service and is slightly too nice. I apologized, cheerfully said that I would put on a new pot of tea for him, and smiled widely.
I served the new tea two minutes later when the tea was ready. I put it down in front of him, smiling once more, and said something to the effect of, "that looks much better, doesn't it", despite the fact that it looked the exact same to me (because it was, after all, just tea and milk). A very dour look settled on his face.
"May I ask you a serious question?", he asks. I say that he certainly may, hoping that it's a technical question about the tea brewing process.
"You saw how terrible that looked. Why did you serve it to me? You didn't expect that I would drink it." He pauses. I wait, knowing that this is not a question that he actually wants an answer to - my years of customer service have taught me to recognize that - and sure enough, he continues. "If I worked here, I would never serve something like that."
Ah yes, that line. I smile in what I hope will be seen as sympathy and respond: "Well then it is a shame that they aren't paying you to serve their beverages."
That, certainly, was not the answer he was expecting. I can read it in his face: was I being genuine? Was I mournful that the coffee shop isn't full of employees with such insight and dedication? Was I mocking him? He just can't decide. I shoot him another smile and move to the opposite end of the store where I busy myself cleaning out the toaster.
He sat there at the counter, glaring at me, for the better part of 20 minutes. I could feel the stare, but I didn't pay any heed. Truth be told, I pitied him. All this working in the service industry has made me feel very sad for the people whose lives are so small that they have nothing better to do than hold on to feelings of resentment against people such as me, who are just doing our jobs, although occasionally somewhat imperfectly.