Why Sensitive People Aren’t Made for the Service Industry

Tuesday, March 08, 2016
            I’ve been working in the general mall vicinity since I was 16. I remember the day I turned 16 very clearly. I wasn’t getting my driver’s license for another few months because my learner’s permit was delayed due to some unforeseen circumstances, which pushed back my freedom for what seemed like a million miserable years in teenager time. My mother wished me happy birthday and asked me when in the hell I was getting a job like it was one longwinded word, rather than the well wish she intended. My twin sister, the favorite child of that year, already had a job lined up as a Waterway Associate, which was another way to label a glorified car drier. She literally dried off cars after they were washed. My mother claimed she didn’t play favorites, but my siblings and I can tell you the exact moments when we knew who she preferred more based on who was causing her the least amount of trouble. I didn’t have something to occupy my time and get me out of her house or was able to pay my own way to seeing a PG-13 rom-com so I in this moment, was the trouble.
            So when she said happybirthdaywheninthehellareyougettingajob, I knew that I had to find work or I would not hear the end of it. I applied to everything I could find: a “model” at Hollister, a cashier at Target, hell I would have been a glorified car drier with my sister at that point, just to appease my mother’s growing discontent. I got a phone call from a place called Squeeze a week later who wanted to interview me that day. I didn’t even remember applying or where it was even located. I showed up and this lady with blonde hair, a deep cigarette voice, and long fingernails, without ever questioning my credentials (which besides after school newspaper meetings was none) or anything else regarding me as a human, asked me my T-shirt size and when I could start.
            I made smoothies at Squeeze for six years after that day. I was such a smoothie connoisseur by the end of it, I was actually worried that I had no real skills to offer the world when I finally threw in the towel. Could you put master juicer on an application, I wondered. Besides the speed at which I could whip out a smoothie, my job was not really that grueling. Yes, I have never done that much physical grunt work in my working life since, but for the most part I got to hangout with some really cool people who had real dreams outside of the purple and green painted walls covered with stock photos of people doing active things like skateboarding with a larger-than-comfortable smile on their faces.
            While my coworkers made me feel important and genuinely cared about, it was the customers who made me feel like I was small.
Being one of the only people who surpassed the work lifespan of four general managers, I was promoted pretty steadily throughout the six years. I dealt with a lot of upset customers throughout the thousands of interactions with mall guests. But when someone is yelling at you over the price-to-weight ratio of frozen yogurt and you can only respond with a smile as she is blaming solely you for her unrest, eventually you get pretty worn out. My skin would heat up, as all the blood would rush to my face trying to contain my real emotions. My body often confuses frustration with sadness, so my eyes would well up with tears and I would have to force them down as I tried to calmly rectify every negative situation with as much patience as I could muster. I would say I was relatively good with resolutions as most people would leave at least partially satisfied that their drink or frozen treat was comped or made perfectly the second time around at no extra cost. But days, weeks, even months after, I couldn’t let those moments go. I would beat myself up about them and what I did wrong.
            With how many items I sold and created, only a small percentage of those were riddled with mistakes. I know because I worked hard to make everything as correctly as possible, even with next-to-impossible mods or customer-crafted orders that didn’t actually exist on the menu. If the orders were wrong, I would do everything in my power to make sure the customer’s needs were met and they were happy. I was doing my best, why were they still mad? Couldn’t they see?
I started a serving job at a restaurant soon after I left my position at the smoothie place. My first serving shift involved a man writing everything he perceived I did wrong on the receipt. I didn’t order fries and you gave me fries with my burger, he struggled to fit next to the tip line, which read $2 on a $60 order. I remember picking up the bill, my eyes met by the wife’s, as if to say I apologize on behalf of my husband. I knew there was something wrong every time I walked up to the table.
 Later, I unfolded the receipt, which was a deliberate crumpled mess to conceal the message inside. My eyes fixated on those words and the small tip he left out of courtesy. You didn’t ask me how I’d like my burger cooked. My experience was terrible. It was my fault. I had ruined his night. I had all but defined his dining experience at this specific restaurant and he was never coming back because of my lack of knowledge. I felt defeated. I cried in my car as soon as my shift ended.
Two years have passed since and in addition to being a server, I am also the weekend day leader. In my new position, I haven’t had many experiences requiring a guest requesting a manager’s presence out of dissatisfaction, until recently.
A new server was having difficulties with a table because of their food. One of the three guests wished to speak with a manager. Damn, that’s me, I thought, blinking back sleep deprivation. I walked over to the table and spoke with the woman about her concerns, which were extremely valid. As a server/manager/once a smoothie freak, I am very candid when it comes to the service I give and have come to expect to receive when I dine out. I apologized profusely about the situation, told her we already took care of her meal, hoped she would give us another chance. Before I could finish my spiel of sincere regret, the woman’s older mother interjected. This is actually unacceptable, as if the words spilled out of my mouth were offending her.
I will never be coming back. I will never ever come back. Most people I tell this story will say “Good! I hope she never comes back!” But this wasn’t what I was feeling as her voice quickly rose, the increasing level solely directed at me. I’m sorry, ma’am were the only words I mouthed, hoping they would somehow shield me from her annoyance with me. Her daughter quickly stopped her, assured me they were all fine now and the problem was fixed. I walked to the office and shut the door to catch my breath.
She was mad at me, the conversation clearly turned into an attack on me. And I’m not strong enough to say that it didn’t hurt. For a second, I did believe that this lady was never coming back again because I couldn’t do anything right. I can’t make a smoothie with the right ingredients, I can’t bring out the right burger with the right sides, and I can’t make a person believe that this instance and resulting interaction doesn’t reflect on the restaurant as a whole. At least I think that’s what I’m inclined to believe because the situation was promptly addressed and they were provided with what normally would be a satisfactory solution.
Maybe people complain because they don’t want a solution. They just need a punching bag. The people that work in the service industry are just the easy targets. Customers need a face to place blame and I’ve come to accept that person has to sometimes be me.
Throughout all my job experiences, I’ve been yelled at, called names, told I wasn’t good enough, and have been berated day after day by all different kinds of people. It’s sad to think that this has come to be expected as just a part of the job. This is normal. The number one unwritten job qualification: be able to endure and deflect constant insults.
I’m not saying I don’t love working in the service industry. I’ve had many great experiences with people, some of whom have actually made existing very wonderful. I’ve been tipped well over a hundred percent for no reason, I’ve gotten notes of gratitude, notes that have complimented on either me or my work ethic and have restored confidence in me, have been told by people how our interaction has made their evening, I’ve even received an invite to a wedding. And I appreciate the small things, like when someone remembers my name after I’ve greeted them and have almost forgotten that I even told them what it was. And the greatest of all, when I worked at a cosmetic company, a client has told me I made them feel beautiful, which thinking about even now makes me smile a stock photo larger-than-comfortable smile that I thought existed only on wall art.
I am just a person, too, and I don’t want your experience to be terrible, just as much as I don’t want mine to be. Maybe I am not made for the service industry because I believe that we should all treat each other with kindness and respect, from all ends.  I don’t want to be in constant fear of who I’m going to deal with today. I don’t want to deal with you. I want to have engaging conversations with you, I want you to change my world in the smallest of ripples. I want human interaction, even if it starts with a disgruntled customer, to be one where I walk away knowing that I could turn days around. And I am going to work in the service industry anyway, believing that one day that could be possible, no matter how much the bad experiences may affect me.


  1. Ariel, I loved this! Your writing style was so you. I read this in your voice. ;P

    1. Aw thank you Chloe! And thanks for the wonderful comment :)


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