I’m not a fan of ranting or sermons (unless it’s Sunday - and even then it really depends on the sermon).
Think of this as a desperate plea.
Yesterday, while I was trying to enjoy my manicure, I watched in horror as the two women across from me talked on their phones the entire time they were getting their manicures. They employed head nods, eyebrow raises, and finger pointing to instruct the manicurists on things like nail length and polish choices.
I really couldn't believe it.
I’ve had my nails done by the same two women for 10 years. I know their names (their real Vietnamese names), their children’s names, and many of their stories. They know my name, my children’s names, and many of my stories. When I finally made a comment about the women on their cell phones, they both quickly averted their eyes. Finally, in a whisper, Susan said, “They don’t know. Most of them don’t think of us as real people.”
On the way home, I stopped at Barnes & Noble to pick up a magazine. The woman ahead of me in line bought two books, applied for a new “reader card,” and asked to get one book gift wrapped without getting off of her cell phone. She plowed through the entire exchange without making eye contact or directly speaking to the young woman working at the counter. She never acknowledged the presence of the human being across from her.
After leaving Barnes & Noble, I drove through the Chick-fil-A drive-thru to get a Diet Dr. Pepper. Right as I pulled up to the window, my cell phone rang. I wasn’t quite sure, but I thought it might be Charlie’s school calling. I answered it. It wasn’t Charlie’s school – it was someone calling to confirm my hair appointment. I got off the phone as quickly as I could.
In the short time it took me to say, “Yes, I’ll be at my appointment,” the woman in the window and I had finished our soda-for-money transaction. I apologized to her the second I got off of the phone. I said, “I’m so sorry. The phone rang right when I was pulling up and I thought it was my son’s school.”
I must have surprised her because she got huge tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much. You have no idea how humiliating it is sometimes. They don’t even see us.”
I don’t know how it feels for her, but I do know how it feels to be an invisible member of the service industry. It can suck.
I worked my way through undergrad and some of graduate school by waiting tables. I worked in a really nice restaurant that was close to campus and a hot spot for wealthy college kids and their parents (parents who were visiting for the weekend and treating their kids and their kids’ friends to dinner). I was in my late 20’s and praying to finish my bachelor’s degree before I hit 30.
When the customers were kind and respectful, it was OK, but one “waiter as object” moment could tear me apart. Unfortunately, I now see those moments happening all of the time.
I see adults who don’t even look at their waiters when they speak to them. I see parents who let their young children talk down to store clerks. I see people rage and scream at receptionists then treat the bosses/doctors/bankers with the utmost respect.
And, I see the insidious nature of race, class, and privilege playing out in one of the most historically damaging ways possible – the server/served relationship.
Everyone wants to know why customer service has gone to hell in a handbasket.
I want to know why customer behavior has gone to hell in a handbasket.
When we treat people as objects, we dehumanize them. We do something really terrible to their souls and to our own.
Martin Buber, an Austrian-born philosopher, wrote about the differences between an "I-it" relationship and an "I-you" relationship. An "I-it" relationship is basically what we create when we are in transactions with people whom we treat like objects - people who are simply there to serve us or complete a task.
I-you relationships are characterized by human connection and empathy.
I’m not suggesting that we engage in a deep, meaningful relationship with the man who works at the cleaners or the woman who works at the drive-thru, but I am suggesting that we stop dehumanizing people and start looking them in the eye when we speak to them. If we don’t have the energy or time to do that, we should stay at home.
And, for the love of humankind, we need to get off of our damn phones and show some basic respect to the people who are standing in front of us.
Buber wrote, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”
I just don’t think treating each other with basic dignity is asking too much.
Thoughts? Ideas? Comments?
This article also ran in the Houston Chronicle and on MOREmagazine.com.
Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher, writer, and a much sought-after speaker whose reputation is built on her ability to explore vulnerable topics with tremendous honesty, warmth, and humor. She is a leading expert on Authenticity, Vulnerability and Courage; and the author of I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power and two forthcoming books, The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who We Think We Should Be and Embracing Who We Are (Hazelden, 2010) and Wholehearted: Spiritual Adventures in Falling Apart, Growing Up, and Finding Joy (Hazelden, 2011).