Re-evaluating what’s common: Taking a closer look at sense, courtesy and knowledge in the world of customer service

 Cr. Philip Patston

Cr. Philip Patston

As a server in downtown Toronto, I’ve experienced my fair share of nightmare-ish interactions with customers who don’t seem to understand that I am actually a human being with some degree of self-respect still intact. So, after nearly four years in the service industry, I’ve come to a couple realizations about some things we tend to take for granted: 1) common knowledge is never shared; 2) common courtesy no longer exists, and 3) common sense is not that common. Go ahead and call me a bitter old pessimist — you wouldn’t be the first — but for anyone who’s worked with people on a daily basis, I’m sure you see the kernel of truth in each of those statements. And for those of you who have only ever stood on one side of the counter, please read between my passive-aggressive grumblings and take the moment to re-evaluate your own preconceived notions about what’s truly common.

The truth is no one dreams of becoming a sales clerk or a waitress, and I certainly don’t know anyone who takes these kinds of jobs for the love of customer service. That’s because, on some level, we all know that dealing with people on a regular basis is demanding and, all too often, demeaning work. Or do we? Perhaps, as someone who grew up with friends and family in the industry, I was privileged to understand the hard work and emotional labour that go into those perpetually cheerful smiles. Perhaps that isn’t such common knowledge after all. And perhaps it is the right of any paying customer to refer to their waitress or sales clerk by whichever creepy nickname they please, instead of the name listed on their name tag. And maybe, just maybe, a guy who’s deathly allergic to mushrooms shouldn’t have to mention that fact before ordering the chicken fettuccine, or anything in a restaurant for that matter, because his waiter should just be able to tell from the wrinkle on his forehead!

Now I can’t say for certain whether the hell customers put me through on a daily basis is intentional on their part or if the grouchy old couple who come for dinner four nights a week truly believe that my only ambition in life is to wait on their every beck-and-call in hopes that they’ll toss a fiver my way. Either way, let me be perfectly clear: I am a server, not a servant. I may earn a measly salary and rely on tips to get by, but that does not give a customer the right to treat me as a lesser human. Standard courtesy and practicality should come into play in every social interaction, regardless of the environment or dynamic.

Although we have officially entered an age where machines are phasing out human labour in the service industry, for the foreseeable future, stores and restaurants will still be manned by living, breathing people (not unlike from the people they serve), so the least any of us can do is abide by the Golden Rule and show a little respect. Chivalrous concepts of courtesy may be drawing their final ragged breaths and we may be living next door to the real-life Idiocracy, but that doesn’t mean that a shared sense of common decency has to die. Common decency is a pretty vague term, so let me be precise: respect the time, effort, and personhood of everyone you encounter and, chances are, you’ll be on the right path. Because when it comes down to it, we’re all just trying to make it through the day.