Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Puppets (or: The Double Edged Sword of Projected Expectations)

Last night at work a familiar scene played itself out in the corner of the bar. Some guests had a perfectly  normal experience, and ended their stay by hailing a passing server to get a manager to lodge complaints about the evening that were a complete mystery to me.

The details are irrelevant, really. Perhaps they were angling for free food (our culture seems to support the transactional model of "here is my complaint--I'd like to redeem it for one free meal, please"), perhaps their expectations were unrealistic, or perhaps they didn't like the cut of our jib. The motivations of guests who fabricate complaints aren't really any of my concern. The other bartender and I provided perfectly fine service and we weren't in trouble, so we just shrugged and rolled our eyes and went about our business of giving perfectly fine service to our other guests.

I've been bartending for six years, and unfortunately it's taken me almost as long to reach a state of acceptance about my place in the world while I am in uniform. I spent a long time confused about it, as my bosses, coworkers, and the regular guests all seemed interested in me as a unique person (as I was, them), and so my assumption was that all the other persons I was interacting with also considered me as a fellow person. Having been raised my entire life by parents and a community of people who acknowledged that I am a special snowflake, worthy of consideration as an individual, it's easy to see why it has taken several years for that paradigm to shift.

All snark aside, it really has made my work life immeasurably less stressful to truly internalize that by and large, I am not important to my guests. Sure, the caliber of service I provide will impact their enjoyment of the 45 minutes I've been placed in charge of their food and drink, but I am but a cog in a machine. This realization shouldn't have taken so long, honestly. All those guests are cogs in my own personal life machine. Insert Bar Guest, Receive Money. Their lives outside of the walls of my bar are irrelevant to me, and their worth as a person is directly tied to the amount of drinks they order and how generous of tippers they are, so why should I expect them to care about my worth as a person outside of competently mixing up a tasty beverage?

The bright side of this is that when guests behave irrationally, I am a duck and their nonsense is water. Off my back. And such as. When someone starts our interaction by sullenly ignoring me, or snapping at me, it's easier to remember that it really isn't personal. When someone tries to scam a free meal by complaining about me because they've decided society's rules about payment for goods and services don't apply to them, I know it has nothing to do with me.*

The dark side is that sometimes I'm reminded of my interchangeable status after a bar guest has lulled me into a false sense of making real, human connection. I get plenty of people (men, usually) who obviously just want to talk about themselves and their own opinions--that's a fact of bartending I accepted long ago. No one wants to hear what I think about the Cub's bullpen when they have their own theories and gripes. What has surprised me, and taken me just as long to accept as the aforementioned zen-like shrugging, is when I find myself floundering through some sort of personal script a patron has lured me into. These scripts tend to take the form of the patron offering me advice, trying to "save" me from bartending. I used to not realize what was happening until they ignored my statements of "actually, I'm quite happy" by trying to convince me that I couldn't possibly be. I've since had enough experience with these conversations to see them starting, almost always with a "So, what else do you do?" which is rapidly followed by the patron telling me how smart, pretty, and capable I am. I hear that question and those words and heave a heavy, inward sigh, and hunker down for some concern trolling doused in paternalism, disguised as friendly banter.

These people don't know me. They've never met me before, and the only information they have about me is that I am cheerful and capable of pouring a Bud Light in a timely fashion. I'm no psychologist, but I feel pretty comfortable asserting that the people (men) who tell me how much potential I have after three minutes of interaction, and who spend the next thirty minutes telling me exactly how I can turn my life around, have a deep seated need to feel powerful and smart. I'm a captive audience member. I'm female. I'm in a position of service to them. They have implied social status over me in myriad ways, and by exercising that status to educate and inform me, they're enacting a scene for themselves where they themselves are smart, powerful, and capable. I could be anybody. I definitely don't have to be me, personally.

So, it's a double edged sword. Being a cog, in general**, protects my insides sometimes and shreds my insides sometimes. Mostly, I just want to mix some drinks, lament about the Cubs, and come home with some money.

*Obviously, sometimes I do mess things up and I take full responsibility for those mistakes--usually by apologizing, correcting the mistake, and offering something beyond mere correction to placate the angry folk and delight the understanding folk. I actually can't think of a time when I legitimately messed up/didn't notice a kitchen mistake that required a guest to request a manager of their own accord. Not to brag, but I'm relatively good at most aspects of my job, including foibles.

**I am not a cog in many specific cases. I have lots of regulars who like me as a person, and whom I enjoy as people. They ask about my husband and the TV shows we have in common, I inquire after their pets and and their upcoming international travel. We make each other smile and the 45 minutes we spend together some days leave us all with more than a full belly or a pocket full of tips.