By MARY HOOD HART
The other night, I took my three younger children for ice cream. It was after nine o’clock, a little late, but nothing out of the ordinary in a resort area like ours. We chose a shop that’s part of a large chain. It was well-lighted and through the windows we could see about a dozen patrons inside. As we approached the entrance, a young man, an employee of the store, hurried to the front door. Before we could try the knob, without making eye contact or offering a word of explanation, the employee locked the door. Stunned, the kids and I stood outside the door waiting for an explanation, but the employee ignored us. A patron who witnessed the whole thing approached the employee to ask him to let us in, with no success.
While I’ve grown accustomed to a lower standard of customer service in many areas of life, I was taken aback by this level of rudeness. Driving to a second ice cream shop, the kids and I rehashed the situation. There were no clues the shop was closed or even due to close soon. It was full of customers, illuminated; even the large, neon “Open” sign was lit.
I decided to write a letter to the manager, the owner, perhaps even the chain’s CEO. The kids and I were indignant. But later that evening, a conversation with my oldest child, Katie, 15, tempered my indignation and helped me gain perspective. Katie has a summer job serving ice cream and fudge at a tourist shop, a block from the beach. I was driving her home from work later that same evening when I launched into my tirade about the clerk’s behavior. Expecting Katie to assure me SHE would never treat a customer like that, I heard her wearily remark: “He shouldn’t have locked the door in your face that way. But when it’s closing time, even ONE scoop of ice cream is too much.”
Suddenly, I was able to look at the situation in a new light. Yes, the clerk’s people skills left a lot to be desired. No, he shouldn’t have handled the situation as he did. But through Katie’s eyes, I could be more forgiving of his mistake. She went on to tell me how much empathy she’s gained for people in service jobs. And seeing her at the end of her shift, exhausted and sticky to her shoulders from dipping ice cream, I started to feel more understanding, too.
It’s been a long, long time since I worked a minimum wage job. I’ve forgotten what it’s like. Yes, many servers are inadequately trained, sullen, even lazy. I’ve heard managers’ horror stories about how difficult it can be to hire reliable, hardworking employees. But there’s also another side to the story, another side of the counter. And now that my daughter’s experiencing life on that other side, I’m learning patience. Knowing Katie is personable and hardworking — but not perfect — I’m hoping her employers and customers will be patient when Katie makes mistakes.
Even the hardest workers have bad nights. They get confused, flustered, tired. Even a clerk with a sullen attitude can be softened when approached with a little good humor, an enthusiastic greeting, common courtesy. As customers, we must never lose sight of a server’s humanity, dignity. When I really think about it, I know I’ve witnessed more instances when customers have behaved rudely than the other way around. Indeed, people in the service industry deserve a lot of credit for graciously tolerating boorish behavior. And the majority of them work long and hard for low wages. While that fact doesn’t excuse poor service and a bad attitude, it makes such problems easier to understand.
Years ago, I ate lunch at a fast food restaurant with my friend, Sister Jane Claire Simon. Before eating, Sister Jane Claire said the blessing, including a prayer of gratitude for those who had prepared and served our food. I was struck by the simple beauty of that prayer. To be mindful of and grateful for those who serve in even the most mundane settings is indeed a basic practice of our faith. Yet it is a practice too easily overlooked as we hurry through our lives.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.