How do you handle dealing with customers who make you uncomfortable -- when you were hired to be friendly and available/approachable . . . and maybe for your looks, too?
posted by anonymous to human relations (45 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I was recently hired as a barista at a well-known chain of coffee shops. Although I grew up an ugly duckling, my looks now are unusual/striking (although I don't see it, I'm told I'm attractive, and I get some modeling work). My type is especially favored by the demographic of the neighborhood where I live and now work. (For comparison, imagine I'm a six-foot redheaded white girl working in a US city's Chinatown.) After I was hired, coworkers told me that the manager based his decision partially on my "rare" looks. It's been a long time since anyone got hired at this location, especially without any experience, and all applications are now being turned down, so obviously there was some reason an exception was made for me -- that could be true.
Baristas are also chosen to be especially friendly and sociable, which I did know. I didn't expect to have difficulty with that, since I'm a pretty friendly and welcoming person, but I also didn't realize what it would be like to work with the general public. Even in high school, I only had white-collar office jobs. I don't mind this job -- the duties are mostly interesting and the coworkers are a lot of fun. In this economy, I'm okay with scrubbing toilets. But I just don't have any experience with dealing with the general public face to face, so I don't know what to do.
There are a lot of men who treat me in a way I'm not comfortable with. No customers have made lewd, explicit comments the way some men do on the street, but I still feel uncomfortable with the way some male customers interact with me. I'm not sure I can complain, though, since this is basically what I was hired for, apparently. Tips have increased 125% since I started working full-time, so the manager and coworkers are all happy (all tips go into a communal pot, then at the end of the week it's divided equally based on hours worked). I'm the one who feels not so happy, awkward and unsure of myself. If I were okay with profiting off my looks at the expense of my comfort, I could be making a lot more money doing sex work, but I consciously decided against that.
There are some customers who just look too much at my body or who treat me differently/uncomfortably. But those encounters are brief (usually just seconds while ordering or while I make their coffee) so I can deal with those if I have to. Anyway, I don't think it would be realistic to try to stamp out things like "good morning, beautiful" or "my drink tastes better when it's made with your smile." I feel like those should be totally fine with me if I had the coping skills I should have learned as a young teenager, but I was very, very unattractive until I was 20. So I feel like that discomfort is my fault and something I should learn to ignore.
However, the biggest issue feels different, and even if I had grown up attractive, even if I knew how to handle myself, I think it would still be problematic. There are a few eccentric older men who have made this coffee shop their hangout spot. I'll choose one, "Gary," as an example. He's older, retired, and spends almost all day here (from late morning until we close at midnight). At least once per shift, he'll come up to me and strike up a long conversation. This is while I'm trying to do other things (sweep, restock, clean) -- but I can't use that as an excuse since my #1 job duty is to be welcoming and accessible. Gary has also started bringing me gifts, which was fine when it was little things like Lindt truffles, but over the course of two weeks, it's progressed to DVDs (of a 3-hour interview he wants me to watch so we can discuss). Apparently Gary has given little things to girls in the past, but coworkers are remarking how much he likes me especially. All his gifts are presented with speeches about qualities he's projecting onto me. He's a little socially awkward and he seems like a dead-on "Nice Guy," so I'm scared about what he might expect, or feel he deserves, in exchange.
I don't feel physically threatened, I think. I'm a little concerned because he always stays until we close at midnight, and it would be easy for him to follow me the 2 or 3 deserted blocks back to my apartment. Mostly, though, I just feel like his behavior is inappropriate and making me uncomfortable, and I don't know how to avoid it.
I'm afraid to approach the manager because I don't want to be perceived as a complainer, not a team worker, or someone who's ignoring their main job duty. (I'm also a little concerned about the manager's impartiality if he did hire me based on my looks.) I can't be politely dismissive or brusque with Gary, or "too busy" to talk to him, for the same reasons -- being friendly is basically my top task. I can't blame company policy to turn down his gifts, since other girls always accept/have accepted them. I'm not sure what else I can do. To work, I wear loose black polo and pants, a loose green apron, my long hair tied back into a severe bun under a baseball cap, glasses rather than contacts, and no makeup at all. In general I want to appear not attractive, and especially not looking for validation or feedback based on my looks.
I'm also changing my behavior. Occasionally I would play around, dancing with the mop or humming along with a song, and I think this playful or fun nature also contributed to my hiring. Now I stop myself from doing that because I want to seem businesslike and I don't want to give Gary anything else to talk about, or a chance to see anything more personal about me. I'm also reluctant to be friendlier with other customers or with coworkers, in case Gary sees that and comments (to me or to my manager) that I'm not being equally genuine and open with him. So I feel that Gary, and the other guys like him, are having a significant effect on my confidence and my behavior, but that still isn't a solution -- in fact the issue is still escalating.
I sincerely appreciate any possible advice, since I have no idea what to do -- I just can't quit. In this economy I'm very lucky to have gotten even a job as a barista (full-time, with benefits!). I realize I'm kind of stuck in a corner here, which is why I'm coming to AskMe, so "just put up with it so you can pay the rent" may be the best suggestion there is, which is fine. Thank you guys so much.