Am I prejudiced about friends working in service jobs?
May 6, 2008 5:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I get over the feeling of awkwardness/guilt/prejudice when I encounter my friends working in service positions?

I grew up in an upper-middle-class environment - my dad had a high-profile job, which meant a higher status amongst the local community, perks and privileges (such as a chauffeur and regular maids), and frequent events with the Who's Who of his industry. My mum always told me to "be part of society" and "remember, you are the MD's daughter".

I rebelled against the whole idea of "high society" (I didn't care much about class) but I didn't realize just how ingrained the whole thing was until I followed my family to dinner at a formal Chinese restaurant some years ago. One of the waitresses for our table happened to be an ex-classmate. I said Hi and she was pretty friendly back, but somehow I felt really embarrassed that she was serving me. Then I realized that the idea of her "serving" me seems rather embarrassing in itself.

I don't feel nearly as awkward when I meet a relative stranger working in service - as a cashier, waiter(ess), customer service, etc. I have also done some service work before (info booth, usher, etc) and generally enjoyed it. Yet when I see a friend behind the counter, I get really awkward and guilty, and the whole issue of class/social status/"omg they are SERVING me" gets muddled in my head. (I felt ultra awkward when I went to a local theatre to watch a show and had to buy tickets from my tutor!)

Often my first instinct is to go "oh, no, let me do it myself" - though in many cases this is not possible, such as when I'm trying to buy something. I first feel embarrassed for them, then embarrassed at myself for thinking that their job is embarrassing. I feel guilty that I have to use my friends to get what I'm after. I don't want to be served!

I know it's ultimately just a job, and my "serving me" complex is just me being silly. But how do I get over this awkward feeling? How do I not feel like my friends are working for me, that I am somehow better than them, when I know this is definitely not the case? How do I clear myself of this ingrained prejudice?
posted by divabat to Human Relations (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's obvious that you do care very much about class, despite rejecting the crassly supremacist version of it. That's OK, we live in a class-ridden society and just wishing class away isn't going to make it disappear. If you want to get over the feeling that you are better than your friends, try working in a menial job in the hospitality sector for a while. It's a lot more difficult and stressful, and requires a lot more effort than you think.
Have a bit of respect.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:47 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Upper middle class people have chauffeurs and maids? Wow... I guess I'm lower class than I thought.

You shouldn't feel embarrassed for them. They're in that job of their own volition. Maybe they're happy working a job with little responsibility that doesn't have them slaving behind a desk / computer screen 8-10 hours a day...

Is it awkward? Yeah, it's awkward. I've run into old classmates/friends who ended up serving me coffee or food. It's probably awkward for them, too, but what're you gonna do about it?

You're right about one thing: You're not better than them. You also might not even be happier than them.

You'll never flip a switch and get over it, so just be pragmatic about it and understand that there's no need to be "embarrassed" for them. People choose their career path, for the most part. Be polite, respectful, and treat them like you'd treat anyone else (hopefully you'd treat anyone else with respect, etc, too)...
posted by twiggy at 5:49 PM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is to work in a bona fide service job for a real amount of time (waitress or something similar). You said you worked as an usher/info booth attendee, etc., but until you have someone stiffing your tip because they thought the meat was too firm, even though you comped their meal, or have someone talking down to you because you're behind a cash register, you don't really know what people are like and what it's like to be in their shoes.

You are right in that this is your problem, and you feeling embarrassed for them is the first wrong step you are taking. It's not embarrassing to work an honest job for a living. Typically these people are working harder for less money. The thing you can do for them is make their job easier by doing the little things you'll learn if you had the job (don't blame slow service on the waitress if it's the kitchen, hand them your menu after you order, help make room for food as it arrives, understand they are human beings not food service robots and treat them accordingly, etc.)

The only way I see it being awkward if someone I knew was serving me was if either a) I was being a total dick to them, or b) they were doing a terrible job and I didn't want to say anything because I knew them. Otherwise, I welcome the chance to enjoy their company while eating/buying/whatever.

Ultimately, you say you don't 'care much about class', but then you say you're embarrassed by anyone who has to work a blue collar job. You need to reexamine your own beliefs and see if your reactions really reflect what you believe, or what you THINK you believe.
posted by rooftop secrets at 5:59 PM on May 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

Tip well.

In junior high, my family ordered a pizza and the delivery driver turned out to be my math teacher. It was awkward.

But I think that this awkwardness is not (solely) rooted in social class or background. My family was/is in no way upper-middle-class, and in fact my father had himself worked a second job as a pizza delivery driver while I was in elementary school. He could do it in the evenings, he got tips and he took any extra pies home at the end of the night! It is weird to see people you know in one context in a totally different one, especially when your roles have changed. So I think to some extent you should give yourself a break. If you are a well-behaved customer/guest, and don't use your pre-existing relationship to hassle your friend for a discount or favor or anything else untoward, then just relax. And tip well.
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 5:59 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maybe you can't. You can live a life of ups and downs and maybe realize that all honest work is honorable and that it's how people treat you not what they do that matters. Then again, you could live a life of perfect privilege, never have to take a job you don't want, never have to do something that made you feel like you were compromised and if so, Mazel Tov, but you have to decide for yourself how you feel about things like this. I don't think there is some kind of psychological shortcut you can take. You can ask people to tell you that you are a good person despite your awkward feelings, but that don't make it so.

I'll tell you personally that I don't like being served by people that I know, but I've had plenty of service jobs and lord knows I might have one again and if you've ever had one the funniest thing you'll realize is that the asshole that you are trying to pour a coffee for that won't get off the phone could be you in another moment. So I don't avoid that situation and try as much as possible to realize that everyone that might be "serving" me is the same as that someone that I know, you know? Just tip well and mind your manners and do your best.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:01 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been in a similar situation to you so I can sympathize. I grew up in an upper middle class family in India and had chauffeurs and maids and all those perks you describe (though having maids and chauffeurs isn't all that uncommon for the Indian middle class). If anything classes were even more divided and the only time I ever saw someone I knew personally working a service job was when I saw a guy I knew was in the same department in college working at a pizza place. I was there with my parents and I was slightly embarrassed at first but soon got over it. He seemed slightly awkward too, but I introduced him to my parents and the uncomfortableness passed. It's really not such a huge deal. The awkwardness will pass.
You need to get over the idea that them serving you something is degrading to them in some way. It's just a job; it doesn't define who they are. The fact that having a friend of yours in a service position creates such cognitive dissonance means that you also need to think about how you're treating people in service positions, whether consciously or unconsciously.
posted by peacheater at 6:02 PM on May 6, 2008 [6 favorites]

Don't think of them as 'serving' you; but rather as 'providing a service to you.' That's almost certainly how they see it, if they consider it at all; these interactions are probably not at all embarrassing for them (unless you start acting awkward and embarrassed yourself). After all, if they thought the job they were doing was demeaning and shameful, they probably wouldn't be doing it.

On preview:

realize that all honest work is honorable

Actually, that's probably all you need to keep in mind.
posted by frobozz at 6:03 PM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

The fact that having a friend of yours in a service position creates such cognitive dissonance means that you also need to think about how you're treating people in service positions, whether consciously or unconsciously.

posted by rooftop secrets at 6:06 PM on May 6, 2008

I will admit that I laughed out loud at your mother's advice. It's not your fault and she probably had very good intentions.

The only advice I can give you is this:

Try not to get flustered or offer to help a cashier, etc. Let them do their job. It's more dissrespectful to jump in and feel pity and "oh no, poor you! You don't have to bag my groceries." It's not degrading to bag groceries, mop floors, empty bedpans, etc. Only you think it is.

If you run into a acquaintance that is in the service industry, you would be better to make small-talk and ask them about their life. Too feel embarrased for anybody that is doing their job is a unfortunate. I used to smile at African-American strangers for the longest time because I grew up watching my mother do it. I finally broke the habit years ago. I don't smile at white strangers. I don't scowl either but why was I going out of my way to flash a smile at black strangers? To show I approve like my mother was trying to do? To show I'm friendly? It's ridiculous and dissrespectul. I'm embarrassed that I would do such a thing. It's the same thing for you. Try to get over it. You know intellectually that you are aren't above, or better, than any other human being. Show some respect for people that chose to go into different professions and careers and have different life circumstances.

The person you are feeling embarrassed for could very well be smarter than you, be happier than you, have better sex than you, is more popular than you, and have more friends than you. On top of that, she is thrilled to have her job and enjoys it. So don't go around feeling pity or embarrassment for people that don't deserve it, or need it. Hardly anybody deserves it. Hardly anybody.

Good luck, divabat.
posted by LoriFLA at 6:08 PM on May 6, 2008 [6 favorites]

I grew up in an upper-middle class family somewhat similar to yours. When I got to university, I wanted a little bit of extra spending money, and I didn't qualify for any on-campus jobs because I wasn't getting financial aid. So I started working at a coffee shop, and I was really surprised to learn that almost all of my co-workers were middle-class, educated, upwardly mobile sorts who had taken the job for fun while they were also pursuing loftier goals.

So when you encounter someone you know who is waiting on you, try not to assume that they have no other options. Plus, they probably aren't even cognizant of the perceived class difference... I bet they're just happy to see you and catch up. :)
posted by arianell at 6:12 PM on May 6, 2008

I get creeped out by that, and I have much less reason for it - I didn't grow up in higher society. I just hate being served by another person. So much so that I hate getting a haircut even though I can't really do it myself. Getting a pedicure or something like that is... just not something I could ever do, regardless of whether I know the person or not.

Just pretend it's totally normal and not a class thing. Be all "hey! how are you?" like they're your friend, which they are. Imagine that maybe tomorrow they'll run into you serving them at a Chinese restaurant, because it's something everyone does from time to time. Everyone poops, everyone works at a Chinese restaurant.

It's not true, but it's what works for me. The thing that'll really make you feel bad is if you pretend not to know them, or only talk to them when nobody is looking. Don't do that.
posted by ctmf at 6:16 PM on May 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Good for you for listening to your conscience. There is no right answer. The mistake comes when people start thinking in terms of being "better" than other people. It's sad. Sounds like you are already well positioned to not be like that. Just be nice.
posted by quarterframer at 6:16 PM on May 6, 2008

Maybe try thinking of it like this: They're not serving you, they're actually serving their boss. You're giving them money in exchange for something (food, earrings, whatever), and their boss pays them to facilitate that exchange.

All jobs are service jobs; some are just less obvious about it. If you work at a desk job, you're still serving somebody - your client, your boss, sometimes even your co-workers. It's the way of things, and no kind of service is necessarily any more demeaning (or any less worthy) than any other.
posted by rtha at 6:29 PM on May 6, 2008

Maybe it'd help to think about how great service jobs can be, so you're more aware of why someone with lots of options would choose to do them. Oftentimes, service jobs are the type that you can leave behind you at the end of the day -- no stressing out overnight the things you left undone. This arrangement can free up your brain to do all sorts of interesting things after work while everyone else is watching tv and trying not to think about their jobs. Certainly I'm idealizing it, but there's no reason for you to assume that your ex-classmate is ashamed because waiting tables is the only job she's qualified to do -- for all you know, she makes $500 in tips by working only Saturdays and then pursues a Ph.D. in some fascinating field.

Also, think about the details of their jobs rather than a vague overview -- they aren't serving you, they are painting little flowers on fingernails, or handing you a coffee cup and entering the total into a machine, or conveying your order accurately to the chef, or keeping up the doctor's appointment book. Even when they're scrubbing your bathtub, they're not serving you. They are cleaning your house, which is a building. When they're changing your bedpan, they are part of treating an illness and helping a hospital run smoothly.
posted by xo at 6:42 PM on May 6, 2008

How do I not feel like my friends are working for me, that I am somehow better than them, when I know this is definitely not the case?

Decouple those two ideas, and make the first one more precise. Yes, your friends are working and their work benefits you, but unless you're paying their wages, they're not working for you; you don't get to tell them how to do their jobs. No, you are not better than somebody who is performing work that benefits you. Does the work you do not benefit somebody?
posted by flabdablet at 6:51 PM on May 6, 2008

What? Three people on this thread claim to have been "upper middle class" and had chauffeurs and maids? Is it a sign of being upper class to modestly refer to oneself as upper middle class? Because otherwise this makes no sense at all to me.

Anyway, I think you approach this by remembering that no matter who you are, there will always be people with more money than you and less money than you, higher status jobs than you and lower status jobs than you. You yourself are likely in your lifetime to move up and down this continuum in ways you can't imagine. And so will your friends.
posted by Enroute at 7:02 PM on May 6, 2008

What? Three people on this thread claim to have been "upper middle class" and had chauffeurs and maids? Is it a sign of being upper class to modestly refer to oneself as upper middle class? Because otherwise this makes no sense at all to me.

Almost no one refers to themselves as upper class, in my experience. Similarly, no one refers to themselves as "lower class." We all like to think of ourselves as some shade of normal.

As to the original question, I think the key is not to think about the class issues if you can help it. If you know someone who is a waitress, treat them like you'd treat any other waitress. This is their job, and it's only going to be weird for them if you make it unlike a typical encounter with a customer. That said, make sure you treat all waitresses well and you'll be fine.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:14 PM on May 6, 2008

Is it a sign of being upper class to modestly refer to oneself as upper middle class? Yes. Every trustafarian I've known (as in trust funds that ensured they would never ever have to work unless they developed a major drug habit) has said they are upper middle class, never upper class (or, god forbid, rich).

The answer to the question is in your title (Am I prejudiced about friends working in service jobs?) is "Yes." You obviously do think you are better because of your upbringing and privileges; however, that's not a horrible thing. I confess I'm the same way as far as being prejudiced against rich people (hence the reference to trustafarians).

So don't worry about it and, more importantly, don't overcompensate when someone is trying to do their job! I always hated when rich friends/acquaintances were my customers and were trying so hard not to be awkward/condescending that they ended up burning up all my time (thus ruining my chances of good tips with other customers) while still being awkward/condescending. They tried so hard to relate to the "help" (me) that is was patently obvious the way they framed the situation which ended up being even more insulting than it could've been if the acted like people I knew who were having dinner and I was their server.
posted by sfkiddo at 7:31 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Three people on this thread claim to have been "upper middle class" and had chauffeurs and maids

I think I'm correct in remembering divabat is Bangladeshi. So are my inlaws, and they have chauffeurs and maids without making a whole lot of cash by North American standards.

I think xo's advice is pretty good. Like the maths teacher mentioned above, my husband waits tables and bartends a night or two a week to make other opportunities happen for us. Like any other job it's just a means to an end.
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:51 PM on May 6, 2008

To start, you should know that you're upper-class. I consider myself middle-class-ish, but really, upper-middle class families do not have chauffeurs. While you may not wish to see class, you'd fit into what most think of as upper-class.

Now, about your situation. Stop caring. The people serving you probably don't care, so neither should you. Just be nice and polite like you should be to anyone and everything will be fine. As someone earlier said, you should only care if you're being a rude to them or mean. Really, you are more class-conscious than you'd like to admit, but that's just fine. Be glad you're well-off and have great opportunities, but similarly, do not feel bad about friends not in such a position. I can almost assure you that they do not feel that way.

I'm a college student and throughout high-school and in my first years of college, I've worked retail and other customer service jobs and I liked it. When I saw a friend who came in to purchase something, I was ecstatic to have someone to interact with that I liked and had something in common with and to talk to. When I saw friends working at Starbucks or a restaurant, it was the same feeling. Class doesn't factor into this; even friends who I knew didn't work or who were better off than me did not draw resentment, I was happy I talk and help them.

So, follow the golden rule and be happy.
posted by cgomez at 8:01 PM on May 6, 2008

Three people on this thread claim to have been "upper middle class" and had chauffeurs and maids?

Those folks were Indians and Malaysians. In Malaysia, just about anybody with a college education in the city has a live-in maid. In India, anybody except a servant has servants. Actually the middle class has it pretty rough in the US from that point of view. More to the point, outside the developed world, those menial service positions are way more meager than you could imagine. It doesn't make all the excellent advice this far any less excellent, but it can make the anxiety somebody in the OP's position feels that much more severe.
posted by BinGregory at 8:04 PM on May 6, 2008

As a person who has been the waitress/housekeeper/bartender/hostess/cashier/caterer, I have to say that sometimes I definitely picked up on a certain uncomfortable vibe when I'd serve people I knew. In fact, sometimes I would avoid serving someone by trading with a co-worker, taking a break or finding some other task to do elsewhere in the establishment. Other times, it was no big deal and I was happy to serve people I knew.

The WORST thing about serving people I knew is when they'd act like they pitied me, like there must have been some horrific thing happen in my life to lead me to take such a menial job. I had one former classmate approach me at a catering gig once while I was emptying an overflowing trash can. I had my undergrad degree, had just gotten laid off from my FT "real" job and was working as a catering server while hunting for another job. This former classmate approached me and basically talked to me like I was mentally retarded! It was the worst.

I know a ton of service industry people who have master's degrees and who even have regular FT jobs. I know lawyers who wait tables on weekends to make some extra cash. I currently work in a professional, specialized field and have a co-worker, who has her Master's degree, who cleans office buildings on the evenings. Lots of restaurant staff actually like their jobs. If you work at an upscale restaurant, you can work less than 40 hours a week and make way more money than an entry level cubicle worker with less corporate bullshit, less bureaucracy and more free time to spend making art, writing, and hanging out with friends and family.

So next time a friend or former classmate ends up serving you at a restaurant, just swallow those guilty feelings and be kind. Perhaps it would be good for you to pick up a part time service industry job for awhile, maybe work as a barista or restaurant hostess a couple of nights a week. By literally putting yourself in the shoes of the service industry, you will no doubt start conquering your uncomfortable feelings.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:45 PM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Another thing to consider, Divabat, is that by paying for somebody's service for a task you could do yourself, you are providing employment for people who might not otherwise get it. I make it a point to hire tradesmen in my neighborhood - I could install that ceiling fan myself (I think...) but by hiring the electrician who lives in the clapboard house down the road, I'm not just taking it easy, I'm supporting the prosperity and health of our community. I could feel shy that I'm in one of the fancier houses in the neighborhood and he's in an old wooden house and be embarrassed when I pray next to him at the mosque, but the fact is my patronizing his services is better for all of us than for me to keep the 50 ringgit and do it myself. That's the kind of economic integration that you see in the kampungs by virtue of people of varying fortunes living close up with one another, and that's what makes them so resilient. And it's the kind of thing that is much much harder to practice in the new income-segregated housing tracts that are now being built in the urban areas of Malaysia. [I understand you're in Oz at the moment - just saying] Bottom line is there is no shame in hiring someone to provide you a service. You become the means by which their sustenance reaches them, and there is a blessing in that if done consciously. You are just as reliant on the actions of others to deliver your daily bread to you too, whether you're aware of it or not.
posted by BinGregory at 8:47 PM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

To start, you should know that you're upper-class.

Without knowing the precise details of her family's situation, I think that "upper middle class" is an accurate descriptor. The genuinely rich in places like Malaysia, India, Brazil, and Nigeria are stupendously rich; someone who is well-off but relies on a salary (rather than owns multiple businesses, or invests in land, or controls a government ministry) is emphatically middle class. There are a lot of perks of being upper middle class (like the maids and the nice house), but there is a big gulf between those people and the truly upper class, with their private jets and island estates and yachts. (In US terms, it's the difference between an orthopedic surgeon and the Hilton family; in Marxist terms, it's whether or not you are an owner of the means of production.)

And it's always the middle class which has to be the most class-conscious, because they occupy the most precarious of positions. The poor know their place, and so do the rich, but the middle class holds on with its fingernails to the status markers and signifiers of that space. So Divabat's concern makes sense, and this is a social skill she will have to rely on for the rest of her life, so she may as well figure it out now.

And again, here is where the well-meaning advice from a US or European context may slightly miss the target. The gulf in opportunity, salary, and perks between a service worker and a privileged worker (like DB's father) in most countries is really vast. In the US, there is an assumption (generally false, but present nonetheless) that the waiter may be doing this work temporarily while getting a phd and will soon be a CEO, and so therefore we pretend that the gulf is not so broad. Moreover, many of the waiters in high-end restaurants come from very privileged backgrounds themselves (in notable contrast to the unseen kitchen workers), often doing the work as an interim while going to school, starting a career, etc. The same is true with many of the other service employees the upper middle class interact with here -- coffee shop workers, etc.

In most developing countries, it is a safe bet to say that the waiters at a fancy restaurant are not going to be the children of the elite. So when DB sees someone she knows behind the counter, she is seeing that they have a sharply reduced set of opportunities than does she -- traveling internationally, studying, etc.

So the guilt is not irrational or out of some weird idea of class-fixation. These are very real constraints, and Divabat is correct in seeing that as a potentially uncomfortable interaction.

But the answer is actually much the same as that of "how do I talk with my maid who earns a minimal wage?" and questions like that: You do everything in your power to invest these interactions with dignity and respect, without some false pretense of economic equality. You remember at every moment that that person's life has as much meaning and value as yours, regardless of how little they are being paid. You never, ever use your position of power as a weapon with which to hurt someone -- because people do that all the time, and that is morally wrong.

So you basically use simple good manners. How are you doing? How is your family? Are you still reading the poets Mr so and so loved to quote in class? Are you married now? You don't impose, you don't presume, you don't condescend. Manners are the essential component of the middle class, and these interactions are the reason why. The more dignity you invest in them, the more they will become dignified in your mind. Stop equating earnings with respect, and you will be most of the way there.
posted by Forktine at 9:04 PM on May 6, 2008 [12 favorites]

To those questioning her assertion of a class based on geography; well, her profile MeFi profile lists her as being Australian. She is expressing this discomfort and question as a present issue so I'd assume the cultural/economic sensibilities are those of Australia which isn't far off from the UK and the US in that sense. Responses delving only into this are a bit unproductive.
posted by cgomez at 9:27 PM on May 6, 2008

I want to second BinGregory and jamesonandwater; the advice given so far has been really great, but yeah, there's a totally different dynamic to service jobs in non-Western countries.

In the West, almost everyone works some kind of service job in high school and college, so it's a completely normal thing; you run into your friend at the register in the takeout place and they run into you at the register at the grocery and you have a chat and nobody worries about being served. You have an "assigned" waiter in restaurants who always chats with you and tells you his/her name, and if you need them you have to just happen to catch their eye and try to politely beckon them over.

But when I'm back in Asia I'm 10x less polite to servicepeople than in the US. If I need something, I just yell out "waiter!!" to any one of the wait staff. When it's time to go, I never leave a tip. It isn't rude, it's just cultural norms. Servicepeople are treated a lot less nicely (and paid a lot less in relative terms) than in the West. At any rate, you know what I'm talking about, but I totally understand how you feel.

Your profile says you live in Australia, though, so I'm not sure if you mean you get these feelings when you're back home or even when you run into people in Australia. I would imagine it's pretty normal for young Australians to work in service jobs just to supplement their income or something.

On preview: what Forktine said.
posted by pravit at 9:33 PM on May 6, 2008

I think the solution is just to treat all service people as equals, and get rid of the notion of other people being "higher" or "lower" based on their jobs. I mean, really, a laborer is much more important in the grand scheme of a smoothly functioning civilization than a paper-pushing executive is (e.g. If your local pizza chain loses an regional vice-president, who's going to notice? But if they lose a waitress or a delivery person at your corner restaurant, you'll notice that it puts a hell of a strain on everyone)...

If you're uncomfortable encountering friends in service positions, just greet them with a friendly "Hi!" (the same as you would if you passed them on the sidewalk or bumped into them at the mall) and let them do their job. You'll both feel more comfortable if you treat it as a completely normal encounter instead of an awkward situation.
posted by amyms at 9:33 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

cgomez: if I remember right she's studying in Australia, but originally hails from Malaysia or another Asian country.
posted by pravit at 9:34 PM on May 6, 2008

But when I'm back in Asia I'm 10x less polite to servicepeople than in the US. If I need something, I just yell out "waiter!!" to any one of the wait staff. When it's time to go, I never leave a tip. It isn't rude, it's just cultural norms. Servicepeople are treated a lot less nicely (and paid a lot less in relative terms) than in the West. At any rate, you know what I'm talking about, but I totally understand how you feel.
I don't think it matters where you are -- I think you should always be polite to servicepeople. My opinion of people who are rude to waiters always drops about 10x. And not leaving a tip? I'm not sure about the rest of Asia but at least in India, 10 % is the norm.
posted by peacheater at 9:37 PM on May 6, 2008

I don't think it matters where you are -- I think you should always be polite to servicepeople. My opinion of people who are rude to waiters always drops about 10x. And not leaving a tip? I'm not sure about the rest of Asia but at least in India, 10 % is the norm.

Sorry, I was referring to China. It isn't being rude, it's just lack of politeness, and to some extent it goes both ways. There isn't any "Hi how are y'all doing, my name's X, what can I get you started with", etc., they just take your order. In other words, it's completely normal (and socially expected) to interact with waiters in China in a way that would be considered rude in the West. And tips are unheard of there. Anyhow, I'm kind of derailing.
posted by pravit at 9:54 PM on May 6, 2008

No tipping in Malaysia either, not to further derail.

One corollary that does apply throughout Asia, I would think, is don't haggle the service provider to death. If you can afford the price on offer, smile and pay. I've seen acquaintances who I know make good money browbeat fishmongers for pennies on the dollar. A brief request for discount is expected of course. I'm just saying don't go for the jugular.
posted by BinGregory at 10:06 PM on May 6, 2008

Response by poster: To clarify my location: I'm Malaysian of Bangladeshi extract, but I'm in Australia now for university. (The fact that I am an international student just adds to the "upper middle class" thingy, particularly amongst my Aussie friends that don't pay full fee and think I'm a rich heiress because I can and have to, but I still have to rely on my scholarship and Dad's savings.)

As Forktine and BinGregory said, there is a big distinction between "upper middle class" and "upper class" in this part of Asia. "Upper class" means you're a celebrity, you have millions of dollars, you don't EVER have to worry about money, you don't ever have to think "we can't afford it", the chauffeur and maid are yours to keep for life. In my dad's case, he's the head of a State-run (but public listed) company, and the nice house/chauffeur/maid/etc is part of the job benefits, but as soon as he retires they go back to the company. And while we do have more comforts than average, there are still many things we can't afford unless we won the lottery.

Even so, I do realise that I have a lot more privileges and opportunities than most of my peers, even if my dad was to retire, and I did grow up with people either openly resenting me or trying to use me for money. This was made even more complicated by the fact that I'm Bangladeshi and therefore should really be an illegal immigrant working at a petrol station. So I've grown up with very mixed perceptions of privileges...and I suppose in this way I've become very confused.

(I suppose this is an Asian thing?? Together with the "if you don't get a degree you'll end up at Mcdonalds" thing? I never understood why working at McDs was supposed to be *bad*, but hey...)

I'm normally nice, polite, and friendly to service people. When I say "I don't care about class", it's not that I don't *notice* it. It's just that I don't let any supposed social status be a determiner of how I relate to people. The prejudice I feel with friends working in service isn't anything I transfer onto them; I tell myself "hey, they're just working, don't stress about it" and treat them like I'd treat anyone else.

Also re: tipping - I'm not sure in Australia as I don't eat in fancy restaurants all that often, but in Malaysia it's actually against the culture to tip - there was a big campaign against tipping some years ago. They already add on a service charge to your bill anyway, so tips are unnecessary.

Thanks for the thoughts, it was quite helpful.
posted by divabat at 10:07 PM on May 6, 2008

It took me a few years to train my indian-born, hong-kong grown, culturally ex-pat australian husband to australian cultural norms for treating servicepeople. He used to be very brusque, almost discourteously so. That, however, was an expression of politeness in hong kong - you need to be quick, otherwise you're making the 20 or so people behind you wait uneccessarily. And he still feels a bit weird about interactions with servicepeople. His background is asian white-collar expat worker sort of family. Most of his friends went to harvard, oxford, or cambridge. His friends probably didn't do much of the working to get through university thing, I gather.

I come from a solidly blue-collar background. I was born and grew up in the same city. Most of the people I know in the service industry I met through them providing me that service. I went to school with some of their children. I know them as family friends, who have been part of my life for a long, long time. To me, the weird thing would be to treat them as strangers. Some of them are just friends I haven't met yet. So I'm friendly, keep track of people's lives, and whatever. It's not awkward; nearly everyone I know has been there, done that, including myself and my husband. Admittedly, I've done the rags to riches thing a bit, and become a yuppie. Give me another decade or two, and I'll even be able to buy a house.

It's all in where you come from.

Incidentally, tipping is accepted in very high end resturants, but most places, some loose change in the communal tip jar is fine.
posted by ysabet at 10:28 PM on May 6, 2008

Something I'd just like to throw in here, divabat...

I have an upper/middle class background
I have voluntarily turned down a high paying jobs throughout my life.

Last year, I ended up working below minimum wage in the service industry. I'm still in the service industry.

Why have I given up jobs that would make me wealthier? (Not filthy rich, mind you, but in the mid-upper class.)

Because I wanted to try something different.

And I was tired of taking work home with me.

And I wanted to be happier.

And crazy as it sounds, the year I made pennies was the happiest and funnest year of my life. Not having a boring or stressful job that made me batshit insane really, really had a lot to do with it.

Your question makes me smile inside. If I were serving you, I would probably tell you, "gosh, divabat, if you feel sorry for me now, you should have seen me 10 years ago, when I ATE at places like this!"
posted by uxo at 3:04 AM on May 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the fact that service workers in question are doing their own bit to get by, get ahead, get through school, etc., whereas divabat is upper-middle-class because of her father's money-job-actions rather than her own. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I didn't qualify for an on-campus job either, but it's a good thing sometimes to acknowledge that we're not born onto an equal playing field and some of us just have it easier than others. Doesn't make us or them better people. It's not the hand you're dealt but what you do with the hand you're dealt --- privileged or not --- that determines how honorable you are.
posted by headnsouth at 5:16 AM on May 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

I recommend that you realize that it could happen that all of your good fortune would disappear one day and you, too, would have to work a service job to make ends meet, and if you were feeling too good for it, you would probably starve and die.
posted by onepapertiger at 7:42 AM on May 7, 2008

I want to actually add something. I look down on people who are where they are because of their family wealth. I think it is far more honorable to go out and make your own fortune. I give service workers a lot of respect. They are making it on their own, which is so much more respectable than having always been buoyed by family wealth.
posted by onepapertiger at 7:44 AM on May 7, 2008

Question your assumptions about why people do service work.

I've spent my career in education and museums, doing very interesting work and helping to bring what I think are invaluable experiences to the public. I also support myself, put myself through college, and have never had family money - not even to buy a first car or anything like that. My chosen field of endeavor does not pay particularly well when compared to similar private-sector jobs, there being a lot of non-monetary compensation to them - especially not when you're in the entry levels. But paying my dues and learning the field from many different perspectives was worth the financial sacrifice to me. My job always allowed me to take care of the basics like paying rent, eating decently, putting by for retirement, and buying clothing - but I still wanted to travel, take classes, buy concert tickets and musical instruments and books and magazines, and go out to nice restaurants. To afford both these luxuries and a job I loved, I needed another income stream. So as I worked my way up the ladder after college, I had a concurrent career as a waitress in three fine-dining restaurants, working about two nights a week.

In most cases I had more education and professional experience than most of the people I waited on. And also in most cases, my fellow staff were also accomplished or working toward notable achievements. The industry attracts strivers - it's well compensated, and good organizational and presentation skills are necessary - skills which are highly transferable to other kinds of work. The hours are quite flexible and it's fairly easy to adjust your work schedule to fit your needs. For these reasons I worked with people attending college (including return-to-college adults in their 30s and 40s), attending graduate school (in medicine, a couple of them - future MD-daughter parents), people writing books, freelance artists and writers who appreciated a steady cash flow to offset the uneven cash flow from contract payments, young parents who found the evening hours dovetailed with a spouse's schedule and obviated the need for childcare, people moonlighting like myself (teachers, nonprofiteers, realtors) for all sorts of financial goals, people who had left more professional-looking careers due to the illness of a family member and a new caregiver status, on and on and on. It's likely that if you knew the individual stories of people in your favorite restaurants, you'd be amazed.

Often taking these sorts of jobs is the wisest decision for people who have well-defined priorities, the skills to handle the work, and a strong work ethic. They're quite honorable - in fact, I really enjoyed the fact that the work I did in restaurants was ethically very clean - representing the culinary arts, learning about food origins, knowing the sources for our ingredients and being able to vouch for their careful presentation, building community relationships, bringing people memorable pleasurable experiences in a stressful world.

Consider the larger goal - without some seed money to start your life in the style to which you had become accustomed, you'd have to build the seed money up yourself. That is often what people in those positions are doing, and you can't be sure you know why they are doing this work or that they have no other choices. For me it certainly was a conscious choice and one I really enjoyed.

Now that I'm in an administrative position in my field and doing quite well, I don't wait tables any more, but that experience was certainly helpful in building my knowledge of food and food culture, and that's been kind of helpful: these days I co-lead a large nonprofit group that puts on educational events and advocates for local agriculture and artisanal food, write on food for local publications, and use my knowledge and passion for food and food history to integrate food into the content I develop for my job. One day I may draw on my restaurant years for a book-length publication. I enjoyed it very much and learned quite a bit.

So, you never know. The people you see in those roles may one day employ you, teach you, or make your world better.
posted by Miko at 7:58 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are a couple points I'd raise:

First off, the "upper-middle class" thing? No, you're rich. That there are others richer is immaterial. If your family is more than two standard deviations from the mean regarding net income, you're rich. Suck it up.

Second, the problem here is dealt with, at least tangentially, by Sarte as the problem of "being for others." The waiter is, in your interaction, defined by his or her function, not his or her essence. That you know who they are outside of the professional interaction brings up this friction, as you try to reconcile the two modes that you know this person in. I can say that for me, despite often working those jobs and having my friends come in, that it was often awkward on both sides. But I kind of get around it by trying to be affable but also respecting the skills put in. When I see a friend as a waiter, I want to make sure that my interactions with them allow them to be a great waiter (in fact, I have a friend who's a waiter at a diner that I used to go to a lot before I moved, and he's the best damn waiter in the world). I'm gracious, precise and as friendly as I can be.
posted by klangklangston at 11:53 AM on May 7, 2008

Response by poster: I think I can relate to those who say it's a matter of "out of context" - suddenly seeing someone in an unexpected situation. I sometimes feel really awkward too when I see my teachers at the supermarket or the guy who works at the college cafeteria walking around uni, or even my friend from one place suddenly appearing in another. "You're not supposed to be here!" (I'm just an awkward person, hey)

I definitely don't look down on people with service jobs, despite my ingrained awkwardness and guilt. So long as you're not an assassin, I don't worry too much what your job is. I'm also working hard on distancing myself from my dad's wealth (which isn't easy when circumstances limit your job capabilities at the moment), so I definitely do not want to be someone who only got ahead because my parents had money. It's really annoying to be doing all sorts of things on my own initiative, only to have people tell me "Oh, you only got to do that because your dad's rich! Your opinion doesn't matter!".

For what it's worth, I really want to work with non-profits/public sector, and my parents can't fathom why I want to do such a thing. My dad's idea is "make lots of money, then give it away" - he doesn't understand why neither my sister nor I care too much about making money, nor why I want to do all the hard work of helping people. eh.
posted by divabat at 1:17 PM on May 7, 2008

My dad's idea is "make lots of money, then give it away"

That's quite legitimate, and there are times I've wondered if I made the right choice. Had I gone into law, for instance, which I'd considered, and chosen a lucrative specialty, I might be able to do more good with a single bequest at the end of my life than I have working 15 years in nonprofits. That doesn't escape me. So an equally important reason, for me, is job satisfaction and quality of life. I get to work around people whose ideas and values are interesting and admirable to me, and do work that doesn't require me to check my opinions and indpendent mind at the door. And I get to be very close to the results of the work I do - it's not abstract. I can see the impact and work to apply the resources better all the time for greater impact.

So in the end, if people make lots of money and give it away, the end application of the money they give really needs to be good to make the gift worthwhile. If underqualified, poorly organized, inexperienced and undermotivated people were running nonprofits, the gifts would largely go to waste. People of committment and talent are needed to make the gift money go as far as it goes.
posted by Miko at 4:18 PM on May 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

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