On Asking Questions...
I work at a cafe part time as a barista and the layout combined with the massive number of people who walk through the door every day results in a dynamic where customers just sort of herd, harried, to the counter before they even have a chance to recognize that there is a human on the other side of the bar taking their order (not to mention an adult with skills and proper English who is a person too), and the people who are behind the counter facing the door watch all day as more and more rushed and zombied customers walk in.
They ask, "What's in the bake case today," as more and more folks file in and line up behind them and my usual response is, "Well, we've got two cases full of treats, so you might want to take a look first," and they always look behind them, worried that they won't be able to return to their rightful place in line if they step away to peruse the food. Of course it wouldn't bother them to make all those people wait as I list off the twenty items, so I assure them that they can just hop right back up to the front when they're ready.
Things like this happen all the time, and I wonder if people are really as lazy and entitled as they act sometimes, or if people just really lack the empowerment to follow a path that requires real human interaction, decision making, and initiative, even if the initiative required is as small as choosing to look at the bake case for yourself so that you can walk to the register with the information needed to make a proper order.
In order to have compassion, I tell myself that entitlement is just a mask for insecurity and that maybe, just maybe, making decisions about whether to get a bagel or a croissant on one's own first thing in the morning is intimidating. Maybe people feel too rushed by walking in and being immediately faced with the counter and a person on the other side ready to ring you up and so it doesn't seem like there's time to look at the case.
I don't know, but it happens constantly.
And there are other things.
How about this common question:
"Heya, I want something with coffee in it (as they stare at the menu), what can you recommend?"
What I want to say is, well we have two delicious brews of coffee today and they are just full of coffee, but we also have an au lait if you'd like to add some steamed milk, or a red eye if you want an extra espresso kick, but everything else is made with espresso. I tend to assume, though, that most average folk don't know the difference between espresso and coffee, and just use 'coffee' as a euphemism for 'caffeine that comes from a bean (I mean cherry),' but it's still exhausting because it's like, really??? You're reading the menu as we speak. I would never walk into a restaurant and say to the server while looking at the menu, "So, uh, hey there, what do you have that's got food in it?"
I would probably be laughed at.
I try to ask questions that empower this very lost customer to make their own decision by offering them different paths and say things like, "Well if you want something sweet, I'd start with a latte and add the sweet ingredients. Chocolate would make it a mocha, and flavoring would make it a flavored latte, and you can add both if you're feeling really wild today. If you want something simple, we've got all the basics listed on the left there, made with just espresso or steamed milk and then, of course, we've got our brewed coffee which is roasted in the roastery just down the hall."
You'd think the person would take a second and maybe consider their options and then place an order. Well, you thought wrong. Their next question is, "Well, what do you like?"
If I'm feeling gracious, I say, "Well, I like the cortado, which is a tiny tiny latte," to which the response is often, "Is it sweet?" and then I say again that you can add chocolate or flavoring to anything to make it sweet but that no drink with just espresso and milk is going to be sweeter than the sweetness provided by the natural flavorings that come through.
If I'm not feeling gracious, I say, "Well, I want to know what you like. After all, you're the one paying. How about a mocha?"
Now let me be clear here. I like having conversations with people about coffee and I like providing education. If somebody doesn't know the difference, I love helping them out. After all, we all had to learn sometime and as a teenager I always felt super intimidated getting to the counter and making an order, but the thing is, I'm not a teenager anymore and neither are most of these people either.
The actual source of my frustration here is not that the person won't actually appreciate the quality, or remember what to order next time, but that this kind of of behavior communicates to me a desire to me led to the trough in a way that probably permeates the rest of their lives in a really dangerous way. I wonder if this person lives life this way, just sort of asking questions but not really retaining information, and waiting for those around them to be the guide for their moral compass. I feel like these are the kind of people who aren't able to stand up to their friends when they're being abusive to a colleague, friend, or partner or maybe just being a generally shitty person, and these are the same kind of people who probably have a hard time owning their own shit, too.
This kind of person scares me. This is the kind of person who will stand there in a bar while a friend harasses some sweet person minding their own business, and maybe they feel uncomfortable, but they don't do anything about it, because nobody is telling them to.
This might be a stretch, but I really believe that the same people who aren't confident enough to look at the information and make an order as an adult, probably lack empowerment across the board.
Recently a very pleasant and confident seeming woman came in and placed her order in due time, and I thought our interaction was very pleasant. When she began signing her receipt, without even making eye contact she said, "Are you going to let me borrow this pen?"
I was so proud of myself. I immediately retorted, "Are you going to ask for it?" I was trying to point out in a friendly joking way that yeah, if you can actually ask me, of course I'll say yes, but the way she phrased the question was sort of aggressive and basically communicated that I had better let her borrow it.
Maybe this woman was told no her whole life and now this is the way she gets things done. Maybe at work when it's time for a raise, it works better for her to approach her male boss with a triumph followed by, "So are you going to give me a raise?" rather than asking if she can have one. I am sympathetic to the woman who feels like she needs to be a touch aggressive to get what she wants and make things happen, but really!? If she had walked up to the counter and said, "So are you going to give me a cup of coffee?" I would have been totally thrown off. It's like, duh, that's my job, but you actually have to place an order first. That's the way somebody asks when they've been waiting a long time or are really frustrated about bad service, not the way things usually go down when everything is pleasant and nice.
It's a pen.
I thought she would think I was funny and that we could laugh and maybe bond a little and then she'd borrow the pen and write something amazing with it, but instead, she stopped signing her receipt, and I saw a little tick at the corner of her mouth and she looked straight at me to say, "I wasn't trying to offend you."
Even THAT was aggressive! At this point I realized there was no fun to be had with her and said, "Oh gosh, I am not even close to being offended, I was just joking with you. Of course I'll let you borrow the pen!"
Yes, I felt it was important to throw in the "let" part because that's how things work. You go into somebody else's house, and you ask permission to use things; you don't just make demands--Even if the house is a coffee shop and you just assume that pouring a cup of coffee will be the most difficult thing anybody there does all day.
I'm hinting at a bigger issue, of course, than just being weird at the register one time. Clearly this person has been put in positions to have to be aggressive, and that's really a shame and a problem. In a perfect world, good employees would get recognized and rewarded without having to make aggressive demands, people in romantic relationships would be reciprocated to and nurtured without third party mediation, and friends would get support and understanding without having to shame the other into providing it.
That's another tangent for another day, though.
I'm working on a piece for submission about the misperception of service industry workers and all the talent that most folks have that nobody ever realizes because a large percentage of average diners and coffee shop drinkers just assume that working in service is a last resort rather than a choice, and I'm really excited about it. Just like this blog post, though, I bet the people who really need to read it will never see it, but if you can get just one, that's a triumph, right?
Anyway, stay tuned, and keep asking questions, but try not to make demands, k? Oh yeah, and practice listening. Yes, I need to work on both of these things too.