JOHNSON: Respect for service workers

opinion feb 5
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Earlier this year I made a Facebook status. Not that surprising. However, unlike most of the things that I publish on social media, it wasn’t of a trivial or superficial origin — it expressed a serious concern that I had. Here is what I said:

“When a dining hall worker changes the food in front of you, take a second to ask them how their day was or say a quick thank you. We all deserve to be acknowledged no matter how insignificant it may seem at first.”

After reading the status, some of my friends told me I was being “a good person.” But not really — acknowledging a dining hall worker doesn’t necessarily make me a good person; it should be expected.

You can probably glean some sense of the incident that inspired me to write this status. One evening the rice had run out in one of the trays at Pierson dining hall and a worker came to replace it. There were six students standing by the rice wrapped up in a conversation and they failed to notice homegirl trying to refill the tray. “Excuse me,” she said politely. Without even glancing at her, the students stepped aside and continued to have their conversation as she went to go change the rice in front of them. There was no acknowledgment of her presence, no “thank you” once she finished her task. She restocked the rice and that was that.

This incident isn’t unique. It’s just one of the many interactions (or lack thereof) between students and dining hall workers that I have witnessed over the last year and a half here at Yale. I’ve heard students complain about having to scrape their plates clean before handing them to dining hall workers. I’ve seen students thrust out their hands to have workers swipe their ID cards, neglecting to lift their heads from their phones to make eye contact, let alone say “thank you.”

Scenarios like these are just downright disrespectful. And they happen almost every day, whenever we fail to say a couple of words or even acknowledge the presence of a dining hall worker.

I do not believe these negative interactions are intended to be malicious. Actually, most, if not all, are accidental. People forget how their gestures and body language can communicate something they don’t mean, even if they’re just spacing out because of an imminent problem set or other distraction. But, whether intended or not, failing to interact with people in the service industry is pretty rude. These workers are making our daily lives better by doing us a service like putting out our food three times a day —  we may be the nucleus of our own individual worlds, but it’s important that we step outside of ourselves and acknowledge them.

Maybe I’m being hypersensitive to this issue because I have worked in the service industry. People have done things like scoff at me or throw money instead of placing it in my hand, so I know how much it means for patrons to show respect. Maybe it’s also because I’m not blind to the fact that I share the same skin color as the majority of dining hall workers.

But my personal connection to the issue doesn’t take away from the fact that the way we treat people in the service industry needs to change. It only takes a little extra effort, and soon it’ll become a part of your natural routine. Just pay attention to your surroundings — make eye contact, say hi to the card-swiper, thank whoever is refilling the food in front of you, give a half-smile to the dining hall worker who has been up since five and just made you an omelette in Commons. These basic gestures let someone else know that you are aware of their presence and acknowledge that their service is helpful.

And for those dining halls that you frequent multiple times a week (sometimes a day), you can easily become close with the workers. That’s not required, but it’s worth it. I enjoy talking with Miss Peggie and Chrissie in Pierson about what Shonda is going to do next on Scandal, and I love speaking to workers who are celebrating upcoming birthdays or going back to college to study sociology.

This isn’t a problem specific to Yale, but it’s one that needs to be addressed — starting tomorrow when you walk into your dining hall.

Austin Johnson is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at austin.johnson@yale.edu.

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