Don't Tell Me to Smile: A Commentary on Harassment in the Service Industry

“Yo, you know that creepy ass guy that be com-?”

Before I could finish my sentence, my coworker gave me a knowing look and began to recount her experiences with this particular customer. She told me that whenever he frequented the restaurant, he would stare at her obsessively to the extent where she now hides in the kitchen until he leaves. Their initial encounters consisted of him patronizing her with “sweetie” and “sweetheart” as she stood behind the cash register. She commented on his bad energy, noting that regardless of his predatory behavior, the customer just made her feel uncomfortable. She shared that she recently learned that he lived closely to her. Jokingly, she said that if she ended up dead, she wanted me to know that she never liked him and he was, most likely, the culprit.

His name is Devante.* And, for the record, I never liked him either.

But, sometimes customers would get a little too friendly and mistake our customer service for permission to exude their obnoxious behavior.

I started working at a fast food restaurant during the summer of my sophomore year of high school and for three years, I’ve witnessed and experienced a plethora of moments that have caused me to question the state of humanity. Moments that range from customers arguing with staff about the validity of coupons, a customer having her teenage daughter moon the restaurant because of so-called “unsatisfactory” customer service, a male coworker sexually assaulting a female coworker, a white manager badgering me and other Black female coworkers about our natural hair, a Latinx coworker calling a Black coworker a “nigger” and then spitting in his face, and once being promoted to a shift manager, having to vie for the same respect given to my male colleagues while navigating through sexist and ageist perceptions of my authority in the restaurant. Long story short, my first minimum wage job has exposed me to a lot. And regardless of how morally unsound the work environment proved to be, I chose to stay because the pay was more than good and the managers were willing to give a hardworking high-schooler, who was struggling financially at home, with full-time hours.

Ironically, I met Devonte on a school night. I was closing the restaurant - sweeping the floors, wiping the counters, and restocking the inventory - when he walked in with a woman, who with  a quick glance, I assumed was his girlfriend. My male co-worker, who was the shift manager at the time, took his order while engaging him in meaningless chatter. This was my coworker’s usual protocol: the more he engaged with customers meant more tips to split amongst the waiters at the end of the night. But, sometimes customers would get a little too friendly and mistake our customer service for permission to exude their obnoxious behavior. For example, after a co-worker accidentally spilled a drink on a loyal customer, rather than asking for a discount, this male patron demanded that my manager pay for his dry cleaning. When I asked my manager why he didn’t decline his request, he said that he just wanted to make the man happy, thereby perpetuating the belief that customers, regardless of how contemptuous they prove to be, are always right.  Devonte was no different, but compared to the other customers we had to deal with, he wasn’t THAT bad.

Still, I didn’t like him. His glossy eyes lingered too long and he asserted this feeling of dominance over the restaurant. He was just too comfortable, and like my coworker said, his energy was off. Although I didn’t have proof to validate my assertions, there are some things that you just know. And I knew.

A few months later, Devonte’s presumed girlfriend came into the restaurant alone. The same male coworker inquired about Devonte’s whereabouts, which led to a 15 minute conversation where he learned that they had broken up because Devonte had been physically abusing her. After she left, my coworker shared this information with me and admittedly, I was unphased; I expected nothing less from Devonte. In the short time he would spend at the restaurant, I could tell that the manner in which Devonte looked at and spoke to his ex-girlfriend reeked of a sense of possessiveness. He was cold, yet dominating; charismatic, yet controlling. To me, Devonte was an abuser and although I am sorry his ex-girlfriend experienced that trauma, her validation wasn’t news.

Too often, customers would waltz into the restaurant and take advantage of an unassuming waiter. This was my method to combat that behavior.

It was this same behavior that enticed me to complain to my female coworker. Devonte had sauntered into the restaurant and unfortunately, I was behind the register. An order that should have taken less than five minutes was elongated by his requests to have his burger “extra, extra, extra well-done”, for a coupon to be applied to his order despite not having one, and wondering if the cooks could make him cheese fries despite knowing that our franchise was not allowed to serve them. Intermittently, he would call me “sweetie” or “sweetheart” and laugh at jokes that weren’t really funny. In the end, he dropped $4 in the tip bowl - a sign of gratitude for tolerating his repugnance.

Throughout the transaction, however, I had remained stone-faced and unamused. This was my usual routine with customers; I had learned that, in order to keep patrons in check, it was imperative to keep a guard up and to assert your dominance over the brief interaction. Too often, customers would waltz into the restaurant and take advantage of an unassuming waiter. This was my method to combat that behavior. But it was also an act of defiance; in an industry where my job is to utilize fake smiles and engagement to entertain contemptuous customers, my refusal to conform kept my dignity intact at the end of each shift.

Yet, this time, I wasn’t being defiant; I was actually mad. Prior to taking Devonte’s order, some kid, who couldn’t have been older than 13, had pissed me off. Accompanied by his mother and sister, he had approached the cash register decked out in a lame Snapback. After going through my usual script, he proceeded with his order.

“I want two plain grilled chicken patties with NOTHING on them. Like, nothing. Plain.”

“Okay.”

He mumbled, “And I also want a large fry.”

“What was that?”

Without even stopping to take a breath, this boy had the nerve to slow down his speech and say, “A laaaaaaaarrrrrrgggggggeeeee frrrrrrrrrrryyyyyyy.”

In that moment, I thought of all the ways in which I could curse him out or make a snarky comeback or slap him upside the head. Instead, I translated all the hate I could muster into a cold, five second stare. It didn’t matter though; the boy and his sister bursted out laughing. There was, of course, nothing funny about treating a service worker like an imbecile.

So, when Devonte approached the cash register, he wasn’t even on my radar. I was hoping that he would actually be tolerable. But, he wasn’t. Rather than simply thanking me and leaving when I handed him his takeout order, he felt compelled to tell me that as “a beautiful Black woman”, I should “always find a reason to smile.”

I quickly dashed away and regrettably entertained his comment by replying, “there’s nothing to smile about.”

I breathed a sigh of relief when he left, but in less than five minutes, he returned to request a side of cheese. While handing him the cheese, he looked down at me, smirked and said, “there’s ALWAYS something to smile about.”

While one can appreciate his optimism, I thought it was a load of horseshit. I hate when men tell me to smile. It’s patronizing, but it’s also a sly effort to control my body and how I choose to navigate through the world. And coming from Devonte, it made me feel icky and like a pawn caught up in his misogynistic game. For the second time that night, I found myself wanting to curse out a male customer. Instead, I gave Devonte a quick “uh huh” and scurried away.

Yet, much like Devonte’s abusive nature, this treatment wasn’t news. This wasn’t the first time that male customers had tried to assert their dominance over my working environment or creeped me out with their predatory behavior. Once, a group of older men, who I assumed were in their 50s, sat down at a table and ate their food while they stalked me for two hours. Admittedly, I was scared; I imagined that they would wait for me outside in the parking lot and once my shift ended, they would ambush and rape me. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and they finally left without trying to interact with me.

My job places me in a position where my responsibility is to make people comfortable while it strips me of the power to call out discomfort.

It would be lazy to assert that this type of predatory behavior is unique to the individual. In fact, it’s perpetuated by a system and supported by other high-powered male players. My manager once told me that he only likes to hire attractive people to work in the front of the restaurant. He continued to share that a former manager once hired a girl only because she had a big butt and although she was incompetent for the job, he kept her employed and would only have her do tasks that would make her curves visible to the male customers. Earlier, when I mentioned the female co-worker that was assaulted by her male counterpart, she was the exception to my manager’s rule. And because of it, she suffered. Although she was a great worker, her hours were significantly reduced until she was forced to find a better paying job.

I thought that this policy was distinct to this restaurant until I read Rinku Sen’s “Back of the House, Front of the House”. In her article, Sen describes that a New York restaurant would reserve its front of the house jobs for its white workers and preserve the scraps for its immigrant workers, who were stationed in the back of the house. In both scenarios, management was creating a hierarchy, in which the restaurant I worked was ruled by pretty privilege and Sen’s was dictated by a mixture of racial and pretty privilege. For minimum wage jobs, workers are being exploited to further oppressive and capitalist agendas. And to think, this is all being done to enhance customer service.

At the restaurant I work, pretty privilege and sexist structures merge to form a delicious Molotov cocktail. While my looks grant me a certain advantage to visually please customers, my gender places me in a position where it is socially acceptable to harass me in the workplace. My job places me in a position where my responsibility is to make people comfortable while it strips me of the power to call out discomfort.

In the age of the Me Too Movement, I have witnessed the public takedowns of high powered male executives and celebrities. And while this gives me a short twinge of satisfaction, these high powered male executives and celebrities are not accessible to me. Instead, I deal with men, like Devonte, on a routine basis. Men, whose actions, are not always easy to pinpoint or call out. Men, who although aren’t oozing in celebrity, are benefiting from the same structure that protects high powered male executives and celebrities before enough victims choose to tell their stories.

According to the Harvard Business Review, 90% of female and 70% of male service workers have dealt with some form of harassment from managers, coworkers, and customers. Yet, our experiences are rarely reported because of this system that values customer service over human decency. From having to plaster a fake smile for tips to feeling restrained from confronting rude or predatory customers, the restaurant industry is a cesspool for harassment. And I definitely don’t get paid enough for this shit.

It has taken me three years to garner the courage to write about the harassment that I and other coworkers have experienced in the workplace. Now, imagine how many other service workers are well-acquainted with a Devonte. Then, think about all of the stories of harassment that are not being told.

It took me three years to say #MeToo. Us too.

Can we be included in this movement, too?

*Note that to protect confidentiality, names were changed.


Further Reading & Sources Mentioned:

“Back of the House, Front of the House: What a Campaign to Organize New York Restaurant Workers Tells Us About Immigrant Integration” by Rinku Sen https://files.acrobat.com/a/preview/3503a750-b209-4cd1-aebd-a509f72529ec

“Sexual Harassment Is Pervasive in the Restaurant Industry. Here’s What Needs to Change” by Stefanie K. Johnson and Juan M. Madera https://hbr.org/2018/01/sexual-harassment-is-pervasive-in-the-restaurant-industry-heres-what-needs-to-change