Artur Vllahiu | Why you shouldn’t expect the restaurant staff to be nicer


A student receives a prepackaged meal at the Hill Dining Hall on January 14.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

One night during my freshman year of college, as I walked the alleys of Wawa in the early morning on a quest to reach my beloved cafe, the vertigo in my eyelashes suddenly reconfigured into constant attention. . A message printed near the cash register caught my attention. He said: “You may not see it [because of the mask], but we serve you with a smile.

An anecdotal experience informs that it’s not an uncommon occasion for Penn students to be disappointed with their dining experiences. A substantial majority of Penn students are either dissatisfied with the current dining experience, believe the experience offered is not in line with the high price paid for a plan, or are somehow agitated by the lack of flexibility that the restoration plan provides. If this dynamic justifies, I believe, a demand for a better quality of catering on campus, are we entitled to demand a better reception through expressions of benevolence and friendliness on the part of the catering staff? Can we ask for the smile behind the mask? I say we can’t.

We can demand professionalism, but we must not be the exploiters of emotional labor. I argue that while kindness is usually the expression of a positive emotion, it can also be a means by which we can disguise exploitation in the guise of friendliness. So what’s the cruel side of kindness? The expression of power over the past 500 years (as the philosopher Michel Foucault argues with his analysis power too) has radically changed – it is no longer the case that a monarch crudely and viciously oppresses his peasants. Today, the expression of power is much more subtle. Kindness can very well be a means of oppression. The classic Marxist example depicts the traditional exploited worker with his rude boss and compares him to the postmodern employer who is sympathetic and cheerful, asks you how your last night was, but makes you work overtime and nonetheless expropriates the benefits of your overwork.

In addition, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek provides another illustrative example of the concept. Imagine it’s a Sunday afternoon and your old-fashioned bossy dad says to you (his young child), “You’re going to visit your grandmother and you’re going to behave right there. The tolerant, postmodern father archetype, as he calls him, would say, in contrast, the following: “You know how much your grandmother loves you, but nevertheless, you should only visit her if you really want to ”. Zizek concludes: “Every child who is not an idiot, and they are not idiots, knows that this apparent free choice contains an even stronger order, it is not just ‘you have to visit grandma. ‘but’ you have to visit your grandmother and you have to like it.

The overwhelming majority of Penn’s catering staff are contracted out, meaning that the place of responsibility for their treatment as workers is decentralized from Penn as regulator. This apparent distance of responsibility between Penn and some of its employees means that we, as students, implicitly share incremental parts of that responsibility. We should be more aware of the situation these dining room workers might find themselves in (the possibility of being overworked and underpaid). This dynamic makes the nature of each of our requests very delicate.

The fact that Penn is an elite institution may lead some to demand nothing less than excellent customer service on campus. While I think this is a sensible conclusion, I urge that we need to rethink what constitutes customer service excellence. While it can be a lot of things, I stress that cuteness itself shouldn’t be included. We should be complacent with professional service. I agree with the view that professionalism and kindness are not mutually exclusive which allows for both quality service and kindness. However, this should not lead us to equate kindness as a prerequisite or even a necessary condition of professional service. While the scenario in which the two coincide is enjoyable, it should not be required. Demanding something above this sensible threshold (professionalism) is analogous to the Zizekian kid’s previous message: Not only do you have to work too much and be underpaid, but you have to love it as well.

Progressing towards a post-pandemic situation without masks, in a world where we have trivialized smiles as a customer service asset, they will continue to be masked by the market economy. In the absence of a genuine smile under all masks, be courageous and offer one yourself.

ARTUR VLLAHIU is a second year college student studying Kosovo Philosophy. His email is [email protected].


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