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From early on, we’re taught to leave our feelings out of the workplace. To carry the emotions of the day is seen as antithetical to being a good employee, and the sign of a “professional” attitude is one devoid of an individual’s emotional context.
Feel like crap? It doesn’t matter—most jobs ask that you buck up, put a smile on, and forget that you have any shred of emotional context the moment you cross the threshold into work. The bottom line: There’s no room for feelings in a professional setting.
The latest episode of the Boss Barista podcast features Brittany Sims, a barista and coffee writer who runs The Non-Binary Barista blog. During our conversation, Brittany touched on professionalism and the “leave your feelings at the door” trope, and spoke about how difficult it can be to separate your work life from your personal life:
I feel like when it becomes, “No, we’re at work, you should only just be doing this head down and with your customer service smile on and nothing else,” that’s not practical because you’re a human being and you’re doing something that you love. But also you’re a human being with feelings and a life. You have to go home at the end of the day. If you are working at a job where owners are being like, “No, you can’t have fun. You can’t get paid a decent wage,” it’s not going to be fun and you have to kind of go home and then come back the next day. It’s just exhausting and a little bit depressing.
We depend on work to live. We need money from work to fund our personal lives, from rent and food to insurance and recreation. It’s impossible to pretend these worlds aren’t intertwined. If I had my Marx-Engels Reader handy (I got rid of my copy—and any other books that reminded me of school—the moment I graduated, which I now regret), I might look up a quote about how a “check your feelings at the door” attitude is just one more way to alienate workers from their labor. Employees are dehumanized with this type of rhetoric, and reminders of their humanity—like emotions—are quashed by oppressive standards of professionalism.
What’s surprisingly hopeful about service work, however, is the glimmer of humanity that is baked into these types of jobs. Service work often requires personal interaction, and the worker is an active participant. Especially in customer-facing jobs, where workers engage with consumers daily, moments of authentic feeling can be incorporated in a way that honors the humanity of the worker.
I wish more jobs understood that feelings are not something to be eradicated. There’s a reason we choose to go to coffee shops or restaurants instead of making coffee at home every morning or ordering take-out for every meal. We crave reminders of the humanity around us, and it feels inauthentic when we receive a false version of that, which is often what happens when we ask workers to “check their feelings at the door.”
I very much agree that there is this notion that in customer service, you have to be happy all the time and therefore customers will be happy all the time because they’ll match your energy. Sometimes customers come in and they are unhappy. Sometimes they’re unhappy in a way that you can’t really handle...
I’ve had people come in and one of them was thinking about dumping her boyfriend because they just weren’t working. And so she was not okay. It was one of those situations, with me coming up and being like, “Hi, what can I get started for you?” would not help in that situation. Instead, it’s like, “Hey, I noticed while I was taking your order that you were a little down, is everything okay?” And you start that conversation.
We too often treat being authentic and true to the moment as the opposite of a positive customer service interaction. But as Brittany says, you can’t have one without the other. Employers who ask for workers to behave like emotionless automatons don’t fundamentally understand what it means to build human connection—or the value that doing so would impart to their businesses.
Good customer service is dynamic. It changes and morphs based on the parties involved. This isn’t to say that workers should therefore share everything with every customer that walks in the door. Rather, it’s my belief that a true conversation starts with acknowledging your feelings. Meaningful customer interactions have no script—it’s simply letting others meet you where you feel comfortable, safe, and seen.
Invite those feelings to join you at work. Hold the door open as they make their way in.
Before you go…
Everything is weird. We FINALLY finished moving all our things into our new home in Madison, and we’re in unpacking hell. With that in mind, here are a few quick highlights: I wrote about milk frothers for Serious Eats; James Hoffmann wore my “We Are Not a Family” tee on his channel; I finished my second Lucia Berlin book; and I took photos of Mikey Rinaldo for their Matchbook Coffee release, which you should all check out!
The title of this piece was partially inspired by the newest season of the Tim Robinson work of art, I Think You Should Leave.
Phew. I’m tired.
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