At Your Service

Waiter IconWhen we encounter payment for services of any kind we often come up against triggers surrounding our own sense of self worth and self-validation. It is so much easier to pay for things. And so much of our advertising is filled with symbols and metaphors for services that sound like things. We used to get a phone with our phone service, which led many to mistakenly believe that a phone company was in the business of selling phones. But Ma Bell sold service, not things. It is the same with the wireless telephone companies. They will give you a phone, because what they sell is the service. Some things used to be marketed as services. Gas was provided at a service station for example. Sometimes you are paying for both a thing and a service, as in many upscale stores.

But the nanny, the maid, the waitress, the plumber and the teacher may handle your things, may move things around for you and even bring you things – but what they offer is service. The US economy has become a service economy with the resultant lowering of wages and benefits. It seems as if no one appreciates service anymore.

Think about how easy it is to not tip a waiter, or a bagger at the grocery store or the hotel maid. Service jobs are routinely at the mercy of the consumer. Jobs that produce things are also vulnerable, but if the thing is produced they will almost always get paid for it. If you are a producer, you have a fundamentally higher status within the US economy – and if it was mass-produced, your job was more likely to be unionized. I say “was”, because manufacturing, the production of things, is no longer the mainstay of the US economy. And even the higher pay service jobs are beginning to be sent over seas.

So we are becoming a nation of service people at the lower rungs of the opportunity ladder. And so it is within this reality that we come face to face with the other side of the US money psychology - self worth and self-validation.

We discussed in my first installment in this series the issue of the Western psychology being a money psychology. That we strive continually to get something for nothing, while at the same time devaluing anything we get for free. And we discussed how our struggle with this schizoid element of our psyche is essential for a Western spiritual seeker on the path. But there is more to this issue than just our inability to imbue value and meaning without commerce.

We are also, as a country, suffering from an inferiority complex. This complex causes us to treat anyone perceived as lower on the opportunity ladder as somehow less deserving of respect, and/or we project our anger over our own perceived lower status onto anyone who exhibits a modicum of healthy self esteem and self-validation.

Consider how Europeans handle tips. It is built into the system and not up to the patrons to decide whether to tip or how much is appropriate. In the US, we balk at tips being automatic, as when restaurants include a tip for large parties. Some folks who would have left a larger tip will suddenly become belligerent and pay what is exactly on the bill and nothing more – punishing the waitress for the restaurant policy. And why does the establishment have this policy in the first place? Because a waitress with a large party is often unable to work other tables enough to earn an income – so they need some compensation to insure the very group that impeded her income generating ability does not stiff them. And finally because in the US, it is legal to not pay hourly wages to a waitress which makes them solely dependent on tips to earn a living.

And every day in America, some idiot is making a waitress’s life a living hell . . . because he can.

Domestic workers are also among the most vulnerable in our service economy, along with migrant workers and all undocumented workers. Many an independent contractor or craftsman has tales of not being paid for their work. While small shopkeepers everywhere have signs up about not accepting checks. We abuse these service workers too, because we can.

Anyone perceived as being lower on the opportunity ladder are often expected to accept ill treatment as part of the package deal within his or her respective industry. And service workers are universally viewed as lowest on the ladder.

But what exactly is a service worker? And do we recognize them as such?

Many of the service workers in our day-to-day life are invisible to us. For example, most professionals are service workers. Lawyers, doctors, dentists, mental health professionals, plumbers, carpenters and electricians provide a service. Teachers, secretaries, receptionists, store clerks and post office employees are also service workers. In fact, very few of us encounter product workers in our daily life. Maybe we meet them selling produce at farmers’ markets or displaying their artwork in a gallery. We attend concerts to hear them play their music or we listen to them talk about their books. But we are far more likely to meet service workers week in and week out.

And if a great deal of money is charged for a service or we have to make an appointment to receive the service, then it is a scarce resource, and it is by definition valuable. But if the service is generally available or it is low cost, then it is not as valuable.

So a doctor or lawyer can charge a pretty penny or two, and make you wait for an open slot on their schedule. While plumbers and electricians can charge a lot; but you get angry if they make you wait. And wait staff and store clerks better not make you wait at all.

And though you can file complaints against lawyers and doctors, folks seldom yell at them or speak to them with disrespect or condescension. Plumbers and electricians get their fair share of verbal abuse, but culturally we reserve our most stinging abuse for wait staff and store clerks.

Which produces a dizzying array of standards of behavior from and toward service workers at each level of this hierarchy of value. And whenever we as consumers have control of how much any of these service workers are paid, we exert that control like a jackhammer. We stiff wait staff for tips, and we write bad checks to crafts people. We keep our childcare help waiting for us to return home. And we expect folks who are “with us” to accept even less, i.e. folks who engage in spiritual or political activism.

This dichotomy produced some of the most awkward moments in my experience as an activist. We routinely underpaid the staff working within union, church, charity and advocacy offices while fighting for economic parity for minorities, women and immigrants. While sitting on a ministerial committee at an activist church, I had to fight to get the minister a fair salary & benefit package. Spiritual and magical teachers and elders are routinely abused for “daring” to charge nominal fees for their classes and workshops. All of these people were and are service workers. And judging how they are routinely mistreated, they seem to fall somewhere in the chasm near or below wait staff or domestic help in the value service hierarchy.

And the question remains, is this system sustainable? No, it is not. Just because we are a service economy does not mean we are somehow lesser. What it means is that the majority of the world’s producers are creating products for us instead of the other way around. Will this lead to a trade deficit, yes. But we also have an opportunity to affect how the majority of the world’s producers behave. We can use our buying power to demand safe working conditions, living wages and environmentally sound manufacturing practices for the world’s producers. We can also start using our money to support local producers over artificially low prices at the big box stores.

And we can get rid of this inferiority complex that causes us to mistreat our neighbors whether they wait on tables, watch out kids, bag our groceries, staff our fundraisers, repair our plumbing, or conduct our rites of passage.

Because it is not just the things we produce that will ultimately sustain us, it is also the connections we make with real live people.

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