Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Perceived Threats

As any of my close friends (and several not-very-close friends) can tell you, I have spent a lot of time working in restaurants.

If you have worked in a restaurant before, you know that every person serves an important purpose in the restaurant. If you haven't, let me demonstrate: The cooks work together to prepare the food before a shift, then cook it together on a line of anywhere from 3 to 10 men. They place their hard work in a "window" under heat lamps where a manager, assistant manager, or food runner add the final preparations: spoons, knives, napkins, or other small embellishes. Once the plate is picture perfect (at least it had to be in most of the places where I worked), either a food runner or servers will take the food from the window to the specific table and seat number, placing it neatly in front of the diner. The diner has at this point already given their order to an exhausted server, hopefully with minor modifications if any, after having been shown to a free and clean table by the host or hostess on shift. The table was cleaned by bussers probably only minutes (at times moments) before the diners sat down. So, bringing you a good dinner at a restaurant takes about 10-15 people working together, not including the staff behind the kitchen endlessly cleaning dishes and bringing them back out for use in the kitchen and on the restaurant floor.

Hopefully all 10-15 of them cleaned their hands. via

As you can imagine, emergency situations arrive, and I'm not talking about when you find a hair in your food. Once I fainted at work and had to go home mid-shift. Occasionally someone in that chain will get sick, have a mental breakdown, or receive sad news from their family.

One day, I was waiting tables during a busy lunch shift. There was one hostess, about four servers including myself, two managers, and about 6 cooks. The hostess' responsibilities included greeting and seating guests and answering the phones. She answered the phone to find her parents on the line. They informed her that her grandmother had died early that morning and they wanted her to come and mourn with them. The poor girl was a wreck. She had been very close with her grandmother and knew it was coming soon, but there is no way to prepare completely to lose a love one. She told me what was going on through tears and could barely compose herself enough to tell the general manager. I expected what you are expecting as you read this: that the manager immediately gave his condolences and excused her to be with her family. You and I are very wrong here.

The manager insisted that while, yes, that was so very sad, he had a restaurant to run and she needed to be at the host stand with a smile plastered on her face.

You can't tell, but she's dying inside. via

No, I did not make this up.

So, I, being a caring person trying really hard not to be pissed off at my manager, told the hostess I would speak to him and see if I could change his mind. She, between tears, thanked me. I approached my manager and asked if he would mind if I watched the hostess stand while also watching my tables so she could leave. I tried to be direct but respectful in my approach, and I still think I went about it in the best way. I knew this particular manager could get mad about silly things, so I thought maybe he'd be annoyed at the proposition. I did not expect what followed.

He didn't just get annoyed. He wasn't simply mad. He was livid.

I have never in my life before or since been yelled at like that. He swore at me, called me subversive, and accused me of trying to take his position as manager. I was completely taken aback and totally speechless. After a few seconds, I composed myself, informed him I didn't care for that kind of responsibility, and went to take care of my tables. He never apologized, but he let the hostess leave about 3 minutes later.

After years of contemplating this strange moment in my life, I think I know what happened.

He perceived a non-threatening situation as a threat. He thought that by offering a solution, I was trying to suggest that I knew better than him and thereby, I should be in charge. This, in fact, could not be further fro the truth. I did not mean to suggest that I could manage a restaurant better than he could. I didn't want to manage his restaurant. His position was very secure as he was near the top of the company that operated this particular chain of restaurants and literally nothing I did could remove him from his position.

Not to give his identity away, but... TM

But. He let the hostess go home. He knew somewhere in the back of his mind that my idea was the best one for our situation, and that we could all pick up a little slack to keep things moving smoothly without a hostess.

Maybe some of the best ideas come from scary places. Maybe they are initially unwelcome, regardless of source, but after some pondering and understanding, they don't seem as frightening as they were at first. Perhaps, with time, you will wonder what scared you about the idea so much in the first place. Sometimes you'll come up with ideas on your own that are just too big or different or scary to even think about, but you may realize that your brain already knew what your heart didn't.

Logic can win out.

I could, at this point, draw obvious parallels to big, scary ideas that are popular among liberals and idealists and feminists, but I won't. I will just say that no matter who starts the idea, it can spread as people see the logic in it. Ideas are contagious. Not every idea is a great one, but some can change us forever, and that scares people. I'm here to tell you that there are consequences to new ideas, especially when they come from an unexpected person or location. I got screamed at in a restaurant for having an idea because my idea came from my brain--a subordinate one to my manager. You may face discipline for your ideas. Is it worth it?

I wouldn't take back what I did that day for that poor girl. Her face was tear-streaked and her make-up practically washed off. I couldn't watch her roam between the bathroom to splash cold water on her face and the host stand to greet guests and answer phone calls for another minute, let alone another couple of hours. I had to help, so I did what I knew I had to do.

I don't think anyone else would take back their truly great ideas either, especially not when they are doing so much good.

Cross-posted to Approaching Justice