Summer Work & Emotional Labor

I got a summer job working at a restaurant near my childhood home. I’ve been there for half of the last month, and just deposited my first paycheck! It’s exciting to have something to do a couple of days each week, and it keeps me feeling productive over the summer while I’m waiting to move to China. I’ve been trying to save up for living abroad and I’m hopefully earning enough to travel around Asia during my breaks. I hope to have a chance to see more of China, and also try to visit Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and Myanmar. (I’ll admit, naming five countries all at once feels a little ambitious – but I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to balance my time in and out of the classroom. 🙂 )

Anyway, I’ll write more about my vacation plans once I’ve had a chance to get settled in and figure out life in China. For now, a couple of thoughts about summer at the restaurant…

This is the first time that I’ve worked in a food service position, but it’s not the first time I’ve been behind the scenes in a restaurant. When I was growing up, my dad was in the restaurant industry. He has since moved into construction work, but some of my earlier memories of going to his workplaces involved hanging out in the back kitchens before the dinner shift, and spooning cocktail cherries into a bowl for an afternoon snack while I was being babysat by the bartenders.

I used to bemoan the amount of time Dad spent in his restaurants, but now that I’m older and juggling a couple of different roles at this current place, I’m struck by how many things trigger pleasant memories about the couple of restaurants I grew up around. I like the busy energy around the kitchen, and the lighthearted banter between the staff. While the work can definitely be challenging at times, I’ve also really enjoyed some of the customers that I’ve worked with and the opportunities that I’ve had to get to know my coworkers.

The past two weeks I’ve been bussing tables and working the snack bar, and I got trained to be a hostess yesterday. I’m working between 20-40 hours each week, and finding time when I’m not at the restaurant to go to the gym, cook at home, and spend evenings with friends. I’m also going to be picking up some extra jobs here and there by babysitting and tutoring, but I’m not trying to go too crazy and work a ton of overtime. After all, it’s still summer, and I need time to unwind!

I’m still getting acclimated to the work, and I’m barely qualified to say anything particularly novel about the restaurant industry as a whole – but I’ve tried to organize just a few of my thoughts here.

I haven’t had a huge number of friends who have worked in restaurants. I think more people should try out working behind a counter or in a restaurant, because it would be a much-needed reminder that people working these jobs are humans first, and workers second. I hope that this seems like an obvious truth, and that all people are worthy of your respect, but I’ve seen negativity directed at members of the staff and it’s just not a good feeling to have at all. (I’ll say here that the majority of all interactions that I have are filled with respect, so I say this not as a criticism of the many wonderful people I’ve worked with or met through my work thus far.) I think that the disrespect that I have seen is a component of a larger conversation about emotional labor in a service-based economy, and what it means to be “performing emotions” as part of your job. For example – my job is to smile pleasantly when I fill the glasses of water at tables. This job becomes much more difficult when I am looked at as though I am the gum on the bottom on someone’s shoe.

Food industry workers are expected to manipulate their emotions in order to give customers a positive dining experience – and often, wages will depend on how successfully they are able to negotiate this emotional process. Current federal minimum wage is $7.25, while minimum tipped wage is $2.13. For tipped workers, this means that a portion of their final wages are expected to be made through tips so that they can earn above minimum wage. (Important note! Employers are obligated to pay minimum wage to all employees if their combined wages and tips do not meet the federal and state minimums.) With tipped staff, the lines between service and servitude become blurred because of the expectations of emotional labor, as workers must cater to guests in a way that creates implicit positions of advantage and disadvantage.

The same follows in interpersonal relationships, and manifests in ways that speak a lot to gendered expectations of emotional availability of female-identifying folks. (Saying that women are innately more caring than men is part of the societal expectations of gendered emotional labor.) The fact that emotional labor is expected of women, while not expected by men, means that women are forced to meet higher expectations within certain social interactions. Male identifying people, on the other hand, are not expected to perform in this way are therefore congratulated when they do such work unprompted. Consider that women may be expected to be more empathetic and available to act as support systems to the other people in their lives, or that women are largely in charge of organizing social functions within a group of friends and the unseen labor that goes into planning such an event.

I’ve been meditating on how this has played out in my past friendships, romantic relationships, and leadership positions in student activities, and there’s a lot that I still need to process and unpack. Over the past year, there were times that I felt frustrated with the disconnect between the levels of work that I was doing and partners were doing – and I’m just learning how to attribute this vocabulary to that experience. There’s a lot that I love to do for my friends, but realizing that I’ve been doing additional labor to make these things happen helps me feel more empowered to say no when I have too much on my plate.

I was first introduced to the concept of emotional labor in the past couple of months, and I’ve been trying to educate myself more about what this means in both personal and professional settings. I’m interested in reading more this summer and actively working towards gaining a critical body of knowledge about topics of feminism, race/identity politics, and social justice. I’m trying to do some more readings that can help me connect my experiences in the restaurant to this vocabulary in a way that allows me to be a better citizen and more cognizant friend. Some of the things that I am currently reading, or hope to read in the next week are below:

These readings fall mostly on the side of shorter articles, but I’m trying to also find more full length scholarly works in journals or as full length books. A lot of this focuses on emotional labor in informal contexts (such as interpersonal relationships) rather than situations where emotional labor is enforced in professional spheres. If there’s any recommendations you have for reading, let me know! Though I think that I moved a little bit away from my original point about how much I like my new job in the course of this post, I wanted to bring myself back to the beginning and say that I’m having a lot of fun, and I’m learning much more than I expected to. (How could I complain about my workday, after all, when I have full control over a soft-serve machine two or three days a week?) It might be premature to say that I’ve changed a lot as a result of this job, but it has challenged me in productive ways and I think that I’ve been growing a lot. I hope that my whole summer can be filled with this kind of work and growth. ❤

Sending out positive vibes,

Kristen

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