Not at your service

Off the Beat

I can’t remember the exact day I was first told to smile when I worked as a customer service representative in a pizzeria, but it quickly became routine. One average day I was minding my own business, showing a new hire how to use the order-entry system when some random male customer walked in and said, “Smile, beautiful!”

I was shocked that a random man felt like he could demand that I smile. Throughout my job, I continued to deal with male customers who were disturbed by my naturally stoic resting face. They would confuse my normal facial expression with the idea that I was either angry or a bitch. I didn’t understand how my unsmiling face could bother men so much that they thought they had the right to tell me how to behave.

I once went out of the way to give a man waiting outside his food and asked if I could get him anything else. He responded with, “No, but what you could give me is a smile!”

I was taken aback on top of feeling creeped out. I imagined he might ask for some plates or napkins as he left, but definitely not a smile for his pleasure. I laughed uncomfortably and quickly walked away without a smile. I was disgusted that a man thought he could openly demand something from me while masking the demand with a lighthearted tone.

So I found myself striving to be perceived as friendly by male customers to fit the feminine mold they seemed to desire — a woman who was constantly exuberant. Instead of remaining quiet, I made the effort to greet and engage in conversation with my male co-workers so they wouldn’t get the impression I was having a bad day or somehow upset with them. My voice took on an unnaturally higher pitch, and my face was constantly serving Cheshire cat grins. I started apologizing profusely for the faults of my male customers. By the end of each work shift, I felt drained. I didn’t feel like a respected employee but a performing circus animal who had to pull out the theatrics and shoot a dazzling smile to my audience of male customers.

It was exhausting to constantly regulate my behavior for men. Once, a man couldn’t process his payment after I repeatedly and politely told him to insert his card rather than swipe it. Even after my apology, he complained to my manager about my “attitude.” I silently fumed, annoyed that a grown man was whining about his own inability to follow simple instructions at my expense. Whenever I encountered a customer like him, I smiled, hoping it would serve as a remedy for a problem that didn’t even exist.

What was worse, though, was that my male co-workers reinforced this idea of femininity and projected it onto me. One told me, “Come on, Katie. You got to smile more often.”

Another co-worker always commented on how quiet I was whenever he saw me, and another dubbed me an “ice queen.” When I became a manager and asked a male co-worker to do something after he had already talked back to me, he openly screamed, calling me a bitch in front of customers.

Being screamed at made me realize I would still be disrespected by a male regardless of if I smiled endlessly or cautiously monitored the way I spoke. So I stopped caring about how I was being perceived and decided it wasn’t my job to perform hyperenthusiastic femininity for my male customers. While customer service inherently requires a level of feigned enthusiasm, I learned I did not need to conform to their ideas of womanhood to be a good worker. The very sight of my resting face was enough to trigger men, and I wasn’t going to become the feminine archetype I was expected to be. I’ve come to terms with the fact that these kinds of labels will continue to be placed on me. I openly accept who I am now: a sarcastic, blunt, unapologetic woman who is going to smile when she wants to — not when she’s told to.

Reflecting on my experience in customer service has made me think certain men want to be served by a 1950s housewife — a woman who is always cheerful, always eager to meet his needs, and overall a gleaming light of smiling sunshine. As much as it pains me to burst any man’s bubble, I do not need to cater to his desires. If you think I, a woman who doesn’t even know you, am an unfriendly, unapproachable bitch, then you’re an entitled asshole.

There’s no deep explanation behind my absent smile — I am who I am. But maybe if you had made an actual joke and not an unnecessary demand, I would have obliged you with a smile and possibly, a laugh.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.