Dear Lily June,
When I left teaching and became a secretary instead, I knew things would be different. One thing I didn’t expect, though, was how differently I would be treated. I have a four-year terminal degree, a Master’s in Fine Arts for writing, and that puts my education on par with many of the professors and instructors I now serve. But people who might have once been considered colleagues were now my “betters,” and they acted that way regardless of the fact that I was writing and publishing more than some of them, despite their tenured positions and their luxurious pay scales.
It seems to me, Lily, that the “lower down the totem pole,” you go, the more you’ll find that the hardest working people who keep operations like schools and universities going are often the ones granted the least respect. I don’t want you to have that kind of relationship with the people who will aid and serve you in this life, so whatever you do to aid and serve others, I hope you’ll keep in mind that you’re not inherently better (or worse) than anyone, especially not based on the profession you choose to make a living with.
In the “customer service culture” of America, we often pay homage to the one being served, rather than the one doing the serving. The expression “the customer is always right” is great for training new employees, but the reverse is rarely considered, and the truth is, the customer is often a jerk. I much prefer the expression, often misattributed to Plato,
“Be kind [for] everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
In that regard, I’d like to talk about some of the most undervalued positions in our country, and the ways you should treat the people in those positions when you encounter them. Remember that they, too, are more than servers; they are people who are fighting their own battles behind the scenes.
Our PC culture has shifted towards the term “administrative assistant,” but I much prefer the original for its etymology. The word secretary derives from the Latin secernere, meaning “to distinguish” or “to set apart.” As such, secretaries were literally the “secret-keepers” of organizations, the ones who oversaw the most important confidential aspects of a business or operation. Never mess with the keeper of your secrets, Lily; value them as you value the information they hold. (And as far as I know, they’re the only ones in an office setting with a bird endemic to Africa named after them. The secretarybird, pictured as the cover image to this blog, is named so for its headdress of quills. Cool, huh?)
Also, some things to bear in mind if you ever work with a secretary:
- Don’t mess with the person who makes the schedule. That’s just asking to be given the worst shifts at the worst times of day. Be grateful for the work they do; a schedule-making secretary is often one who has to take into account the life circumstances and daily complications of every single member of a staff. I speak from experience; that’s an incredibly daunting (and often thankless) task.
- Read your emails. Nothing drives a secretary crazier than having put time, effort and energy into crafting an informative correspondence, only to have the receivers of that email come and ask questions that were clearly outlined by the text just sent. It really drives me up a wall, too, when I need information to do my job, and the people I’m waiting on data from don’t bother to return my query because they Never. Read. It.
- Don’t talk down to secretaries. There’s an assumption–even in academia where I work–that secretaries are less informed or educated which is, quite frankly, abysmally inaccurate and downright offensive. I had a male boss explain to me why it was sexist of me (a woman) to refer to someone I’d been corresponding with by her first name, rather than by her title (Dr.) as it made assumptions about her level of education. Seeing as I’m a woman with an advanced degree myself, I had the good sense and education not to correct my “higher-up” that etiquette dictates one answer an email with the way previous exchanges have been signed by the receiver. Instead, I grit my teeth, bore his lecture, then mocked him over coffee with the other secretaries.
- Remember: Those who do not pay proper homage to the secret-keepers will be mercilessly mocked over coffee. And there ain’t no sarcasm like caffeinated sarcasm.
In all fairness, teachers aren’t given their proper share of respect, either. Overworked and underpaid, often devoting the entirety of their weekends to painstakingly crafting comments on papers that students will never read, teachers are underdogs, too, and they deserve your deference.
- If you miss class, never email your teacher to ask, “Did we do anything important?” When I got a question like that, I was tempted to respond, “No, we mostly just talked about where you were the whole time.” In fact, I got that question so often, I indeed created a lesson called “Where’s the Absent Kid At?” where we’d write imagined stories and practice citing (fake) sources about the whereabouts of the missing students.
- Read the syllabus. Just as secretaries need you to read emails so they can do their job, a teacher needs you to read a syllabus so you can do YOURS. Students often claimed they didn’t know what the assignment was for the day, to which I’d suppress the need to roll my eyes and would instead calmly inquire, “Didn’t you look at the syllabus?” They’d say they lost it, only to get my gentle reminder that it was uploaded online. If they then claimed not to have a computer (despite various labs on campus), I’d really start boiling under the collar.
- What you didn’t accomplish in a semester, you cannot achieve in its last two weeks. Mighty is the hope of the student who skipped for thirteen weeks straight, then aims to make up all work at the tail end. If a teacher doesn’t recognize your face when you plop down to take your final exam, you’ve made a grave error along the way.
- Evaluate fairly. At the end of the year (at least in college), students are often given the opportunity to turn the tables and grade their teacher, so to speak. One student wrote an impromptu rap about how I should be paid more. One student wrote about how offended they were to have to look at nude pictures in class after I showed them a cubist work of art. You can imagine which comment I took more seriously. But in all honesty, the small amount of negative comments on my evaluations broke my heart a lot more easily than the positive ones swelled it. So use negative commentary sparingly and only as deserved.
Waiters & Waitresses
I’ve barely done this kind of work, but I’ll be damned if I don’t admire those who are on their feet 8+ hours a day slinging nosh at those who would look down their noses at them. All’s I can say: it’s a dangerous game to ill treat those who handle your food.
- Tip more generously than you can afford. Imagine you live in a world where, if you win the lottery, the only money you’ll earn is what you’ve paid out in your lifetime thus far to waiters and waitresses. You’d rather be the one earning enough to eat at five star restaurants for decades than the one cashing in a ticket with just enough moolah to pick up a breath mint. Waitstaff in America are notoriously underpaid because the assumption is that they’ll make up the difference in tips. 20% is a minimum unless your server has willfully ignored you all night, setting hot plates on your wrists and dumping cold sodas in your lap.
- If it’s burnt, raw, or wrong, your waitress didn’t cook it. That’s the cook’s fault. Yes, a good server might check to see that your entrée matches your order. But you’re not their only customer, and they’ve been on their feet for seven hours already and their kid’s at home with a cold and the electric bill’s late. Ya dig? If you send something back, do so politely, and don’t blame the waiter/waitress.
- Your waiter/waitress is not a piece of meat. When I was in high school, I used to know guys who would toss a sugar packet on the ground and when their server came around would say, “Hey, sugar. You dropped your nametag.” Some waitresses found this funny; others likely urinated into the lemonade as payback. It’s a fine line you walk if you want to hit on the wait staff, Lily.
- Clean up after yourself. Some places have separate busboys; some don’t. Either way, stacking the plates at the end of a meal, putting your trash in a neat pile, and making sure all condiments are back in their spots saves someone a lot of time. Do it; it’s good for your karma to help out.
Nothing makes me angrier than to hear some idiot kid leave his trash on the ground in a theater or at the institution where I work and then say, “They pay someone to pick that up, anyway.” Anyone who has had to clean their own home knows it gets messy just because. Skin cells float about, dust settles, and each week, you can scrub and scrub what happens just incidentally. Imagine someone then coming into your house, dropping wrappers on the ground, then saying, “You don’t mind getting that, too, do you?” I’m not much for capital punishment, but I’m pretty sure that’s worthy of the death penalty.
True, some are jaded after years of scouring blood, urine, poop and puke from off of their shoes, out of their hair, and from their very memories. But you’ll also find compassionate caregivers who do all of the work while doctors, the hacks in lab coats, reap all of the glory. When I was in the hospital with you, some nurses checked in on me even off-duty just to see if we were okay. I won’t forget their kind faces–bright lights gleaming over the bags in their eyes from being wake for twelve hour shifts (or longer)–anytime soon.
Whoever you are and whatever you do, Lily, live by the Golden Rule, and treat others as you’d want them to treat you. Of course, if they treat you badly to begin with, you have my permission (and support) to shred their paychecks, spill coffee on their documents, dump their trashcans on their desks, fail them on tests, put laxatives in their orange juice, and spit in their soup. They probably had it coming, but only do so if you can afford to tell your boss to, as the song goes,
“Take this job and shove it. I ain’t workin’ here no more.”
- “Secretary Bird with open beak” by Keven Law from Los Angeles, USA – http://www.flickr.com/photos/66164549@N00/2288447965. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Secretary_Bird_with_open_beak.jpg#/media/File:Secretary_Bird_with_open_beak.jpg
- “Duchamp – Nude Descending a Staircase”. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Duchamp_-_Nude_Descending_a_Staircase.jpg#/media/File:Duchamp_-_Nude_Descending_a_Staircase.jpg