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Service with a Smile: The Dark Side of Positivity

Do you remember the early morning buzz of students rushing through crowded corridors in an attempt to secure the perfect spot in homeroom? Do you remember the back-to-back lectures with over one hundred new faces in each? How about the library that was so packed the only seat available was the cold hard floor? My heart yearns to hear that echo of laughter once more, even if that means taking up a spot on the ground to do so. I miss that life; that sense of normality I had taken for granted. Month after month of limited social contact really begins to take a toll on your mental health. That is why I decided to get a part-time job at Starbucks. Like many, I was beginning to long for the very thing that makes us human – connection. 

People sitting at table with laptops and laughing
Photo by Brooke Cagle from Unsplash

Sipping on a warm cup of coffee at a cozy café feels like a rainbow after a rainy day. A serotonin booster to say the least. Being the coffee addict I am, I was nothing short of excited to be initiated into such a welcoming community. And that it was. My first day of training surpassed my expectations. With a grande cup of dark roast and a warm brownie in hand, my store manager greeted me with contagious enthusiasm. I learned all about the ethical sourcing practices of the company and the perks of being a Starbucks barista. They offer tuition reimbursement and health coverage for crying out loud! Never have I worked for a company that cared even half this much about its employees. In a few short weeks, my store became my second-home. Every shift felt like I was working on a school project with my friends in middle school. My partners were not just my coworkers, they became my family.

Nothing in this world is without its flaws. I slowly began to realize that life exists on a spectrum. Starbucks is known for optimal customer service. If service with a smile had a logo, the Siren (that two-tailed mermaid on your caramel macchiato) would be its mascot. Despite how much I admire the company, I slowly became disillusioned with the culture of customer service. Once the thrill of finally having dental coverage subsided and my eagerness to perfect my lattes pacified, my perspective on what it meant to be in the industry solidified. The customer is valued to the point where the worker’s needs are neglected. You are expected to apologize for their mistakes, to say thank you as instinct, and to respond to purposeful disrespect with kind service. On my very first day, I was told that the reason I was hired was because I opened the door for someone as I was leaving my interview. Service. Selflessness. What a beautiful sentiment, I thought. However, as month after month passed, I found myself leaving the store with bitterness, resentment and exhaustion. Don’t get me wrong, I have had the pleasure of connecting with some wonderful customers. Unfortunately, there are just as many unnecessarily rude ones that left me on the verge of tears. I could not understand why a person felt the need to go out of their way to be so unkind. You’re literally just getting a cup of coffee sir with the fancy suit and boujee scarf! I am not trying to coerce you into putting a down-payment on a Mercedes you can’t afford. The sign above my head at the drive-thru states: “smile!” yet it appears we must’ve forgotten to put the same sign outside the window as well. It’s a good thing there was a lot of love within the store to repair the damage. I came to the realization that everyone is the protagonist in their own story. If empathy is not actively practiced, we will continue to shape our experiences around our own immediate desires and without any consideration for the other. 

A woman looks at her reflection in the mirror.
Photo by Jessica Ticozzelli from Pexels

The very positivity that we were all hired for slowly became a burden. The issue is that it is expected to be steadily maintained to the point where it becomes toxic. To consistently deny your authentic emotions and to continue to “give yourself” in every situation really takes a toll on your emotional well-being. It sucks the energy out of you. Interestingly, this is the very foundation of Gestalt therapy. An expression that contradicts our genuine emotion is known as emotional discrepancy. To effectively heal, we must be able to both own and honestly express how we feel. To yell if we want to yell. To cry if we want to cry. And to do all of this without shame. 

Angry woman
Noah Buscher

Nonetheless, with every experience, there is always a lesson to be extracted. The most important skill that can be gained from any part-time job is how to speak up for yourself and how to ask for what you need. This is something I am still learning. Emotions are not black and white. Happiness and positivity aren’t always “good” and anger and irritation aren’t always “bad.” I’d like to believe this was a formula for obedience manufactured early on in our childhood. With this mentality, we are taught to repress any emotion than strays from what is pleasant. Emotions are not as simple as “good” and “bad.” They exist in so many shades of grey. Oftentimes, the “bad” is your body or heart or mind trying to tell you something important. To wrap all of our colors in a phony smile is to do ourselves a grand disservice. Perhaps it’s time to change that sign above our head at drive-thru. 

Whether it be a fictional escape to an alternate reality or an emotional liberation amid the pages of my journal, writing has always been a light in the midst of my darkness.
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