Should Everyone Work Retail At Least Once?

1024px-Messy_shoe_aisle_at_Nashville_Target_storeVia Vox, a piece called “Why I Believe Everyone Should Work Retail at Some Point in Their Lives”:

I was making more as a store manager without a college degree than my mother, who had masters-level coursework and was a teacher. But the pay never really catches up when you count in all the tasks, and the crazy life commitment you make to the brand. I got more calls on my days off and in the middle of the night than my husband, a doctor, ever does. One district manager even called me to “touch base” on some things … while I was in the hospital, in labor with my first child. …

One of the toughest things about working retail, or customer service in general, is that people forget that behind that apron, beneath that cheerful smile, we’re people, too. We have feelings. We struggle. We know that many of you think we’re just doing this because we can’t do anything else. Even if that’s true, so what? It doesn’t mean that your rudeness doesn’t sting, even if we’re being paid (minimally) to take it and smile. Be nice. Try to be.

Though the details are harrowing, and familiar to anyone who has had to work a thankless, annoying, low-status job, especially one that puts you in contact with the public, I’m not sure the essay makes a case for why working retail would make us better people. Are current or former retail workers more patient than the rest of us? I mean, I know an awful lot of angry baristas. 

Even leaving aside the question of whether working retail might backfire and make an average person hate the teeming masses of humanity who — through ignorance or malice — disrupt our carefully calibrated displays, this issue isn’t unique to retail.

We should behave well to bus drivers and toll booth operators and flight attendants too, right, even if we’ve never worked in those fields. It shouldn’t take first-hand experience to make us better at being fellow human beings; all anyone needs is a little imagination, or perhaps a conscience. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “There’s only rule that I know of, babies: God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

That said, some kind of work on the minimum wage front lines can definitely be eye-opening and character-building.

For six weeks many years ago, I volunteered on a religious kibbutz in an Israeli desert. Most of the women in my program were put to work in the day cares. Someone with a clipboard took one look at me, though, and decided I should be as far as possible from impressionable young minds. Assigned to the kitchens of the Dining Hall, I arrived at 6:00 and worked until 2:00, scrubbing mirrors, wiping down tables, filling up water pitchers, doling out food from buffet stations during lunch, and cleaning up again. Then I went home — to the dorm room I shared with three friends — and collapsed.

It was not awesome. It was not even fun most of the time. I did, however, have great conversations chopping melon with the other workers, and I did realize that people looked at me differently on kibbutz. Everyone was polite. Everyone nodded at me or made eye contact when I was outside the dining hall sweeping leaves. No one seemed to draw conclusions about my intelligence or ability from the fact that I was doing unskilled labor. How could they? They themselves could be sweeping leaves tomorrow, or their kid could.

It was something to actually experience a world in which people were treated with dignity.regardless of their occupation. I remember thinking, what would it be like to raise a child here? For a kid to see this as normal? Then, instead, I went to college and New York City, and I’m raising a child here in Gotham, even though the general mentality seems to be the polar opposite. But I hope I still manage to teach Babygirl that she should strive to see people as individuals who deserve to be treated well, whether they’re wearing suits or jumpsuits; and if working at Uniqlo will help her develop empathy as well as life skills, she’ll be dropping off an application as soon as she turns 16.

Not at Abercrombie & Fitch, though. One has to draw the line somewhere.

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