Middle Class Impotence and the Service Sector Struggle

‘Here is your food, madam, I’m sorry again for the wait.’
‘I should think so, forty minutes. It’s unacceptable!’
‘I’m very sorry madam, as you can see, we’re very busy today, everyone has had to wait.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I said everyone was had to wa–’
‘Do you want to continue this conversation?’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘I said, do you want to continue this conversation? Because I can speak louder, and I can scream, and I can let everyone around us know how terrible your restaurant is.’

I overheard the above interaction during a recent trip to Amalfi, near Naples in south-west Italy. The conversation took place on a busy Friday afternoon on an outdoor terrace between a restaurant manager and an American woman who looked to be in her early 50s, sat with two other people.

Having just sat down at a table nearby, I don’t know the details that led up to their argument. Presumably the table had ordered their food a while back and had been waiting some time, and having finally been served their meals, the woman had decided to voice her anger at the manager.

In her defence, the restaurant did not appear to be that busy – though anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows how unpredictable afternoon shifts can be, and the gamble many businesses take when it comes to the number of wait staff and chefs employed during these hours. On the other hand, it made me wonder, if she’d been waiting as long as she said for her meal (nearly 45 minutes), then surely she’d had time to vocalise her discomfort, or even get up and leave?

We tend to think of the feudal system as a relic of the past. The almost entirely ceremonial British monarchy (and a handful of others) notwithstanding, western society is largely defined by the spirit of liberal meritocracy. Everyone is where they are on the ladder through hard work (their own or inherited) and all things are accessible, at least in theory, to all people.

It’s a spirit that flies in the face of the feudal hierarchy – kings, dukes, earls, knights and so on. In liberal western society, everyone can enjoy what they want provided they can cover the cost of access. In contrast, every citizen in feudal hierarchy knew their place on the social ladder, and the power and privilege that came with it. The serfdom dared not speak over the lords, nor the lords the knights.

Nonetheless, our societies do still maintain some elements of this hierarchy in the form of our class system. Though we don’t always think of its expressed intent as designating our place on the social ladder, from the moment we are made aware of it, we become conscious of our place and the behaviour that positioning dictates.

The problem, however, is that the power and privilege the meritocratic class system distributes is uneven. Once you get to the top rungs, such as the extremely wealthy and the political class, you gain access to a lifestyle that reflects your standing – private jets, superyachts, car services, luxury goods and so on.

But for the most of us, from the working class to the upper middle class, the social climb doesn’t really offer much to distinguish you from those below. You might own a home, and you might have some nice things inside it, and you might own two cars, but beyond your own constructed class identity, the society you live in doesn’t really change that much. You have to book the same flights as everyone else, and ride the same planes. You get the same trains and tubes, you stand in the same queues, you eat in the same restaurants, your kids probably go to the same state (public) school, etc.

The fact is, the proclaimed existence of an egalitarian society in a system that simultaneously promotes the need to climb a social ladder can be maddening for people who’ve committed so much energy to that endeavour and yet failed to reap its benefits.

This disparity between the belief that hard work will reap greater rewards, and a continued insistence on the ideal of a fair and balanced society, can breed an uncomfortable cocktail of entitlement and social impotence. In the 2010 documentary The Parking Lot Movie, one of the titular parking lot attendants identifies it in the Hummer drivers that visit the lot, parking their gargantuan SUVs across multiple parking spaces in ways that block off other areas and make the space increasingly unnavigable – ‘They’re saying, “I got mine. Fuck you.”’ It’s a mentality that needs, somehow, to exert its superiority, to find people lower down on the ladder and say to them, ‘I am your better. Recognise me as such.’

Restaurant etiquette is complicated. Though it varies from place to place, when we enter a restaurant, we fall under a spell which dictates the social dynamic, as we do when we go to the doctor, ride a train, go to work, or enter virtually any other space that isn’t our own. But there’s something unique about service sector spaces which can bring out uglier elements of our character, because unlike exchanges between colleagues or teachers, for example, the dynamic between restaurant server customer is explicitly one of servant and master.

For those people who have invested themselves in the class hierarchy, the restaurant is the perfect release valve; its implicit master-servant dynamic allows them to indulge in the fantasy of their social superiority. Not only that, the concept of tipping in which your server’s pay is directly tied to your judgement of their performance as your servant invites it. For 90 minutes, they get to be judge, jury, and economic executioner, and this sadistic bent can manifest in all kinds of ways, from the relatively benign (ever been at a table with someone who’s “joked” to the wait staff that they won’t be receiving a tip?) to the downright cruel.

For example, you might have come across a social media post where someone shares their “secret” to getting good service – laying the server’s tip out in single coins or bills at the table’s edge at the beginning of the meal, and “deducting” an increment for every instance of poor service. The system is, of course, arbitrary. Deductions could be imposed for anything from a lack of a smile, saying “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome”, the server going to assist another table instead of immediately rushing to fulfil your request. The fact is, the system they construct around this psychopathic mentality is largely irrelevant. What’s important is that it reinforces the dynamic of servant and master, and makes clear to the server: ‘For the amount of time that I am sat at this table, I am socially superior to you, and I expect you to acknowledge that, and validate me as such.’

Of course, not everyone is guilty of this mentality. I don’t think it’s overly optimistic to say that the majority of people who visit restaurants or interact with service sector workers regularly do so with courtesy, consideration and respect. After all, many of us start out working in these kinds of jobs and take away lifelong lessons about how we’d like to be treated and, in turn, how to treat people. But for the people who are more invested in winning the game of society than the spirit of taking part, years of living with one boot or another on your neck can eventually create an eagerness to be the one doing the stepping.

When I was in my late teens, I actually worked in retail for one of London’s luxury department stores. During my training, I had conversations with some of the higher up workers. Naturally, I asked them if they’d ever dealt with any rude, snobby, wealthy customers. Surprisingly, they said no.

The thing with celebrities and the ultra-wealthy, they explained, is by-and-large they have nothing to prove. Once you’ve climbed the social ladder to the point where you can truly enjoy a lifestyle that reflects your transcendence, you cease to have anything to prove. After all, if I live in a mansion worth several millions, get VIP service wherever I go, and spend most of my time socialising with other members of the upper strata, why would I need a shop assistant to let me know I’m superior to them?

No, they said, it’s the people who are only marginally more successful than your average middle class person who are the worst. Small business owners, middle-management types, and so on. Because for the most part, they probably live a life that is only vaguely better than other people around them (at least, in their own eyes).

So when they walk around this store, surrounded by extravagant luxury goods (only a fraction of which they can actually afford), and have people calling them “sir” or “madam” as they turn every corner, it’s like a rush of endorphins. It allows them to believe that they’re up at the top of the ladder, when in reality, they’re only a few steps above the bottom, and the differences are largely cosmetic. They treat the people below them like shit, because being treated like shit by the people above them is all they’ve ever known, but they’ve rarely had an opportunity to do it themselves.

This neurosis is probably one of the greatest challenges we face in trying to establish a new sense of class consciousness and solidarity in the face of rapidly widening inequality. Not only can you see that our society’s love for the feudal hierarchy never really went away. Look at the way so many people fawn over billionaires like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and so on. The scary thing is that many people have invested themselves so heavily in their individual journey up the social ladder, that they might never be convinced to let it go.

That lady from the story at the beginning of this piece, by her own words, had 40 minutes to get up and leave if she was unhappy with the service she was receiving. But she was never going to do that, because the moment she did, she would have gone back to being just another person in the street. She might hate long waits and sloppy service, but she craved the opportunity it gave her to berate another human being for circumstances largely out of their control.

The hyper-individualist ideology of Thatcherism (and its Reaganite American counterpart) has instilled in huge segments of our population the idea that their individual identity is, ultimately, all that truly matters. Yes, things have gotten worse for the country over the years, but you’re doing alright, right? There are rising numbers of food banks and zero hours contracts, but you’re secure, aren’t you? Rents are rising, and working class communities are being edged out of their communities in the urban centres, but your mortgage is largely secure, isn’t it? So, how bad can things really be?

In recent years, that individualism has been amplified by the surge of social media. Everyone has a story, a feed, a channel, and we’re all influencers, consultants and ambassadors (and bloggers). The same thing that has empowered us all to be more connected and interactive than ever before, might also be making us evermore fractured. We might all believe in solidarity and progressive values, but do we confront the notion that achieving broader solidarity might require us to sacrifice some of our own hyper-individualised identities?

The politics and poetics of class and power in the service sector arguably reflect the Achilles heel of trying to achieve progressive politics and class solidarity in the modern age. In order to do it, people need to be able to walk into a restaurant or shop, or get on a train or a bus, and see the people in front of them as true social equals.

And for people who’ve already invested in the capitalist social ladder, and want to identify more with the man in the yacht than the man on the bus, that’s their worst fucking nightmare.

For more thoughts on service and tipping culture, the SRSLY WRONG podcast just released an episode where they discuss the history, ethics and deeper implications of tipping. It’s really good and very funny, and you can listen here, or by searching for SRSLY WRONG wherever you normally listen to podcasts.

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