People say that "everyone should work retail or service at least once in their lives." I couldn't agree more. Like many people, some of my first jobs were retail service gigs. One in a department store, another in a bookstore. I've long since moved on, but I learned a lot about the nature of people — and how that battle between selfishness and empathy is something we all struggle with, every day.
Photo: Universal Pictures
A long time ago, I was a cashier at a local big box store that made its employees wear red vests. It was awful. Eventually I moved on to a bookstore in a local mall, with an awesome group of people. I still regard it as one of the best jobs I've ever had. Then I moved on to a different kind of service: IT support. I could write an article just on that.
Working retail teaches you a lot about people — and not just that they can be terrible. You learn a lot about keeping your composure, the privilege that money and status afford, where your personal boundaries are and how to cope with serious, under-your-skin stress. Plus, it all applies well later on down the road, even if you never work service again.
The most self-important people are also the weakest
One thing I learned working retail that's held true everywhere is that the people who act the most self-important are the people who really deserve the least respect. You know these people, they shout "I'll never shop/come back here again" with the kind of blind conviction that makes you wonder if they actually believe that "losing a customer" actually matters in this day and age, much less to someone working a cash register at a big box store or waiting tables.
I mean, we all know "I'll never shop here again" is bullshit. The people who said it to me were usually back first thing in the morning the next day. Even the people who say it have to know that on some level it's bullshit — but without that weapon in their arsenal they have to admit that they're no special snowflake, their money is no greener than anyone else's, and they're out to spend while the poor person suffering their insulting banter is getting paid to do it.
That's the clincher though. When you're face to face with that realisation, you understand yourself, and others, better than ever. None of us are so important that our consumerist needs override basic human decency, and knowing that makes you a stronger person — much stronger than someone relying on a "customer/servant" dynamic to feel important. It's not so much that you're not important, but that no one is so important they get to walk on someone else. Retail taught me this lesson loud and clear, very early on.
Self care is important, because no one else really cares about you
Speaking of jerks, the biggest thing that working any service-related job taught me was that I needed to take care of myself. Seriously: self care is critical not just at work, but throughout life. If you're in an environment where someone else gives a crap about your mental health or emotional stability, you're pretty lucky.
That's not to say people are heartless (although some certainly can be), it's just that everyone's so busy looking out for themselves that it's tough to extend mental energy to others — especially people they aren't close with. If you work on a team where everyone looks out for each other, grabs drinks after work, or listens to each other vent, that's great. Be happy when you find coworkers like that. But keep in mind that the limits of everyone else's kindness is generally the amount of energy they can spare. Everyone has it tough, including you, and everyone's trying their damndest to cope. Don't expect someone to help you. You should learn to handle your own stress, in your own way.
We've talked about how to deal with stress, but working service makes you pick up those tricks early. You learn to remove yourself from a situation before you say something you'll regret. You learn no one cares if you took your lunch, if you've been working back to back shifts, or you're missing a family event or a funeral or a wedding to work overtime. You learn even the best bosses will put you to work anyway if you don't say something. You learn no one cares that customer was a racist jerk to you, even if they saw it, unless you make it clear you were displeased about it. You learn to suck it up and keep going, because the world keeps moving and no one's interested in stopping to help you up.
Yes, it sucks. But you also learn to rely on your own strength, press on, and then retreat to your own safe spaces later to recuperate. If you don't have those safe spaces, you find them. Any job can teach you these lessons, but something like retail can teach you pretty quickly — and pretty young. Which is something I'm thankful for.
Everyone is the hero of their own story
On a similar note, you figure out pretty quickly that few people see themselves in the wrong. Everyone is the protagonist in the drama of their individual life. It makes sense, if you think about it: the only existence we really experience is our own, so the only feelings we really feel are ours. The only point of view we can really understand is ours. That also means that we'll bend over backwards to make sure we rationalize our actions. When we behave a certain way, we usually forgive ourselves because there's some reason for it.
Even when we're absolutely terrible to one another, we always, at least in our own mental narratives, have a reason for it. Maybe we were duped into being terrible, or we were in a bad place in our lives, or we thought what we were doing was okay at the time, or we were brought up poorly, or whatever. That doesn't make those rationalizations bad, or our actions justified. But they're still rationalizations. Understanding that gives us context, and should remind us that others don't get that context — they just get our actions.
Remembering this helps us avoid dwelling on the bad behaviour of others. It does, however, give you insight, so you can get over it quickly. Later down the line, this level of empathy reveals why people make poor decisions, or react badly to stressful situations. When you understand that coworker shuffles deadlines and keeps giving you work because their boss is a nightmare to deal with, it gives you the mental space to understand it's not personal, and address the real issue. If you know their boss is a awful, you can be upfront with them about it and maybe earn a little empathy of your own. If you remember they're acting as hero of their own story, bravely buckling down under pressure and making miracles happen, it can help you reframe your own actions (and your reactions to them) as a result. After all, you're the hero of your story, right?
The "service mentality" is real anytime you have a "customer"
The "service mentality" describes the strange mindset people get into when they're a "customer." This is when someone suddenly grows a hideous sense of entitlement, centered around this notion that because they're a "customer" that means they're not just "always right," but an actual better, superior person to the people who serve them.
I didn't really believe this before I worked service. I thought that this behaviour had to be an outlier. Instead, I learned that more people believe it than don't (at least in some form), and that doesn't make them bad people, it just means we all lack empathy. Think about it: you probably shudder at the notion that you're a "better person" than the one waiting your table, but you'll still get into heated debates about tipping. You've probably rolled your eyes more than once when you felt a cashier didn't show you the "respect" you deserve.
Keeping this front and center in your head is the first step to dismantling it. This isn't limited to service jobs, either. Even in IT, I learned that because IT's "customers" are other departments in the company, the same mentality reared its head. Even when I was a project manager, I could see it in the stakeholders we had to report to. This mindset is rampant, and the best among us know when to tamp it down and treat everyone like fellow human beings.
You're never "too good," and people who think they are, aren't
When things got rough at my first retail gig, I used to tell myself that I was "doing this now so I never had to do it again." As in, someday I'd be better than all this, and I'd look back and down on it as necessary character building. It got me through tough times, and I did wind up using retail to get a work history under me and move on to other things. I was happy I'd never have to pretend I gave a crap whether someone could find the comforters or that we were out of their favourite pen. It helped me get through a lot of those days, but looking back now, it was a lot of bullshit.
Part of it is because even today, I look back on some of the best jobs I had, and the years I worked in a bookstore were some of the best. It was no Black Books, but I worked with great people, got to read a lot and had my fair share of hilarious moments. That brings me to one of the biggest lessons I took away from working retail: You're never "too good" to do it again.
There are good retail jobs and bad ones. There are always bad customers, but there are good ones too, and what defines the job is the work you do and the people you work with. But those things apply to any job. If you can land a good combination of those two things, even a "menial" retail job can feel worthwhile.
It may not make up for lousy pay and long hours, but at least it's something you won't hate doing. And you never know, should the bottom fall out, you would do well to not be so prideful you couldn't go back and look for it again.