Print Edition: March 13, 2013
I’ve had my fair share of minimum wage jobs. And even after all the mistreatment from customers, managers and difficult coworkers, I still think that this sort of employment is good for the soul, and not just in a Calvinist sort of way.
Here’s why you should take comfort and know that you’re taking more away from your minimum wage job than your criminally small pay check.
I moonlight as a gas station attendant (shockingly, being a student journalist does not cover all of my expenses). Gas stations are one of those places where you see everyone, from the bejeweled gangster driving an equally bejeweled Hummer, the suited business woman in her polished Lexus, to the down and out guy who collects the cans and bottles from the garbage bins before coming to pay for a pack of budget cigarettes with a handful of change. Eight hours of attempting small talk with this assortment of people makes for a long day. I’ve had to find inventive ways to amuse myself: making a study of different wallets, trying to judge personalities by the way someone cares for their fingernails, making up back stories for the regulars. It might not seem so at first glance, but creativity is a large part of surviving this sort of job.
Like many workers at this level of employment, I will never get a raise. I don’t get lunch breaks, instead having to find time to eat between rushes, and have no expectations of a reward for exceptional work. I also must be able to deal with petulant and short-tempered customers on a daily basis. I was daunted at first, taking antagonism from customers personally. As time passed I was able to let the abuse slide off my back; being able to take criticism with composure, even if completely undeserved, is an important skill. Instead of issuing a quick and angry retort, I’m forced to listen and respond calmly.
In Forbes magazine, Peter Ubel compares the emotional intelligence of a Starbucks employee to a physician. Doctors put in “thousands of hours memorizing Latin words, learning to recognize signs and symptoms of illness [and] thousands more familiarizing [themselves] with tests and treatments—with medication side effects, surgical indications and whatnot.” Left behind, Ubel writes, is the emotional intelligence that Starbucks employees receive; learning to “recognize and respond” to customers who “express negative emotion.” So really, your experience as a minimum wage worker gives you a one up on medical school graduates.
Ubel cites Charles Dhigg’s book, The Power of Habit in describing the training Starbucks employees undergo. They learn the “latte method,” as a means of responding to upset customers; they are taught to “listen to the customer, acknowledge their complaint, take action by solving the problem, thank them, and then explain why the problem occurred.” In doing so, the employees learn to be able to “recognize when their customers are exhibiting negative emotions and, more importantly, how to address these emotions in positive ways.”
In the end, your minimum wage job is giving you a skill some people never acquire: empathy. And not just for the outwardly aggressive customers, but for workers in your own position. The people you end up respecting are the ones who treat you like a human being; through them, you learn what sort of person you want to become. Your minimum wage job is just another step in the long trek to becoming a grown up.