As a post-grad, there is a phenomenon where everyone wants to tell you how to live your life. Knowledge of great philosophers and thinkers alike have gone unsurpassed from the wisdom that middle-aged family members and friends believe they can pass on to the next generation. I expected to be bombarded by suggestions of a medical or law degree, or that I take a step into a government position, from individuals who I’d grown up and known for years. I did not expect the audacity of strangers to attack my choices daily.
When I reintroduced myself to the American workforce earlier this year, I was dismayed and trying to stay obliviously optimistic that I was back in a position similar to one of my first jobs in high school. I was given the title of supervisor but was in reality was a glorified waitress that was allowed the singular management benefit of unloading deliveries. During my first week, I heard about the infamous Hugh. He was an older man in his late 60s, maybe early 70s, and senile as hell. He hated to be asked questions about his standing order and his loyalty card, to the point where staff had the number tucked away in reception to enter for him. The objective was to sit him at his table and move him out of the vicinity as quickly as possible.
I have a persistent problem of appearing much more congenial to the public, when internally I’m screaming inside. I silently foam lattes while I’m astounded by how draining and ludicrous people can be to men and women in the service industry. Still I believe that great customer service is imperative if that’s the only skill that your job is based upon. My first few interactions with Hugh did not go well. Each time I asked which kind of muffin he wanted and whether he required cream in his coffee, I unleashed a monster. After two weeks, Hugh came in and asked me if I was in school. I replied to him I had finished degrees and he scoffed reprovingly. Then came the dreaded question, “What are your degrees in?” I knew where this was going and I told him I had studied art and philosophy. He laughed outright as I pushed his order towards him. Even as he continued to try to pry into my studies further, I was astounded that someone had the audacity to show how humorous he thought my life was without the slightest inclination of common courtesy. I fumed into the back where every one of the employees relayed that they had had the same experience with Hugh. Some tried to excuse the behavior due to his age. Some tried to rationalize that he held the outlook of a different generation. I used logic to deduce he was an asshole.
This has become a persistent problem. I regularly have of white older men coming into where I work and demanding they have a right to be my therapist. One told me that if I had gone into the automotive industry I could have traveled further, insinuating that Europe was now a distant memory. Another suggested I find a husband to supplement my income so I wouldn’t have to live and die in Michigan. While some have demonstrated mild admiration for my accomplishments so far, they still seem to think that if only they had been there along the way and I’d be sitting in a penthouse.
This group of people seem very easy to spot. They are middle-aged and usually from the middle class. They sport clothing that emphasizes they are conservative right-wingers or members of the NRA. In Michigan, they are likely laid off or retired employees of the auto industry. They have no issue being vocal about where they believe a woman’s place is and abhor her for attempting to rise above the role of homemaker. Many seem to be a little smug that although I’ve had many opportunities (through hard work I might add!) in the end I’ve gotten what I deserved. Making only slightly above minimum wage and willing to bend over backward to assist them in their need for gluten-free edibles.
My friend, also a waitress at a chain of restaurants, had a similar encounter with a man and his wife. He asked if she was in school and she replied that she hadn’t finished her degree, but was planning on going back to school in the near future once she had things a bit more sorted out. He reprimanded her attitude and told her that if she had stayed in school she wouldn’t be here pouring his coffee, to which his brilliant wife responded, “Dwayne, you never even went to college!”
Women of the same age group and male minorities have never asked me questions beyond “How is your day going?” or “Which cocktail is your favorite?” For the most part, they are polite and keep conversation light. What makes white men feel entitled to act as god and guru? It doesn’t appear they were raised with a silver spoon in their mouth or that they are on the path towards becoming the next Richard Branson. A younger white man came up one day and in his introduction tried to impress me with his master’s degree. I’m all for furthering education, but he wasn’t even bothered to ask where I had gone to school. Either he was just impossibly egotistical or he was under the impression from my station in life I hadn’t gone at all. Probably both.
It’s the 21st century, and there are bundles of both unemployed and working-class educated millennials around the world. Some have taken more traditional routes with clear-cut career trajectories and office positions after graduation. However, there are many who have sought to actually put education into their interests, and even those who have gone into degrees seeking security have been disappointed by economical circumstances. So many are faced on hard times and growing student loans. Others can’t make ends meet even when on pen and paper they seem to be making enough to get by. A paycheck-to-paycheck existence is a way of living nowadays and most of the men who feel the right to challenge how we got to where we are, are a part of the same reality. Now, when men ask me where I went to school, and I know what road we’re heading down, I tell them that’s a personal question I’d rather not answer. Of course they’re annoyed and indignant that, from this reply, I’ve answered the question for them. I’d rather be behind the counter, planning what I’ll do next and how I’ll make my escape silently than on the other side, content with the small-minded ignorance that I’m in any position to give anyone my advice. It’s my business and my business only.