Public (Non) Service

Try this on for size:  I work in public service, but I do not consider myself a public servant.

I tell ya; I missed my calling.  I should be writing copy for greeting cards.

But as oxymoronic as that statement sounds, it is true.  Although I work with the public – with people – I do not view myself as existing or functioning to serve them.

I mention this because I had a revelation the other day at work, and it has prompted some deep thinking on my part.  I should probably spend more time on my hobbies because I think that I think way too much.

But this revelation has altered how I view my work in the context of how others view my work.  Let me preface by saying I do plan to employ comparisons with baristas at Starbucks, check-out clerks in grocery stores, and other such retail-oriented work.  My intention is in no way to imply that my job is better than theirs, or that I work harder, or that I am more professional.  In fact, I admire those who deal with the public far more frequently than I do.  I know my temper and my constitution, and while I am relatively non-confrontational (okay – completely non-confrontational), I would be in jail for murder if I had to put up with half of what I see the baristas, and check-out clerks, and other retail employees tolerate on a daily basis.

And I read the incredible Nickle and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich and I definitely learned the lesson she meant to convey in that book:  there is no job that is “unskilled.”

Therefore, if I do sound like I’m belittling the retail profession in my comparisons to my own job, then I apologize deeply.  It is absolutely not what I mean to do here.

What I mean to do is use my perception of daily life for retail employees as a context for the revelation I had about my own job.

Which is thus:  I may not view my role as a public servant, but the public, in many cases, sees me as their servant.  I know, right?  All this preamble for that big revelation??  Allow me to explain.

I am a museum educator.  The main focus of my job – which I love wholeheartedly – is to teach my audience the material associated with my museum.  And there are many reasons why I love what I do.  Museum education is informal, so it is not sitting in a classroom and getting droned at by Ben Stein.  It’s fun, engaging, interactive, exploratory, and often so masked by the activity itself, the learning happens without the visitor even knowing it.

I'm not in a classroom, but I do teach.

I’m not in a classroom, but I do teach.

An occurrence that not only means the visitor will remember what they learned long after they have left the museum, but also proves museums offer a unique approach to learning.  As we all know, the formal education system is very regimented, structured, and quite frankly, entirely too narrow in its approach.  The standard classroom activities (especially for older students) tend to include lecture, reading, testing, and writing.  How fun for those who are kinetic learners (need hands-on activity), visual learners, and others who learn from ways not associated with reading and listening.

Museums can step in and offer these non-traditional learners (and I hate using that word:  “non-traditional” since learning is learning, no matter how it is done, and there should be no traditional or “right way” to it) a chance to understand in ways that meet their needs.  Exploring objects, studying imagery, experiencing sensory environments (smell, taste, touch, etc…), creating some product, playing games… these are all tried and true methods for learning, and museums use them.  Regularly.

Anyway, to get off my soapbox about the importance of museum education, and lifelong learning, I have long viewed my job as a conduit to enlightenment and understanding.  A visitor comes to the museum, and I am there to connect him or her to a new experience.  Sometimes it is to new information for that visitor.  Sometimes it is to a better understanding of past cultures.  Sometimes it is just to show, through practice, that certain activities can be fun – especially ones that are different from the ones we engage in every day.

Idealistic?  Yes.  And I think my passion for what I do – what museums can offer – has long obscured the reality of what some (not all) visitors actually see when they visit.  I know that some people will never be “museum people” and no matter how hard I try, I will never reach everyone who comes to visit.  I’m not that idealistic.

But what has often surprised me are the number of people who come into the museum and so obviously do not want to be there.  And I’m not talking about kids.  Kids are a different ball game because they are literally dragged into the museum by mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, etc… so their say in visiting is generally overpowered by the adult in question.

Always great to have this looking back at you when you're doing your job...

Always great to have this looking back at you when you’re doing your job…

No, I am talking about adults.  Adults who make the decision to come into a museum and from the word “Welcome,” are obviously wishing they were someplace else.  This, I do not understand.  We are not the dentist’s office.  We are not the DMV.  We are not a place you have to be in for some-such reason.

So, why?  Why do people come in to the museum when they don’t want to be there?

I think I will spend the rest of my life trying to find a solid answer to that question, but I did hit upon … something.  I know part of the motivation in visiting us in particular is a base-line curiosity.  My museum is an historic house – a stately mansion as it were – and the only way to visit (most days) is via one of our guided tours.  We are structured so that visitors wait outside the mansion’s front door, and guides will come outside on the hour and half hour to start said tours.  There is no fee to come in.  No real formality; those who want to take the tour come on the tour, and those who don’t, keep walking right on by.

Therefore, what I imagine happens in these non-interested visitor circumstances (which, I will henceforth refer to as the “zombie tours” or the “zombie guests”), is as follows:  Adults are out walking around the park in which we are located.  They see this large house.  Okay, that’s kinda cool-ish.  Oh, look:  the large house offer tours.  Wanna see what’s inside?  Sure, let’s go on a tour.  Door opens and guide comes out, greets visitors, and yes, gives them a few basic rules.  Rules?  Really?  Guests are taken into the main entry hall for the start of the tour, and there.  We saw the inside.  Can we go now?  And even though there is no reason why visitors cannot leave a tour at any time, they won’t go.  They will let the guide drag them through a 30-minute tour, looking bored, or frustrated, or not even looking at all because they are playing around on their phones.

More than just a worry that my brains will become snack food, zombie guests on a tour are demoralizing, and just plain awful...

More than just a worry that my brains will become snack food, zombie guests on a tour are demoralizing, and just plain awful…

Leading these kinds of tours is, in a word, awful.  It is demoralizing, for one, but also frustrating because I feel like I wasted my time.  When I have great guests – the ones who are interested, engaged, excited to be there – then tours are some of the best 30 minutes of my days.  But when I have zombies… I have come very close to throwing my hands up and saying, “if you don’t want to be here, then go!  Why did you even come inside in the first place?”

Then, one day… I had my epiphany.  I realized I subconsciously expect my visitors to respect me.  I am a teacher, after all.  I am that conduit to better understanding.  But these zombie visitors don’t see me as a professional at all.  To them, I am a means to an end, and that end is a view inside this mysterious mansion.  They don’t respect me, or my time.  I exist to serve them.  And that is where my comparisons to the retail industry come in.

I view it like a customer who walks into a Starbucks.  The barista behind the counter taking the order, or the one making the drinks – they are not individuals in the eyes of some customers.  They are simply a means to an end.  An automaton that gives the customer what that person wants:  a mocha frocha locha frappe with extra whipped cream.  The only thing that matters to that customer is himself.  And the most important thing going on in that Starbucks is that customer’s drink.

Customer Service Cartoon

It’s a dim view of humanity, but I have watched customers go bat s—t crazy when the mocha frocha locha frappe doesn’t have whipped cream, or doesn’t have enough chocolate, chai, soy milk, whatever.  I was the next in line behind two ladies just the other day who were borderline torturing the barista.  They did not seem to understand that the items on display in the pastry case were the ones in stock that day.  “How can you NOT have chocolate croissants?!?” the one demanded.  Never mind there was no tag or label for chocolate croissants in the pastry case, so the woman was trying to order something that wasn’t even on the menu.  Then it was, “we want one of these canned refresher drinks but not any of the flavors you have here.  Do you have [some such combination of fruits that do not exist in a canned refresher drink]?”  And while the barista very calmly and politely explained the three or four refresher flavors in the drinks case were the only ones available, the ladies went ballistic again.

I sighed.  Both in sympathy for the barista – who was truly stellar with those old battle-axes, by the way – and in frustration with the two customers in question.  This continuing attempt to order food and drinks not on the Starbucks menu went on for some time.  A second barista opened the other register, so I didn’t have to wait too long, but let me put it this way:  I got my regular ol’ drip coffee, added my sugar, cream, and cinnamon, and headed out the door… and those two vipers were still going at the barista about their order.

It is a sad state of affairs.  That so many people out there really have this self-centered view, and this expectation that because they exist, everyone needs to respect them.  They don’t need to pass on that respect to others, mind you.  The stars forbid those two ladies at the Starbucks take just one moment to realize the barista on the other side of the counter is a human being too, and just as worthy of respect and professionalism as you expect from her.  But that’s now how it works, I guess.

And that is what I realized is happening with my zombie guests.  I had better be courteous and respectful to them – I am the servant after all – but they do not need to accord me the same in return.  This is my job, in their eyes.  I am there to show them the museum.  I do not have other responsibilities like program development, coordination, and management, volunteer and intern management, education resource development, or even social media and public presence maintenance.  I am there to serve them, and serve them alone.

In a way, those guests are right.  I am there to work with them.  A major part of my job is the guided tours, and leading those tours is central to my day.  Just like, I am sure, a major part of a barista’s day is serving Starbucks’ customers.  But how hard is it to understand that Joe Public is not the only guest the museum works with that day?  Not the only customer walking into Starbucks to order a mocha frocha frappe latte?  How hard is it to view the staff in public service positions as human beings?  Human beings that, yes, want to provide you with a good experience, but do not exist solely to cater to your whims?

Another great example are the poor people who work in call centers.  I, myself, have seethed with rage because a superpower bank can’t get my student loan accounts straight (and I won’t mention names but the bank in question rhymes with “Ditibank”), and I am receiving collections notices for past due bills when my records show my accounts are up to date.  When I call Ditibank’s call center, however, I know the person answering the phone is not the one who screwed up.  Some bean counter on the 87th floor of one of Ditibank’s 2,000 skyscraping towers is the one who can’t use a calculator.  The woman I am speaking with on the phone is not that bean counter on the 87th floor.  She is probably a college student making $6.00 an hour, spending her entire shift listening to customers scream at her about their accounts, and worrying about her final exam coming up in a few weeks.  This college student and the bean counter on the 87th floor probably don’t even work in the same building… in the same city… or even in the same country.  But the poor college student is blamed for the messed up account anyway.

Imagine.... this probably happens more frequently than you would think....

Imagine…. this probably happens more frequently than you would think….

So let me pose this:  no matter what you do for a living, imagine you receive a phone call or a knock on your office door, and the person you greet starts yelling and screaming at you.  About something that is not your fault – something not even related to what you do – and not just yells and screams, but throws out insults, scathing remarks, and degrading profanity.  That’s gonna make your day, right?

Take it a step further:  let’s say you pour your heart and soul into something.  Some project.  Be it work or personal, and those around you don’t give a flying flip about it.  They can’t be bothered.  It means nothing to them.  Another day for the memory books, right?

The truth is, we have all been the victims of dis-respect.  We have all felt the hot bubbles of anger gurgling in our stomachs when someone yells at us for something we had no control over, when someone blatantly ignores us, when someone doesn’t listen to what we are saying.  So, why do we spin on our heels and treat someone else the same way?  When we know what it feels like to be yelled at on the phone about something not our fault, why do we yell at the call center representatives about something not their fault?  When we know what it feels like to talk to someone, explain something to them, and they are not listening to us, why do we turn around and become the obstinate (selectively deaf) customer in the Starbucks who wants a chocolate croissant when we have been told there are no chocolate croissants?

When we know what it feels like to have our time wasted, why do we waste the time of others?

I take deep joy and fulfillment in my job as an educator.  I love what I do.  And as I mentioned previously, when I have visitors who are interested in the museum, then I can think of nothing I would rather do than engage that interest.  The times I hit that zone – that consuming mindset, where all I think about is what I’m doing in that moment – are those times when I’m working with interested guests.  I never reached that zone before embarking on this career, and it is that zone that keeps me motivated and working hard.

So, yes, I am a public servant.  And proud of it.  But I am also a human being worthy of the same respect I accord my visitors.  Just like the Starbucks barista, the check-out clerk in the grocery store, the representative in the call center… everyone around us.  We are all worthy of the same respect we are expected to give our customers.  It is the least Joe Public can do since we do exist to serve him, after all.

So keep kind and rewind.  Take a moment to say hi to the Starbucks barista greeting you.  Remember that no matter how angry you are, and justifiably so, the call center representative is not the one who made the mistake.  And remember that everyone you encounter when visiting places like museums, amusement parks, and other such recreation oriented businesses, the people working there want you to want to be there.  When you want to be there, then everyone has a better time.  A better day.  One for the memory books.


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