A Working Life

Americans put a lot of stock in the “work” we do. Work is a great source of our pride. During gatherings, especially this time of year, our work becomes a kind of shorthand by which announcements of new employment, advancement, changes in job titles or elaborate project descriptions are relied on to inform people we meet who we are and what’s important to us.

Nearly every social event yields that impending and all important question, "So, what do you do?" Being someone who has worked in high-prestige low-paying careers and well-paying low-prestige jobs, I try to keep work titles in perspective.

Yes, I work hard to do well at all I do, but my "work" is by no means who I am. Unfortunately, the work we do, and the titles we hold—or don't—sometimes indicate to others that they are entitled to treat us with less respect and consideration than we deserve. Historically, this is especially the case in a tough employment climate, when workers seem easily expendable and easily replaced.

Case in point: Thanksgiving week, I was in a department store at Santa Fe Place. It was the Monday before Black Friday, so the store was fairly empty. Halfway through my transaction with a personable salesperson, I heard a woman bellow over my shoulder from behind me, "Where's housewares? I'm looking for appliances."

The salesperson paused my transaction and then efficiently helped the bellowing customer—who it seems both thought herself too important to wait her turn for assistance (though there was no line behind me) and considered me perfectly appropriate to disregard for the salesperson's attention.

After Ms. Self-Importance had gone, with no acknowledgment of her interruption or thanks for the help she received, I said, "Never mind her ignoring me, whatever happened to please and thank you?"

The cashier exclaimed, "That's nothing! You wouldn't believe how people treat us and what they expect." She then relayed a couple of anecdotes that for me affirmed a state of turpitude in basic manners, before she punctuated the stories, "And if we say anything about it, we're the ones who get in trouble."

This exchange stayed with me the next few days. It made me more aware as I encountered one instance after another where people in (blue- and white-collar) work settings were treated with a lack of professionalism, decorum and respect by those they were in some capacity working with or working to assist.

Here's the Thing: As we enter the throes of the holiday season and all the slap-dash, breakneck insanity that it engenders, and we strive to "celebrate" and create the spirit of the season for family and friends, I'd like to think that we can also strive to honor the work of those who assist us in achieving our goals, whether they are our colleagues in the office or the salespeople in the department store.

In our haste to check off our next item on the to-do list, let us not sacrifice basic courtesy and decency, with the expedient justification of being overwhelmed. Aren't we all? Disregard for others and the work they do can be as subtle as forgetting to say thanks when someone has interrupted a task to assist you, or as careless as a hastily sent email without a salutation or closing.

Lest I fall into this same category of not valuing your efforts, thank you for taking the time to hear me on this point of courtesy.

Andrea L. Mays is an American Studies scholar and a Santa Fean. Her twice-monthly column addresses 20th-century and contemporary culture and politics through the everyday experiences of living in Santa Fe. Write the author: andrea@sfreporter.com

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