We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. – Alan Watts
I first noticed the fast food workers in DC. They were resigned to dealing with the hordes of teenagers on class trips. They were resigned to dealing with my classmates. They were resigned to dealing with me. I do not think anyone else really noticed it, though I could not ask. I barely had the vocabulary to discuss it at the time. However, I could notice it: Everyone on one side of the counter was white; everyone on the other was black.
That pattern does not always hold – sometimes the people on the other side are some shade of brown, rarely are they white. However, as I traveled across the country, skin color was not the most common factor. Instead, it was their body language. You can see it in janitors, maids, in busboys and fast-food workers. They are our modern servants, stripped even of the miserly honor of serving the same people. Instead, they are meant to be invisible and interchangeable, with dark desexing uniforms.
Well, fuck that.
I spent most of a week greeting these service workers. I did so as loudly, flamboyantly, and happily as I could. I projected my voice as I asked how their days were in an almost-unbelievably cheerful tone. Rather than continue with the normal mumbled “You toos” and “Have a nice days”, I forced a startlingly direct conversation. “Ha – HA!” I’d laugh. “No, really, how was your day? I would like to know!”
That’s what sold it. The eye contact told them that it was not just another person with just another routine greeting. I asked, maintained eye contact, and waited for their reply. I laughed loudly, and often. Everything was “excellent”, “awesome”, and “splendid”.
Because of the variety of locales I cycle through, the socioeconomic status of the recipients of my experiment was unusually large. Regardless, four instances were representative. As I passed a black, middle-aged janitor in the halls of a local college, I greeted him with a hearty “Hello, sir! And how does today find you?” He looked up at me briefly, then looked back down and continued down the hallway. At the Panera near a local college, I ordered in the hearty, jovial voice, and continued to engage the staff in that manner, discussing the pleasures of a hot mocha and the near-heresy of iced coffee during the winter months. Of the two staff members – both presenting as young female college students of middle to upper middle class, one white and one black – the black barista smiled, quickly finished her transaction with me and went to the back room. The white barista volunteered to finish my drink and actively participated in the discussion. Customers nearby looked askance (and oh how I have waited for an opportunity to use that word!) and gave the two of us about double normal personal space.
At a local hospital, I engaged the youthful workers at one of the fast food eateries in this manner over the course of several days. On all days (with a notable exception), the customers reacted as above. The staff here continually strove to maintain their composure while still laughing and participating in conversation. They also greeted me heartily on the remaining days. One of my proximate co-workers saw me engaged in this behavior, and half-jokingly confronted me, saying, “That’s not real! You don’t talk like that!”
At the gift shop at that hospital, I again greeted the cashier in a hearty manner. After an initial moment of astonishment, this elderly black volunteer smiled and accepted the conversation at face value. Her co-volunteers, however, glared at me both that first day and in the days to follow.
There were several instances where I did not engage in this behavior; because either my family was with me and I did not wish to make them uncomfortable, or because the person I approached had such a negative demeanor that it seemed inconceivable to act happy in their presence.
In most of the cases, the person(s) whom I addressed directly quickly took the behavior at face value. They smiled, engaged in conversation, and generally appeared to regain some degree of humanity. Those whom I have opportunity to see repeatedly still greet me both in the eatery and in the halls of the hospital. Older people seemed to be less receptive to this kind of positive deviation, and those belonging to minority groups marginally less receptive – though age far outweighed race as a predictor of response. Most negative reaction was from those not directly addressed, whose attention was taken for a few moments from whatever non-significant pattern they were in. While not all persons who saw this display were troubled by it, the vast majority of witnesses seemed to be. Unfortunately, opportunities to debrief subjects were limited, as doing so would undermine the ulterior motive I had in choosing this deviant behavior: Both encouraging those forced into faceless roles to interact with the privileged, and to extravagantly present a positive new normative behavior.
The one co-worker who objected to my display (“That’s not how you really talk!”) was the exception. She stated that her objection was not so much the behavior per se, but that she viewed it as a deviation from my own prior behavior. In one sense, this demonstrates a substantive subtlety as her normative “other” was not a generalized or stereotypical other, but customized for individuals that she had worked with for less than a week.
The positive responses of the food service workers that I saw for most of the week indicate that such norms are not seamlessly self-healing. Despite the unconscious and non-significant nature of most such social handshaking protocols, a conscious actor can disrupt them in a positive way. Knowing this, it is imperative for those of us who reflect consciously to disrupt the status quo in order to bootstrap others into consciousness.
And get a smile with your coffee.