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July 8, 2010

celebrating the intelligence of the worker

As the economy stalls, the earth bakes, oil streams into the Gulf, and politicians and reporters quarrel childishly, misanthropy is a temptation. It is tempting, too, to embrace manipulative or authoritarian politics to compensate for the evident frailties of humankind. This is an excellent time, then to read Mike Rose, The Mind At Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker.

I have read the whole volume but would like to focus on chapter 1, "The Working Life of a Waitress." Rose doesn't romanticize waitressing or minimize its physical and emotional toll. But he reveals how complex and difficult the job is and how much pride individual waitresses take in doing their work well. By the hundreds of thousands, waitresses demonstrate excellence in ways that can restore faith in humankind, if you pay attention.

Time is in short supply in a restaurant: customers, owners, and wait-staff want things to move quickly. Space is limited, too, and designed to satisfy other people more than the wait staff. A waitress navigates this crowded space under conditions of uncertainty.

Her interactions are not merely physical, but also emotional. "Remembering orders, being vigilant, and regulating the flow of work all play out in an emotional field." A waitress must resist abuse, inspire positive feelings that enhance tips, collaborate and compete with co-workers, and use "skill and strategy to regulate the flow of work. 'The customer has the illusion that they're in charge' [one waitress says], 'but they're not.'"

Depending on the situation, the waitress has to play "servant, mother, daughter, friends, or sexual object." One says, "You've got to be damned good, damned fast, and you've got to make people like you." Overall, the restaurant provides a place "to display a well-developed set of physical, social, and cognitive skills."

Rose moves on to describe hair salons, construction sites, operating theaters, and other everyday "arenas of competence." The net effect is to remind you that you live among people who achieve great things when contexts call on their intelligence and diligence. (Thanks to Harry Boyte for the reference to this book.)

July 8, 2010 3:34 PM | category: populism | Comments



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