Selling hospitality

June 15, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the ideas of service and hospitality play out in our society – namely, in the so-called “service” or “hospitality industry” of restaurants, hotels, etc. This is the sector of the workforce that my husband is in and the one I’ve had experience working in during summers and other time off from my (endless) studies. It’s something I have really mixed feelings about.

In one sense, these kinds of jobs can be rather thankless. I worked for quite a while at two different coffee shops (of the multi-national corporate/chain variety), and I remember customers yelling at me just because their coffee wasn’t up to their expectations (or was too expensive), getting condescending lectures and/or pep talks from managers who expected everything in my life (church, school, etc.) to come second to this part-time, no-benefits, minimum-wage job, and of course, the orders from the head office of the corporation to be falsely friendly to everyone (rude customers and creepy men included!) as part of the “hospitality” and customer service that was part of the job. To be perfectly honest, it provided extremely effective motivation for me to go back to school – not to mention to be obsessively kind to servers whenever I go to a coffee shop or restaurant!

But that was just the thing that I felt somewhat guilty about: the fact that I could leave, that this wasn’t what I would be doing for the rest of my life. Other people don’t get to quit and go to graduate school, but are stuck working two or three of these jobs to make ends meet, especially if they have kids to look after, and especially in a city like Toronto, where rent by itself eats up one whole job’s wages. These people are the “working poor” or “wage slaves” of our society, and are the reason I cringe whenever people get too smug about the fact that slavery has been abolished (because it hasn’t – not in North America or elsewhere). These are the people whom large corporations treat as small cogs in the machine of capitalism, withholding all but the smallest percentage of profits from them while dictating what they can wear, say, and do (above all, to avoid creative, independent thinking). These are also, predominantly, the jobs that newcomers to Canada are stuck with, no matter what skills and education they brought with them from their home countries. And this is why I really disagree with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s statements from a few weeks ago about people being too picky about work – that they should just take any old job that they can be grateful, instead of relying on Employment Insurance (which he is trying to make far more difficult to qualify for).

Of course, these sorts of jobs also bother me because they promote a distorted understanding of hospitality, something which is by definition a gift, not something you can pay for! In the Bible, hospitality or love for the stranger is an ethical imperative, like the story in Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers into their tent, and give them the best food they have. It involves the vulnerability of welcoming someone into your home, feeding them, and caring for them without expecting anything in return. In fact, Jesus talked about purposefully inviting those who can’t repay you into your home (Luke 14:12-14), an idea which became central to the early church. As Christine Pohl writes in this book, “Early Christian writers claimed that transcending social and ethnic differences by sharing meals, homes, and worship with persons of different backgrounds was a proof of the truth of the Christian faith,” because “In doing so, they would have Christ as their guest.” By contrast, in our society, hospitality has been tightly linked with money: we think that only the rich are capable of hospitality, which must be extravagant, flawless, and envy-provoking, or else we think of hospitality as an industry or business, a money-making opportunity where demanding customers are pandered to through “the-customer-is-always-right” kind of thinking. The funny thing is, though, that some of my own most meaningful experiences of receiving hospitality have been from those who had relatively little, monetarily speaking, yet sincerely and generously gave the best of what they had, without expecting anything in return (kind of like the picture above, found here).

Have we lost touch, then, with the simple but profound art of hospitality? I don’t think we have, not altogether. The restaurant my husband works at right now is just about the polar opposite of the places that employed me. It’s a local, Toronto restaurant, and the staff, though they work long hours, are appreciated by the managers. They’re given creative licence in the kitchen to tweak or develop recipes (independent, creative thought is encouraged!), and everything is made from scratch, based on the owner’s family’s recipes, not from pre-fabricated ingredients or set-in-stone recipes passed down from some impersonal head office somewhere else. This lends a certain sense of accomplishment, as well as history and culture, to the work that’s done in the kitchen. Mind you, my husband is a cook, so he doesn’t have to deal with rude customers, but it seems to me that a much more genuine hospitality can be felt at a place like that, a feeling of warm welcome and of being at home, which hopefully curbs some of the demanding rudeness and sense of entitlement that far too many of my customers had.

The thing is, though, that small, local places are the ones struggling these days; they’re becoming increasingly rare while the huge chain-stores proliferate. It seems to me that we need to take another look at what kind of hospitality we want to see in our society – and take steps to support it through working at or frequenting local places where workers are treated well. Of course, we also support it through fulfilling the call to be hospitable people ourselves, to share what we have in our daily lives, no matter what our income bracket, no matter how imperfect it may seem. This way, we take part in embodying hospitality – not as a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace, but as a true gift.

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