Real World Lessons I Learned While Waitressing

By Maureen McDermott

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                 I don’t consider myself a waitress or a bartender. My occupation is ‘Student,’ a title that takes on a whole new meaning at Emerson. Emerson students are overworked and under (see: not) paid, but only until they graduate and get real jobs… where they’re overworked and underpaid. To continue preparing to be an entry-level employee in the marketing and writing industries, I’ve need to supplement my not-so glamorous lifestyle with some manual labor in the form of bartending and waitressing. I don’t exactly exude the outgoing, bubbly persona expected of the ‘typical’ waitress, but somehow I’ve successfully slung beer and nachos for three summers. The job is rewarding in ways more than financial; not only have I (been forced to) become a more social, outgoing person, but I’ve learned lessons about working in the real world that will be invaluable to my career. Entering the job force knowing this information will make the first few years of your career a little less painful.
Your Boss Isn’t Always Looking Out for You
                  This sounds cynical, but it’s important to remember when you make a mistake. No one’s perfect. Your boss, like you, has a reputation to protect. They’ll help you out whenever possible, but when it comes down to it, they’re looking out for themselves. You’re held accountable for your slip-ups and mistakes, whether you’re having an ‘off day’ or not. Don’t expect your manager or supervisor to cover for you, and don’t rely on excuses. It’s completely apparent when other people don’t know this lesson because they’re the employees who don’t understand that their actions have consequences. Remain aware of your responsibilities and mistakes, and you won’t be one of ‘those’ people.
                  The second aspect of this lesson comes down to money. The owner of the restaurant I work in absolutely adores me, for reasons I’m still trying to figure out. He jokes with me, compliments me, and constantly tries to screw me out of money. Double shifts, withholding tips, and too-low hourly wages can all result in staff being underpaid.  You should always have a sense of what you SHOULD be earning by hour and by shift – just in case there’s a dramatic difference when your paycheck comes around. The bottom line is always money, and whether it’s malicious or not, sometimes you may not get what you deserve. Bringing it up respectfully and honestly is tough but important.
The Customer Isn’t Always Right
                  Whether they’re your customer or client, people will try to take advantage of you. They’re usually easy to point out, since you could never make them happy anyway. At my restaurant, there are tables that think they’re the only customers in a packed house. They expect impossibly quick service, criticize the food, and take personal affront to things I have nothing to do with (like the décor or how loud the crowd is). These nitpickers aren’t going to turn around at the end of the meal with a huge tip. I grin, apologize (not profusely) and move them along as fast as I can, knowing that the next table will be a little kinder.
                  We’ve been conditioned to believe ‘the customer is always right’ at all costs, but that motto doesn’t always apply. Though few, there are situations where the customer is not only wrong, they’re completely out of line. It all comes down to whether the benefit you’ll get from the project matches or exceeds the effort you’re putting into it. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you may feel trapped by your position. If it becomes clear that they don’t appreciate your time or your effort in any way, it’s time to take yourself out of the situation. This goes against classic business instincts, but your time and dignity are precious. Don’t squander them on lost causes.
It’s Not All About Looks
                  This may seem like a pointless thing to worry about, but this was one of my main concerns when I started bartending. I didn’t (and still don’t) look like the flawlessly made-up, well-built bartenders on TV, and worried whether this would affect my credibility. With all the media we consume every day, we’re buffeted with the message that the better you look, the better you are at your job. While it’s important to dress appropriately and practice proper hygiene, looks aren’t everything. Not matching the impeccably coifed image of your favorite TV executive doesn’t make you any less capable. Some people pride themselves on spending four hours primping for work, and all the power to them. Your physical appearance isn’t the biggest determinate of how well you can do your job, however. Prove yourself through your actions and successes. My hair gets wildly frizzy after a few hours at work but I can make one hell of a margarita. Guess which one my customers are more concerned about.
Nothing’s Impossible
                  Starting out, jobs are behemoths. They’re this huge, insurmountable thing that you can’t even hope to conquer. On second thought, everything is like that: school, relationships, joining a fandom. That’s what bartending seemed like when I started out; the hundreds of drinks, brands, and techniques were overwhelming. Every expert starts that way. Your knowledge will grow each day until you look around and realize you’re an old hat at your job. Knowing that you’re not an expert keeps you open to learning and your ego in check. It takes a lot of work to get to the top, and sometimes you fall back down the ladder a little. This happens. Keeping faith in yourself is one of the most important things to remember.

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