Service with a Smile

A personal narrative by Lucy Schiller.

To join the elite ranks of San Francisco’s baristas: this was my goal, having just quit my job outside the city where I had worked for the eight or nine months since first arriving. I yearned to have a skill others could recognize – “I’m a barista,” I’d say like I heard young, tattooed San Franciscans say, and whoever I’d be speaking to would feel slightly cowed by the knowledge I possessed, my pride in this secretive work and the care with which I crafted a cup of coffee. Though holding one of the lower-paying food service jobs, San Francisco baristas enjoyed a tantalizing privilege for someone in my state (manic, post-college floundering). It was assumed that you were not just a barista, and that making coffee was a gig, not a job, as you progressed towards some other meaningful goal. Baristas weren’t the young people flooding money into the city in between weeklong sojourns to the Google campus via charter bus. They were working hard inside San Francisco, engaging with this zany city and, as such, part of it. They were probably going to great parties.

If Amélie could do it, I thought, I certainly could: We shared the same crippling self-doubt, circumstantial loneliness, and reliance on our smile in tough situations. Amélie, I now realize, is characterized on Wikipedia, on IMDB, and in various critics’ reviews by the word “whimsical” – the same word people bestowed on me incessantly for the two years I was a barista and which I have always hated. The first definition Google finds insists that to be whimsical is to be “playfully quaint or fanciful, esp. in an appealing and amusing way.” And yeah, it’s true: Amélie lives in the most whimsical part (Montmartre) of a historically whimsical city (Paris). She whimsically sends a garden gnome, a species of statue that owes its very existence to the human race’s appreciation for whimsy, across the globe in a cute prank. She’s misdiagnosed with a heart condition because she’s so sweetly nervous about human contact that her heart beats faster at the doctor’s office. She befriends every possible neglected, whimsical outcast from Parisian society.

Looking back, this is precisely how I acted, minus the silent, bearded sidekick. Like Amélie, I was what Arlie Russell Hochschild calls in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1983) a demure “conversational cheerleader.” My mother handed me this book a week after I had left San Francisco for Illinois and told me I might want to read it. Hochschild’s book examines, among other things, the emotional labor female flight attendants brought to their work at the time of Hochschild’s writing, the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like many women in other front-facing service jobs, the typical attendant Hochschild studied “actively enhances other people – usually men, but also other women to whom she plays woman. The more she seems natural at it, the more her labor does not show as labor, the more successful it is disguised as the absence of another, more prized quality. As a woman she may be praised for out-enhancing the best enhancer, but as a person in comparison with comics, teachers, and argument-builders, she usually lives outside the climate of enhancement that men tend to inhabit.”

You got pretty good tips, and you felt, in an otherwise frighteningly vague time, appreciated and talented. But that took its toll. Eventually my smile hung rather thin. I found myself regarding my attitude like my cell phone bill, hoping that some bubbliness — another word I detested — would rollover into these increasingly embittered months.

But if you’re around anyone acting whimsical for long enough, the charm morphs into a grating artificiality. I was no exception. I began to detest being around myself. Whimsical’s less popular synonyms began to hold more truth. Capricious. Freakish…Odd. Bizarre. Another possible synonym: phony.

Alas, whimsicality was the name of the coffee-making game, at least for a young, unsure woman. It disarmed terrifyingly angry or brusque customers. It endeared you to them by summing you up in a palatable way – you were dependably off-kilter and smiley; people looked forward to seeing you. They thought of you as their special barista, and the more charmingly odd you acted, the more you occupied this nook in their brain. You got pretty good tips, and you felt, in an otherwise frighteningly vague time, appreciated and talented. But that took its toll. Eventually my smile hung rather thin. I found myself regarding my attitude like my cell phone bill, hoping that some bubbliness – another word I detested – would rollover into these increasingly embittered months. And I felt like Hochschild’s flight attendants, who “spoke of their smiles as being on them but not of them…the smiles are a part of her work, a part that requires her to coordinate self and feeling so that the work seems to be effortless. To show that the enjoyment takes effort is to do the job poorly.”

My new boss called her operation “Georgina’s School for Girls.” Each of us had some flaw, she said, that she alone could remedy. One of us had been chubby upon starting, and look at her now, slim from Georgina’s lunchtime prescription of radish soup! One of us used to give unpleasant customers flak, and now look at her, a mute smile her only defense! And I, it turned out, was supremely disorganized and often nervous, two things I already knew but which Georgina made it her mission to fix. For how many weeks, I wondered, would I be able to drop sheaves of mortadella on the floor; for how many weeks could I send out scalding lattes graced with spittle-like foam? Georgina yelled when the mistakes were particularly egregious. I realized I was exaggerating minor foul-ups to ingratiate myself, maybe even echoing my old high school P.E. strategy of running really slowly for the first few months and then, once enough time had passed, beginning to bound like a gazelle – the intention being to be graded in terms of improvement rather than capability. “Ha ha!” I’d giggle maniacally at another foaming disaster. Smiling equaled indulgence. Suddenly, I hit smile 3000. My smile became seemingly effortless. Suddenly, I was Georgina’s favorite.

Except for me, all of the girls were Korean, Chinese, Mongolian, or Taiwanese. Georgina herself was Korean, somewhere around fifty years old. Inevitably, a customer would come in and refer to Michelle or Linda as Georgina’s daughter. Georgina would laugh, and smack me on the shoulder jovially. “But never this one! Never this one!”

Though I could never be mistaken as a relation, all of us held similar characteristics: we were pliable, giggly, and expected to swoon with delight should a father and child come into the shop. We exchanged Valentine’s Day gifts and sat for mandatory formal dinners at Georgina’s house. We went the extra mile for Georgina, sometimes quite literally – I would drive my car to the grocery store on days off to buy much-needed heads of iceberg lettuce. She took the role of the head of a family, superior to the rest of us for her age, accrued wisdom, and genuine toughness. And her mission with the café, through her female workers, was to, as Hochschild writes, “sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others, in this case, the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place.” We would even babysit, occasionally, children left in the café by parents who needed to head out for a few hours worth of errands. But Hochschild also very aptly describes the real cost of emotional labor, a cost quite similar to that of physical labor: estrangement and alienation “from an aspect of self – either the body or the margins of the soul – that [is] used to do the work.” I lost much of my excitement and eagerness about living in San Francisco, talking to people, and appearing, at all times, happy.

Any dips in buoyancy and Georgina would purse her lips. It was like I had been sprinting, gazelle-like, for months, my P.E. teachers hot on my heels and watching for any momentary lag. They knew, and Georgina knew, my happiest-seeming, most productive extreme.

Conversations with Georgina were, on our part, ingratiating, complimentary, and, quite often, deeply felt. She could be wonderful. She knew quite a bit about our lives, as we did about hers. She led us in yogic stretches behind the counter during slow periods. She fed us tasty, nourishing fish and seaweed soup. Oftentimes, she gifted us things: a sweater or a little bag of chocolates. And oftentimes, those gifts rained down the day after an unpleasant 11 p.m. phone call insisting we must know where a missing $1.50 was.

Georgina loved me because I dealt out smiles with probably disturbing frequency. I took the early morning shift in true suck-up style, smiled and asked questions of customers before the sun had risen. I was understood to be the most gregarious employee. As such, a small and distinct group of men formed, asking Georgina where I was when my schedule shifted, bringing me bracelets from their occasional travels. Georgina kept complimenting me on my aura. I was no longer disorganized; I could slap together a mortadella sub with one hand and steam a coconut latte with the other. I worked hard. But I had set up a trap for myself. By smiling this hard all the time, by acting so very whimsical, I could not easily reveal any part of my true and at that time rather angry self. Any dips in buoyancy and Georgina would purse her lips. It was like I had been sprinting, gazelle-like, for months, my P.E. teachers hot on my heels and watching for any momentary lag. They knew, and Georgina knew, my happiest-seeming, most productive extreme. I was held to it.

I started to feel delusional. Why did I like this woman? She played Sarah Brightman all day. She set no clear hours for any of our shifts; sometimes they would stretch ten hours. She had a tendency while laughing to slap me painfully right on the new tattoo she rightly suspected me of concealing. She forbade us from talking at length to certain customers and had us call her daily at 6 a.m., the implication being that we couldn’t be trusted to show up. She inquired into the state of my parents’ marriage after briefly meeting my Larry David-lookalike father, whom she called “elegant.” If a toasting sandwich looked light on meat, she dissected our work and slapped the wad of turkey on a scale to prove her point: 0.2 ounces too little. Most notably, she divvied up our tips at the end of the day – half for you, half for me, she said, she who worked beside us but could and did take any opportunity to sit down and read the paper.

I liked her, I think, because she liked me. She implemented structure – albeit an opaque, ever-changing one – in an otherwise terrifyingly unstructured time. She was the head of house, a house full of near-children begging for affirmation and support in a scary time and a scary place to be young and broke. And on a basic level, I liked the physical work: It felt tangible compared to the invisible cyber-work I had done before, it was highly interactive, and, at the beginning, I felt as if I had friends in San Francisco. And then there were the regulars.

4:30 a.m.: the shaggy schizophrenic neighbor walks downstairs for coffee, before Georgina gets there – she won’t hear of him “scaring the other customers” (I do, eventually, call the cops on him for a fight escalating from his racist comment). I smile, and he tells me about his rich father back in Boston, and his brother, a football star. He carries furniture on his back past the café during the afternoon. I think he must be very good at tennis – he has those calves, and that swishing hair, and the leather racquet case. He insists I must have a boyfriend. Years later, I have seen him walking in pretty much every neighborhood in San Francisco.

I smile at Michael, who has a hand-hewn neck tattoo likely dating to the mid-90s, its colorful dots – PacMan characters? M&Ms? Rosebuds? – now blurred into an unsettling choker. He lives by the ocean, he says, not in a house, but in a tent he moves each night to a different spot off Land’s End, a place I associate with tall pine trees and serial killer hideouts. He catches fish for dinner. How does he cook them, I wonder. I smile until he asks me out for a ping-pong date at the Richmond Recreation Center, for which Georgina chimes in to offer her services as a chaperone. Then I don’t know what to do, and he acts disgusted at my nervous deferrals, as if I owe him this date after being so nice to him for so long. He moves on to my coworker.

I smile at Steve, a Bikram yoga instructor at a place renowned for its fragrant, sweat-soaked carpets. I smile at Dave, the wonderful middle-aged copywriter and 6 a.m. buyer of bagels for his sleeping children. I smile at Paul, who drives a truck full of anemic produce to the Fresh ‘n Easy across the street and who unloads on me all sorts of bleary, rig-related lingo. I smile tightly at the man who spews hate and is somehow in charge of finding and removing suicide victims from around the Golden Gate Bridge.

I smile at these men over and over, like I feel I must, to be good at my job, or maybe just good at something. I smile to encourage interaction (for obviously I am the sole sustaining force of human kindness and conversation) and I smile to learn about San Francisco as a gentle, curious interloper. I smile as if smiling can tunnel me deeper into a fantastic and fantastical city, settle me there for good, and propel me into a job I can actually love.

But I have trouble, eventually, masking my rage. I notice a ragged look similar to the one I imagine on my face on the faces of young female baristas throughout the city. It’s as if I’ve absorbed all of these men’s problems, and worse, all of their assumptions about me – that I am a pure and kindly soul floating along on my attitude, there to make coffee and listen; worst of all, that I must be unhappy in this job but not be intelligent enough to know that. Every smile I hand over to Georgina feels completely disingenuous, and it is. But if I stop smiling, there’s no reason for me to be there.

I sneak tiny sandwiches of cream cheese pressed between cucumber slices to spite Georgina. I fix the video cameras she has installed above our work station with long, piercing glares (at one point, she tells me that she occasionally rewatches footage of her favorite workers, just for old time’s sake). I chafe at the hearty banter of the Odwalla deliveryman, who drives and stocks high-protein juice blends in Jesus’s name. The onions are moldy in the backroom. I stop wearing the god-awful uniform, which was never clearly mandatory but impliedly necessary for any successful School for Girls. Georgina starts assigning me to weed crabgrass in the back garden. Occasionally, I stop smiling. That makes her uncomfortable.

A good way to feel inept but without the comfort of invisibility is to be young, female, and working alone behind an espresso machine, especially in the blue first hours of morning. You owe customers conversation, the customers think. You’re probably yearning to be talked to anyway. There is a paradox to the morning shift. Most people seem too lonely to be asleep, and they fix you with the same assumption, you 22 year-old woman working very obviously hard to make others feel a little less alone.

At this hour, people scuttle out from their moldy apartments for a dose of interaction. You walk up a near-vertical hill in the darkness, crossing to the other side of the street when shadows turn into humans. The café sits on an old cemetery, only semi-exhumed – the gardeners who come in for lunch tell you about the ring or femur they found that day. You stride quickly to the café’s door as the first busload of people disembarks on the corner. You make sure to lock the door behind you, and start making the necessary seven different types of coffee that we really just combine into one dispensing vessel when they get low. You arrange the pastries the way your boss insists and heave tables and chairs outside. Then Gordon squeezes in, ten minutes before you are slated to open, asking for his extra-large grilled cheese sandwich, and the oven’s not hot enough to make it, but you do it anyway and hope he won’t notice the bit of cheese that’s still cold in the center. He seems too busy letting loose on military history, or talking about the kittens he visited in Sacramento over the weekend. You decide you cannot fault these people for making you angry and miserable, but you feel crazy: half mad at yourself, half mad at these cheer-leeches.

Your friends expect free coffee and joke about your occupation. In large parties, though, your status in this elite underworld circle is presented like a badge of authenticity – with your job, you’ve burrowed into the warm, slightly stinky lair of San Franciscan belonging. You’ve earned the right to refer to yourself as a local. You smile tiredly and give friends and their friends the most expensive drinks: subterfuge! Men come in and you smile weakly to their smiles, engage in conversations fueled only by your questions, and then they leave, but not before they give you their card. Women you might like over non-monetary exchanges know a fragment of your life and have no desire to learn more – nevertheless, the façade of friendship is there, and they love it, giggling with the banter and feeding off the daily nods of recognition through the window.

It’s astounding how insulted people feel if you don’t smile back at them while you make their drink. The comfort of silence to an embittered barista is supremely discomfiting to most everyone else. The unsmiling silence of a female barista is the most discomfiting of all. What did I do wrong, you can see them thinking. Why is she not being gentle? Why is she not being whimsical? I’ve noticed, though, that the hippest cafés in San Francisco often have the biggest reputations for bad (unsmiling) service. I, too, feel extremely unsure faced by a near-silent barista. It’s uncomfortable, and for good reason. “What [lapses in courtesy] show us is how fragile public civility really is,” writes Hochschild. “We are brought back to the question of what the social carpet actually consists of and what it requires of those who are supposed to keep it beautiful.”

There is comfort in the pride you can take from your skill. The product you churn out is evaluated, and the compliments sustain you. Though they do not act like it, your customers depend on you, and not just for coffee. You can, if you want to, make good conversation, pull a good shot. But eventually, you really have to want to.

Months passed quickly in that seasonless way they do in San Francisco. Fog rolled in and rolled out; the beautiful days tugged people out into Golden Gate Park or by bonfires on the beach, and I sat on my roof, at about the height of the surrounding trees. I talked to very few people then, mostly because speaking to customers began to feel like making a precious concession. I could barely convince myself that I was worth talking to; how was I going to convince strangers to feel eager about speaking with me? I climbed up and over Mount Sutro, through its groves of invasive eucalyptus and picked-bare blackberry thickets. I turned off my bicycle lights at night and rode back and forth through Golden Gate Park, when everything was completely quiet and damply salty. I began drinking only one cup of coffee per day. When I purchased it from Starbucks, I acted like an alien, refusing to ask for a “tall” or a “venti” – just a regular cup of coffee, please. A small. And then I would feel momentarily bad about the barista’s obvious ire at my impertinence. Just get in line, they seemed to be saying with their eyebrows, and I could commiserate. Stop trying to be different than other customers. Give us a break.

I was fortunate, after quitting this job, to work behind an espresso machine for a much more thoughtful boss, a woman only a few years older than I. She didn’t take guff, and she didn’t beam unnecessarily. More importantly, she didn’t expect me to. The problem, though, isn’t endemic to bosses, necessarily. It’s endemic to customers, and endemic to workers themselves, especially the female ones. Emotional labor isn’t something most people sign up for when signing up for a service job – rather, it’s hard to know exactly how much forced emotion goes into “good” service. And it’s impossibly hard to predict good service’s numbing effects on your own self.

I’ve returned to my parents’ house in Illinois not just out of a financial necessity but also an emotional one. I feel uncannily attuned to certain social interactions, predicting like a referee every player’s upcoming conversational feints and darts. Smiling seems to be on a tight budget. I know firsthand the work behind the cheer that goes into cheerleading. And I’ve remembered, too, that cheerleaders are confined to bouncing up and down on the sidelines, their grins effortlessly, permanently affixed.


LUCY SCHILLER now works as a writer in New York. Her work has been published in The Rumpus, The Billfold, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, American Suburb X,, Broke-Ass Stuart, Scoutmob, and Thought Catalog. Her activities can be tracked at