Lessons Learned From A Career in Fast Food

The first question a physics major asks when faced with a challenge is "How does this work?"The first question an engineering major asks when faced with a challenge is "How can I make this work better?" The first question an English major asks when faced with a challenge is "Would you like fries with that?"

You've undoubtedly heard that joke uttered in some form or another at some point in your life. Many variations of it exist, sometimes with the English major being substituted for a generic liberal arts major, but the gist is always the same: studying liberal arts (or arts and humanities, whichever you prefer) is a step towards a great career in fast food or customer service in general.

I have always been a humanist at heart and as such even before I set out on the path towards getting a degree in English philology, I was already there working behind the counter at a hamburger joint that shall go unnamed. Call it preparing myself for life after graduation where, if sophomoric humour is to be trusted, there aren't that many jobs available for someone interested in the minutae of English literature and the manifold variations of the language. However, working this job for almost five years now I can definitely say that I have learned many important lessons. Those of you not working in fast food can make what you will of these lessons, but I'm sure there are many practical applications for almost any line of work to be found.

1. People Skills I have known many people working low-end customer service jobs throughout their lives and all of them have a few things in common. One of them is a deep-seated hatred and bitterness towards the common man which we will ignore for a moment, but the other is the fact that these people are some of the nicest people towards strangers that I know of.

It's not much of a leap of logic: working behind the counter at a fast food joint doing a job that many people consider the lowest possible form of employment just above being a human guinea pig for a cosmetics company and below landscaping and gardening means that you will often come into contact with people who are predisposed towards treating you like dirt. In the most common case this is simply a lack of courtesy, but there is a certain type of customer who seems to be impossible to please from the get-go and who will heap their lack of respect for the establishment they are patronizing upon the person serving them. Years of being treated to cold responses from customers and the occasional verbal assault based on a matter I have absolutely no control over (such as the customer who took it upon himself to complain to me about the fact that our organic cane sugar is not made in Finland) has not only increased my tolerance for abuse, it has increased my respect for good manners and treating people working in customer service jobs.

The applications of social skills outside of customer service can't be stressed enough, especially taking into account the fact that I aspire to become an English teacher. Having already grown a thicker skin towards abuse from people from all walks of life, I am not only confident in being able to deal with a class of seventh-grade kids but also their parents with their unrealistic demands.

2. Perspective I mentioned the perception of my job as not being the most flattering one. Admittedly, the perception is a bit skewed, mostly by the fact that most people have never worked behind a counter and only have first impressions to go by. The job is not as bad as it is perceived by some people, but I must admit that occasionally while doing a night shift and wallowing in the smell of high-temperature grill cleaner while trying to scrub all traces of burnt fat from the grills so that they may be used again the following day, a thought has come to mind: there must be something better than this.

I know it doesn't sound all that fun, but I have to say that without working one of the dirtiest jobs outside of reality TV shows revolving around them I would've never gained such a great respect for the very idea of a job which does not require you to smell of frier fat and cheese after a regular shift.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the thought of teaching that aforementioned class of unruly seventh-graders English doesn't actually sound that bad after the hundreth night I've spent deep-cleaning the friers.

3. Stress-Management Skills You know how in movies Vietnam veterans always seem to dream of nothing but 'Nam and how their sleep is filled with images of the Vietnamese jungle burning around them while enemies close in on them from all sides and all of their comrades in arms are dead. People who work fast food have similar dreams, only the Vietnamese jungle is replaced with a nightmareish rendition of their place of wok, the enemies are the hordes of customers closing in on the register and while the rest of the staff are not dead they are probably out having a smoke or something.

I wish I was kidding about this, but some of my most vivid nightmares from the past four years have had to do with my job. They have always come during times of great stress at work (i.e. there's a big sale at one of the local chains of shopping centers and thus our daily routine consists mostly of fighting a losing battle against a line of customers that almost unceasingly reaches all the way to the doors) and they are absolutely terrible and impossible to shake. The first thought I had upon waking up from one of those dreams was "Shit, I forgot that guy's drink!"

Now, my work isn't always stressful, but when shit does hit the fan it hits it good: one little thing going wrong may lead to a chain reaction that suddenly causes orders to get mixed up, people not knowing what burgers are still needed and a general feeling of disarray and mayhem. These spikes of high-stess activity no longer even stress me out. While during my first days of work they caused me to panic, causing a chain of events that almost lead to me having a seizure, they no longer faze me.

The ability to cope with the stress of the lunch rush starting with naught but a cheeseburger ready in the bin is one that translates well into any job. As you can see, the lowliest job can teach you skills that are applicable elsewhere in life, no matter what your pursuits may be.

The worst-case scenario is, of course, me having a six year advantage on all the other arts and humanities students as far as employment in our preferred field goes upon graduation.

tomorrow. part ii, smith

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