The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

My friend Brett joined me for coffee last week at The Last Drop on 13th and Pine. I’m a regular, and have seen the same two baristas there for ages. So I became embarrassed when Brett marched up to the counter and gave the sullen, sunken-eyed kid a jolting, conspicuously cheery “Hello!”

The barista continued staring, unflinchingly, waiting for an order.

Later, I chided Brett: “What the F was that? In the year I’ve been coming here, we’ve never once exchanged a word, and you just drowned him in saccharine.”

My friend’s overwhelmingly jolly demeanor was, as he explained, a parody of the barista’s unnatural stoicism. I understood Brett’s frustration with his too-cool-for-school-ness. After all, Yelp reviewers of The Last Drop have frequently complained of the same treatment.

I don’t necessarily take offense, but the incident got me thinking: Why is it that when you walk into a dive bar or indie coffee shop, the person serving you is often a straight-up asshole?

To address this question, we turn to the golden era of the corporate-ized service sector and something academics call emotional labor.

Emotional labor is when employees in the service sector convey certain character traits to customers as required or expected by management. Think Cold Stone, where employees sing that corny song whenever tipped; or TGI Fridays, where servers don flair and ensure that “every day feels like Friday.” These corporations have emphasized that being upbeat, outgoing and personable is crucial to the customer experience.

Research suggests that increased competition among restaurants and stores in the ‘90s led customer service to become a focus of management. What these corporations didn’t expect, however, is that kindness can be overkill — especially when it’s clearly forced and insincere. Starbucks starts to feel like Disneyland, and customers begin to feel patronized: Dude, I just wanted a freaking coffee, please calm down. Employees don’t necessarily enjoy it either — scholars have coined the term emotional dissonance to signify when people are uncomfortable with presenting the image required by management.

If the ‘90s were the customer service golden era, there has since emerged a decisive backlash against it, especially in urban sites of counter-cultural capital. We all know that the overly hospitable treatment customers receive at corporate establishments is entirely manufactured. So that kind of emotional labor is simply not happening in the dive-y establishments you’ll come across in Philly and NYC. After all, these places are based on an ethos of authenticity — and that means ditching the ego-stroking nonsense that is emotional labor.

Or does it really?

Well, when you go to Fresh Grocer, and the woman ringing you up looks like she might suddenly punch you in the throat, she might just not like you. But it doesn’t mean she’s not making a pronounced effort to communicate her resentment for serving your spoiled, apathetic, useless Ivy League-gentrifying ass.

Similarly with the coffee shops. Okay, so this guy thinks he is way cooler than you (which he probably is), and so probably doesn’t care to start up a conversation with you. But there is nothing natural about the awkward silence that one must endure, which can be just as labored as the friendliness your server is forced to feed you at a restaurant.

Crudeness, in becoming a standard marker of urbane authenticity, ironically becomes simply another kind of emotional demand for servers. And being crass by no means signifies sincerity or cultural authenticity.

Now, shops like Abercrombie and Hollister instruct employees, through the promotion of “tasteful ignorance,” to display the same sort of standoffish-ness toward customers to convey some sort of mystical superiority and make their establishments seem more hip.

A corporate co-optation of indie culture’s rejection of corporate-induced emotional labor: that should stop the trend dead in its tracks.

So, if you want to be early trendsetters, hipsters in the service industry, maybe now is the time to make nice.

Heidi Khaled is a third-year graduate student from Huntington Beach, Calif. Her e-mail address is

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.