Service with a smile is not in everyone's vocabulary

…she was shocked to see how many employees were immigrants. She was amazed to see how these corporations had found a way to use the influx of immigrants to their advantage.

The Financial Post
March 11, 2002

Service with a smile is not in everyone's vocabulary
Some ethnic workers find the 'friendliness' of the fast-food industry foreign
Jeannie Marshall

It's lunchtime in a fast-food restaurant. The lights are bright fluorescent, the tables plastic, the windows decorated with posters of hamburgers, french fries and drinks. There is a long, noisy line in front of the counter. It could be any number of fast-food outlets, but since the decor is yellowish and the hamburgers are square, it must be Wendy's.

Three women of various ethnic backgrounds are taking the orders. "Next in line," they shout to the customers. Their manager, a tall blond girl who looks no older than 19, whispers something to the woman at the farthest cash. "Next in line," she says in a Caribbean accent. "Please."

Many things happen at the point at which ethnic diversity meets the big business of American fast-food chains. The fast-food industry thrives on its adherence to standards. So the experience of going to a McDonald's in Manitoba is nearly the same as going to one in Florida. They have standards for cooking and presenting the food, but they also have personality standards for the staff.

"Workers' emotions and expressions during the customer-service exchange are supposed to appear positive, natural and organic," writes Jennifer Parker Talwar, an assistant professor of sociology at Penn State University in Pennsylvania, in her book Fast Food, Fast Track: Immigrants, Big Business and the American Dream. The workers are expected to be uniformly polite and friendly, no matter how they actually feel. They are supposed to display American values of customer service regardless of their ethnic background.

And that can be interesting.

Talwar worked at a Burger King in Brooklyn for three months as part of a graduate school assignment on workplace culture. She was intrigued by the presence of so many immigrants in the industry. And so she spent four more years interviewing fast-food workers all over New York City for her book. One thing she discovered was that the managers of these restaurants tended to note cultural differences when it comes to friendliness.

One manager insisted that the black and Latino employees were the friendliest. The Latino employees were considered the most outgoing, and the Chinese employees were considered the most circumspect.

The manager of a McDonald's in Chinatown, who was from Malaysia, told Talwar that "the Chinese people just work. They are quiet. They just work and go home and punch out. The Spanish people, they love to sing. They love to talk with the people. If they are quiet, you say what happened, what happened."

Some of the managers told Talwar they often resort to telling jokes to their employees to make them smile and make them appear to be enjoying their jobs.

Often the reason they are not smiling has little to do with their ethnic background and more to do with the fact they just don't like their jobs. The work is minimum wage and usually part-time without benefits. Many of these people are poor and are trying to find a way to support their families. They're looking for a way into the mainstream, and a fast-food job is often their first, unsatisfactory step. It's not just part-time work for students anymore.

Talwar noticed that many of the employees would smile and be friendly because it was part of their job, but they would also mock their co-workers and the customers if they seemed to buy into the corporate culture a little too much.

"They would make fun of them," says Talwar. "Especially when it's overbearing and expressed by managers. The managers are kind of like cheerleaders and they have to boost the mood of their employees, so they are often very exaggerated. To the workers it looks ridiculous."

Talwar says fast-food companies want to hire ethnic workers because they can help them expand into ethnic neighbourhoods. These workers can speak other languages and they can help make this foreign American food seem less strange. But the corporations still insist that the workers, even in ethnic neighbourhoods, adapt to the American customer service model. The New York City Chinatown McDonald's manager told Talwar that their Chinese clientele found the institutional friendliness to be very strange.

"If you are smiling to them [Chinese customers], first of all they think, 'What is it that you want since you are smiling?' " explained the manager. "They are thinking, 'Why is this lady smiling?' I receive a lot of letters. One letter asked: Why are they [employees] smiling here?"

It's often even more strange when the person serving them with a smile on their face is Chinese.

The fast-food experience is almost a part of the process of becoming an American. Many of the ethnic employees come to work in the fast-food business as a way of breaking out of their own ethnic communities and into American culture. And the corporations want these employees to help them expand their markets.

"It's a long-term strategy, in Chinatown for example, to get the Chinese to develop a taste for this kind of food. And then [when they come to work at the fast-food restaurant] they want them to adapt to the same kinds of standards regarding customer service," says Talwar. "They ask the Chinese workers to knock on people's doors. They do everything they can to get them in the restaurant."

When Talwar went to work at Burger King at the beginning of her research, she was shocked to see how many employees were immigrants. This was a big change from when she had worked as a teenager at McDonald's. Then, the employees were mainly high school kids earning pocket money.

She was amazed to see how these corporations had found a way to use the influx of immigrants to their advantage. But she was also struck by the immigrants' ability to do the job without buying into the corporate culture.

Talwar noted that mocking the managers and the employees who did behave like corporate automatons gave the immigrant employees a sense of solidarity. There was often more cachet in belonging to the subculture than in joining the corporate culture.

"There's a camaraderie that develops," she explains. "They just don't want to identify with the company."

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