This will be controversial.
The quick backdrop of this post is that Katie and I are living in Switzerland. Our experience here has been nothing short of a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime adventure. But don’t confuse adventure with perfection. Those mountains are gorgeous, but the valleys can be pretty low places. Someone recently described Switzerland to us as an experience of “one thousand little cuts.” The conflicts that arise here are not the ones we typically view as worthy of complaint. We do not face racial oppression. We don’t fear for our lives in any part of the city. There are not injustices on monumental scales. There are little cuts.
The thousandth cut for me today centered around the cost of respect. I’m writing while I’m here. Back home, that’s viewed as a rather flimsy profession. Here’s it’s nearly laughable. Never mind publishing deals and contracts and validation received, tell someone you’re a writer, and you’ll earn a look. I’ve blogged before about my work place being coffee shops. I do write at home, or by the river, or in parks, but often I need a warm beverage and the gentle buzz of people around me. It helps me be productive.
I’ve lamented in the past that Starbucks is simply the best fit for this task. I would love to help local and support local, but it’s not easy. The European approach to the coffee experience is simply different. Starbucks expects you to treat it’s interior as a third space, a location as comfortable and available to you as either work or your home. Their other successful attribute is the attitude with which you are expected to be treated. Their workers will smile, welcome you, and leave you alone.
There’s one other place in Switzerland that I’ve seen modeling the American expectation of space and work in a third place. Spheres, a local coffee shop just five minutes from our house, operates this way. They sell lunch and dinner, but they mostly seem to sell coffee. Half of their location is a German bookstore. They have exterior seating, indoor seating, and great food. I have also seen a wide variety of people taking advantage of this space for extensive work. People meet there and hang out for hours. Some bring laptops or papers and grind away at whatever doctoral thesis they’re likely completing.
Spheres encourages this, mostly.
Which brings us back to the question. What is the cost of respect?
How many weeks in a row do I need to come to your establishment to earn any spare kindness?
Which meal must I buy to get a smile out of you?
If I buy the warm soup, will you not laugh at my order?
How loud should I speak to avoid being the only person you ask the should-you-be-here check question, “Have you ordered something?”
At this restaurant, all of the above have happened to me. On at least four different occasions, I was prodded into leaving, though others around me had been there longer, and clearly had spent no more money than I had. Twice I’ve seen people given free tap water on request, a service I have been denied. When I kept ordering iced coffee in September, three different employees turned, raised their eyebrows at some other worker, and set about making my laughable beverage.
Every time, I returned with the expectation of better. It has to get better, doesn’t it? Once they see how hard I’m working on my projects. Once they begin tallying up just how much I’ve spent here the last four months. If I get a few more soups or salads to go with those coffees, then I’ll earn a respect.
Sometimes, I thought that was true. The occasional kindness gave me hope that I had established myself as a regular, more than just some tourist who doesn’t speak German. Then the perfect storm happened this morning. I arrived at 10am and ordered a coffee. On seeing me enter the restaurant, the man behind the counter literally rolled his eyes. I ignored this, knowing him to be the least emotional of the now familiar waitstaff.
Upon payment, he took a 5 spot, handed me the coffee, and started cleaning something down. I had to ask for my change, because I’ve ordered that coffee before, and I know it’s only 4 Swiss francs.
I began writing. Really, it was a good work day. Clipped off 1,500 words by lunch time and felt like I’d established a good rhythm. I took my tray down to the counter, trying to be helpful. Fifteen minutes later, I was asked if I’d ordered something before sitting down.
Yes, I replied patiently. I did in fact order a coffee, and was planning on buying something else. Thank you for asking. No one else was questioned.
More work. I faded a bit by lunch and decided I was hungry. The soups are really good there. I checked out the menu, which is only in German, and knew I wanted a soup, but really wasn’t sure what the second one was. The first one I had ordered before and liked, but I was curious. I went up to the counter and asked, in the only language I possess, “What kind of soups do you have?” I was pointed back to the menu. At that point I smiled, apologized, and said I don’t really know what the second one is, and I was hoping for a little help.
Pause. Yes, it’s my fault I don’t know more German. There’s reasons for that, and for why we haven’t pursued much language learning, but consider that three of the five people working at that time had spoken with me in English before. Extensively. Unpause.
The woman snorted, shook her head, and shrugged back to the other woman that doesn’t speak English. They supplied “lentils,” but didn’t seek out someone else to help me with further clarification. I nodded, knowing their lentil soup could wreck a person for a few days, and reverted to a burger that had caught my eye. 16 Swiss Francs. That’s fine, I thought. Expensive, but it’ll be a good lunch at least.
Asked about a beverage, I said I’d prefer tap water. Every business in Zurich is supposed to serve tap water. The woman skipped over that request and said they have sparkling water they could offer me. I challenged, having been strong handed before on the subject. She pointed me to a clause on their menu that stated even tap water would cost 3 Swiss francs, as I was paying for the service.
I definitely appeared, and felt, confused. Rather than push back, I just sort of frowned, then began fishing for my wallet. The woman said, “If you ordered a coffee or something, you could have water.”
If you purchase one more thing, then maybe you’ll get respect. A coffee, eh? Like the one I ordered an hour before? Like the estimated 20-30 coffees I’ve ordered since coming to Zurich?
The thousandth cut took me by painful surprise.
I cancelled my order, thanked her, and said I just wasn’t hungry.
This is kind of a selfish story, really. I just want to complain, but it did challenge me on the topic of earning respect. For the most part, how do you earn respect in a restaurant in America? You walk through the door.
Just walk into the restaurant and you have become their guest. Now, you can definitely earn some disrespect as a customer. If you talk harshly to the employees, if you go out of you way to skirt the typical or expected rules, etc. And my suggestion is not that any amount of purchases or experience with a restaurant should earn a person the right to disrespect or ignore their rules. I was still operating by all their rules! Rather, I’m just wondering why there’s a price tag on respect in Switzerland. What do I have to pay to be treated as if I belong?
Knowing Switzerland, it’s probably a bit more than I can afford.
As always, I like to zoom out a little bit. This problem, and this frustration, had me thinking about respect. First, it gave me yet another reason why the Civil Rights Movement, and the current movements for equality stir something inside of me. In this one instance, I hated not having any respect from someone. The fact that I was a human being walking through their doors should have afforded me some. The fact that I was a customer, and a regular customer at that, should have afforded me even more. But there’s something about me (my language, demeanor, activities) that dictated a limit and ceiling to that respect. It’s like I’d purchased something that would eventually expire, given time.
But for some people, that’s what life is like. Seriously. There are people who go about their everyday life expecting to be given less respect in just about every circumstance. This one case of disrespect upset me, so much so that I can barely fathom it being a regular, expected part of life. And let’s be perfectly honest, for many of these minority groups, the cost to earn even a fractured respect was generations of suffering and pain. It makes my complaint look rather small, even if I believe it to be a human concept, and a human complaint.
It also forced me to consider how people earn respect in my eyes. Usually, I respect someone who’s good at their job. I respect insight and thoughtfulness. I have a high respect for people who have faced difficulties and overcome them. I really think highly of folks who are sacrificial, kind, warm. These are things that raise people up in my eyes.
But at the end of the day, everyone deserve the basic human decency of being shown respect. There are actions that can detract from or limit the way in which we show someone respect, but shouldn’t that be the starting point at least? All in all, it just has me wondering why I view people in certain ways, and I hope it backs me away from the times and places in life where I am quick to withhold the respect that every person I meet and interact has a right to receive and experience.
I’d just ask you (and myself) to think about what your respect costs. What do people have to do to get a smile out of you? What do they have to say or accomplish to earn your praise? Definitely worth a think.