I spent the past six months working as a hostess in a Brooklyn restaurant, and though it sadly closed down last week, I’m walking away with a lot more than just an ugly pair of black slacks. During my time there, I constantly had to practice communicating quickly and effectively. When you work in a fast-paced, hectic environment, where timing is everything and tensions rise quickly, you’ve got no choice but to master the tenets of direct communication. And applying these tenets to my everyday life, I can tell you, has made a world of difference.
1. BE FIRM IN YOUR BOUNDARIES. If you’re like me, you have a problem saying “no”. The thing about being a hostess, a guardian of the sought-after brunch tables, is this: you have to tell the rules like they are. It was hard to tell people, for instance, that I couldn’t seat them if their party was incomplete. They’d often argue with me, or act VERY put out by this news. I always dreaded enforcing this rule and facing their disappointment. But if I faltered in my wording, and said things like “oh, well we don’t usually like to seat incomplete parties...” or “oh, um I wish I could, but…” the whole conversation would get muddled and I’d have to let them sit.
The bottom line is this: if you don’t present your boundaries clearly, they will not be respected. State it directly, and if someone else is upset by it, so be it. You’ve said your piece, you’ve held your ground. This is truly a muscle you can strengthen with practice; it’s hard at first. I certainly relate to the fear of saying no, of the disapproval you’ll be met with. But the more you practice, the less this matters. Enforcing your boundaries is essential for self-respect. Otherwise, you will find yourself doing things you don’t want to do, things that go against your nature or make you feel icky. Be firm! If you don’t want to do something, say so!
2. IT’S NOT PERSONAL. There were many times when I had to turn a customer away, or tell them their table wasn’t ready yet, or deal with some other unfortunate occurrence (a hair in the salad, a too-cold steak). None of these were my fault. Even so, the customer’s anger was often directed at me. And I hated apologizing for things that weren’t my fault. But I had to do it enough times that I finally realized: so what? I know it’s not my fault. Who cares what they think? They don’t even know who I am, nor do they care. I’ll just do what needs to be done--return the plate to the kitchen, or get their table ready--and not be bothered by their reactions. They can react the way they want to. I’m going to do my job.
This is similar to tenet #1, where firmness in your own actions is essential. Interpersonal dynamics are tricky. And when something upsetting happens--like if you get yelled at by a stranger on a train, as happened to Kate a while back, or if someone blames you for something that’s not your fault--it helps to remind yourself: this isn’t about me. I don’t have to feel bad for someone else’s shit. Yeah, sometimes conflicts are personal. But identifying when it’s not, and refusing to let other people’s shit ruin your day, is a glorious skill.
3. SAY IT DIRECTLY. This is a huge one. I’ve realized that often, in the effort to be polite, I’ll add a lot of modifiers to my requests or assertions. A lot of “um, could you maybe” or “do you think it would be possible for me to have” or “if it’s alright with you I was thinking maybe you know if it’s not too much trouble”. FUCK THAT NOISE. Seriously. It just wastes everyone’s time, including yours. I’m not advocating rudeness--just directness. Working in a restaurant finally taught me that these are not the same thing. In a kitchen, everything’s happening so fast that you have to say what you need without wasting any time. You can’t go in and say “hi um could I just have, um, could you hand me a biscuit please if it’s not too much trouble.” NO. All you need is four words: “I need a biscuit”. That’s all.
This is probably the most important one. It can be very hard to speak directly, but it clears up so much when you do. If you need to ask for something, ask. If you need to tell something, tell. I know from experience that if you stop yourself from saying what you need to, you will feel frustrated and unfulfilled. It takes bravery, but it’s worth it. I learn this lesson over and over. Recently, for instance, I was having a conversation with a close friend. Something he’d said had bothered me, but I didn’t know how to say it. I was nervous that I’d “mess things up” by bringing it up. But the frustrated feeling of not talking finally got to be too much. I fessed up, and though it wasn’t easy, I am so glad I did. We could finally talk about it openly, and it was productive and healing. I didn’t need all the extra “ummmmm”s and the minutes I spent worriedly twiddling my thumbs instead of speaking-- all I needed to do was speak.
4. TAKE WHAT’S OFFERED. One of the major perks of a restaurant job is the free food. We had “family meals” after or before each shift: big bowls of french fries, platter-fulls of french toast, all for the taking! And this taking could happen in about five minutes. My first few shifts, I waited to take food until everyone had gotten some, and wouldn’t take the last piece of anything. My co-worker didn’t get any french toast one day and I felt terrible. Then another co-worker said: “So what? He knows where the food is. He could’ve taken some.” It drove the message home: no one else is going to make sure you get fed. You have to make sure for yourself. There were definitely shifts where I didn’t get there fast enough, and the french fries were gone. Oh well. It taught me to take what I want when I can. No, I’m not advocating stealing. But I’ve so often found myself NOT taking people up on their offers, sure that it’s somehow rude to accept. This is not the case. If something is offered to you, you’re allowed to take it.
You also can’t look out for everyone else first. If you do, there won’t be any food left for yourself. Again, I’m not advocating greed. If there are eighteen pieces of french toast, you probably don’t need all of them. But take a few. A little selfishness, I’m convinced, is good. Selfishness drives us to feed ourselves, to find shelter and clothing and jobs and resources. In fact, “selfishness” isn’t even the right term. It’s more like looking out for ourselves. Being our own protector, our own champion. This may sound dramatic for a situation involving french fries, but the principle holds true. We can help each other, but no one’s going to make sure you get your due if you don’t. No one’s going to ask your boss for a raise for you if you don’t. Taking doesn’t mean you’re greedy. We all need to take, sometimes. Taking care of ourselves often means taking for ourselves.
These fundamental tenets basically all boil down to directness. We’re taught not to be direct, lest we be read as aggressive (god forbid, right?). It’s an unfortunate myth; we get a LOT more done when we’re assertive. I’ll always be grateful for my six-month training in direct communication. Not so much the slacks.