Don’t Fear the Barista

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Waitress In Cafe Serving Customer With Coffee

I used to have a funny habit. Remember toll booths? Before EZ Pass, we used to wait on line to reach a little booth, where we paid our tolls to a live human being. Well, I always used to crack jokes and banter with toll booth workers. It didn’t take my wife long to notice this and to ask me why I did that. I responded that toll booth work is incredibly monotonous and that toll booth workers have a high suicide rate, just under that of dentists. If I can do something to give them a smile or to brighten their day, why shouldn’t I?

This just seems like common sense – and it’s not limited to toll booth workers – but apparently it doesn’t occur to everyone. My old friend David Spigelman recently shared the following incident on Facebook:

Ordered my decaf coffee, waiting for the person I’m meeting with to get here. Then I said, “Good morning, how are you doing today?” to the woman taking the order. She stared at me blankly for a moment, and then said, “Wow, nobody ever asks me that.” That’s so sad.

I said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Try to show appreciation to the workers you meet today.

Isn’t that simply appalling? The barista was so taken aback by being asked how she was that she was struck speechless. I’m not so naïve that I think everyone has a kind word to accompany their coffee order but if we’ve reached the point where it happens so infrequently that it incapacitates a barista out of shock… well, we as a society clearly have some work to do.

Let me ask you a question: do you know your mailman’s name? (Mine’s is Chuck.) Now, it’s possible that someone is literally never home to see their postal carrier but those of us who do see this person on a regular basis must ask ourselves why we don’t know his or her name. (Trust me, our mailmen know a lot about us. It only behooves us to know at least the barest information about them!)

So why don’t more people greet their baristas, postmen and toll booth workers (in the rare occasion that they should meet any) – to say nothing of restaurant servers, bank tellers, gas station attendants and other service professionals with whom we may interact? There are any number of possible reasons.

Perhaps someone is painfully shy. That’s always possible but in our scenario, one is not too introverted to go get a cup of coffee so I don’t think that accounts for a significant portion of the problem.

It could be that someone is busy or doesn’t want to hold up the line. That’s a legitimate concern but no one is saying to have a 30-minute conversation while the line snakes around the corner. If the barista has a moment to ask how we’re doing, we can find the five seconds it takes to return the sentiment.

Maybe one considers servers and other service workers beneath his or her notice. This is one occasion where I’d like to give mankind the benefit of the doubt. Certainly there are such people – we’ve all probably met a few in our lifetimes – but in my experience, they are exceedingly few and far between, to say nothing of unlikely to stand on line to get their own coffee.

It’s possible that it just doesn’t occur to most people and – ding! ding! ding! – I think we have a winner.

Most of us are simply too wrapped up in our own little bubbles. We’re in our heads. We’re on our phones. We just don’t think about others. By definition, this makes us inconsiderate of them. Inconsiderate doesn’t mean we’re overtly rude, obnoxious or dismissive. The word inconsiderate literally means that one “doesn’t think of” others. And we don’t because if we did, we’d be saying, “Hi, good morning. How are you? Can I please have a large mocha half-caf no-whip Americano frappe in an extra-large cup? Thank you.”

We have plenty of precedent for such behavior. For starters, just look at the book of Ruth (which we read every year, so it should be at least passingly familiar). Boaz is introduced in the second chapter, verse 4 of which tells us that “Boaz came from Bethlehem and he said to the reapers, ‘God be with you.’ And they answered him, God bless you.’”

Boaz was a rich and powerful individual. The reapers were lowly workers. Lots of high and mighty people would simply overlook the menial laborers in their fields but Boaz went out of his way to greet them first. (And you will notice that they blessed him in return.)

Shammai’s famous dictum in Avos (1:15) urges us to greet everyone with a cheerful countenance but let’s see that principle in action. The Talmud in Brachos (17a) tells us that no one ever greeted Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai first – not even random non-Jews whom he passed in the street. They weren’t important people, they weren’t even fellow Jews, but they were fellow human beings so Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai took the initiative to pleasantly extend greetings to everyone he met.

One more: the Talmud in Baba Basra (9b) tells us that one who gives a coin to a needy person receives six blessings, while one who offers him kind words receives eleven blessings. (This is derived from Isaiah chapter 58, verses 7-12, which enumerate the various blessings one can expect from each form of kindness.) Must this only be true when it comes to beggars? If you know any restaurant servers, ask them if being a big tipper makes up for a customer not being polite. (It doesn’t.) Similarly, whether you drop a dollar into the tip cup or not, the barista deserves a greeting and a smile.

We all have a lot on our minds but neither you nor I have a more pressing agenda than Shammai, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai or Boaz. If Boaz can find time to greet the reapers, we can certainly find a smile for our baristas and others who perform numerous acts for us daily.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.