Being Yourself When You Serve (Part II)
This article stands alone, but also serves as an extension of themes discussed in of part I.
The Case of the Two-Faced Server.
One of the most prominent bits of restaurant industry lore concerns an idea that the servers that are the most gracious, sweet and beloved by their guests are the vile once they cross the threshold into the back service area (out of earshot of any guests of course). Maybe they’re spitting venom about the people they are serving, or maybe they are just the crassest person in the room. Either way, this stark persona contrast is such a source of fascination that non-industry people have asked me about it, i.e. “I heard that the nicest waiters are actually really foul behind closed doors.” It was even a character archetype in the movie Waiting. Basically, it’s a thing. Not always true, but definitely sometimes. And it seems to happen consistently enough to have imprinted itself on the cultural imagination.
This dynamic of the shiny veneer over churning dark undercurrents has always been a source of human intrigue. Some of the best thriller and horror film directors of all time depend on this device to create some of the most deeply troubling cinematic moments you can think of. This sweet/crude server archetype provides us with the same contact that the films Hitchcock and David Lynch do to mystery of human consciousness (and subconsciousness). There is this unknowable inner world of the people around us that is somewhat terrifying in how much it probably differs from the face they present to civilized society.
Whether we are aware of it or not, the two-faced server scenario triggers that most powerful existential question we harbor: “who, are we really?” How can we really know the person we are speaking with? How can really really know ourselves? And what does it mean to really “be” ourselves?
Self-restraint is a common experience in any professional phase of life, but it also defines most of our daily interactions. Most of public life consists of being polite, not revealing when we get triggered, placating and even disingenuously flattering people, etc. This article will address the question of how to still be “ourselves” in a world where we feel obligated to hold so much back in the name of being “civil”. It will also explore mindfulness techniques that help us not only be more authentic, but observe and understand what this “authentic” aspect of ourselves even is. As always, this will be especially relevant to anyone with a service-oriented profession or life/spiritual path. If you’re a person of service, such restraint may feel unhealthy (especially when it becomes repression) so a really important question to explore is whether this is really “a necessarily struggle in the name of the greater good” – however, this always leads me to the question of “isn’t there a better and more empowered way to deal with such tension?”
Having A Bit of Restraint is Not Inauthentic.
What is this authentic self that we sometimes feel so cheated out of expressing? When we interact with others, is there some aspect of ourselves we owe it to the world to always have on the table. In other words, what aspects of ourselves should be stable and consistent and what should wait for the right weather?
For example, stability and consistency is generally valuable with things like compassion and confidence, but not necessarily your love of dick jokes or enthusiasm for model zeppelins. Some things need to be saved for receptive parties.
Your authentic self is not your most crudely honest self. It doesn’t mean expressing the first thought that lurches into your mind. I don’t think your authentic self is not whatever is there when you remove the vocal filter. Your authentic self is not really expressive at all. It is more impressive. I mean this in the receptive sense – it is open, ready to receive the impressions of life. And it will leave an impression on people without any sense at all that you were trying to do so.
Whether consciously or not, we’re constantly throttling our personality as we scan for receptivity. For me, my tendency towards irreverent humor is very often the subject of self-regulation. I let different parts of myself out for different kinds of people based on what I sense they can handle. Being mannered is not being inauthentic. It’s a far greater act of inauthenticity to remain rigidly attached to certain behaviors – when they clearly aren’t working – just to maintain some idea of ourselves. This is letting the ego rule us, and its need to establish some kind of identity that gets preserved at all costs.
But Your Authentic Self Is Not Uncompromising, It’s Uncompromised.
If someone is miserable and I’m not, I don’t join them to make them feel better or have them potentially like me more because I’m more similar to them. They will probably have greater appreciation for someone showing compassion and understanding for how they feel without having to even be actually in their state. Acknowledging a feeling and/or inviting the person to acknowledge it in themselves is the best way to neutralize its chokehold.
If they’re even interested in engaging. If not, it’s on me to not concern myself with their mood and some egoic idea that I am the destined savior of it. It’s also on me to not be obnoxious. Only then will my happiness be inviting rather than confrontational – i.e slapping them on the shoulder after volleying an unwanted joke and saying, “C’mon lighten up grumpybuns!” is not beckoning a return smile, but a middle finger.
So Is The Beloved Server Being More “Herself” When She’s Cursing Like A Sailor Behind Closed Doors?
I dunno…in my opinion, probably not. In many cases this would be her in a state of catharsis. The tension of service and some visage she has committed herself to wearing has required a very opposite expression whenever possible to feel a sense of balance. Note that I said she has committed herself to wearing this visage. Rarely are we, as adults, being forced to behave a certain way. We are often just driven by a belief that certain behaviors are expected and will receive the most validation. But we manufacture ideas that we have no other choice. This state of condemnation is what builds the tension, not the need for good manners and polite smiles. (This false belief of “having no choice” will be discussed in a forthcoming article about accountability).
We are more ourselves when we are in a state of ease. Like I said: open receptivity is the nature of the self. This is a state of ease. And this state doesn’t just have to be when we’re relaxing in a dimpled leather chair drinking Sangria. The conditions for being ones authentic self cannot be “only when I’m in the most comfortable surroundings possible”. In fact, your true self thrives best when you invite discomfort and challenges.
One could say that the waitress is more herself behind closed doors because she is truly “free”. But freedom is not something we can depend on outside circumstances for. Freedom is an inner state that we allow ourselves. To make anything else the source of your freedom is to surrender accountability for the person you are and the life you live to something outside of yourself . This would be a true relinquishment of your power to be the author of your own life.
See the instructions on meditation for an upgrade in this area.
Good Service Means Seeking Context Over Content.
Okay so in a service environment, you’re serving someone who is annoying you. They’re saying ignorant things and a symphony of incisive responses are dancing through your mind. Holding your tongue and saying something validating would be more “professional”, but you’ll leave frustrated, probably contemplating other career paths that allow you to express who you truly are more freely. What do you do? Well, you pay attention to the right things. If they are making you feel charged then examine those aspects of yourself and where they might come from. Pay attention to the person. Not the content of what they are saying, but the context around it. Reading content is like letting the ego and the analytical mind consume sugar. Understanding context requires true wisdom.
What’s driving this person? What are their needs, their hopes, their dreams. Ask questions, collect information. If you bring your attention to what’s really happening, then it doesn’t matter whether you are being your “true self”. Because someone who is present lets truth flow through them. Does that mean having some response that shows how brilliant you are? No, it means offering something that serves the moment as a whole. That elevates all that are in it. Especially yourself. Because, you will find, there is no singular “self” that you need to preserve. This series of stories about who you are and what you know are all very trivial perfumes of the ego. When you are sure of yourself, your very “self” becomes this fluid, open, non-distinct entity. You’re not distracted by a preoccupation with some personality and have freed up your resources to be a vessel for your environment. You let the creative force of life move you, guided by the imperatives of the present moment.
It’s Not About “Saying”, It’s About “Being”.
Knowing who you are means not having to express it. Feeling you have to express all the opinions, stories and information churning within you just means that you have to repeatedly prove to yourself that you are something. And having to prove something means you doubt it. To boot, you’re reinforcing an idea that your true value actually consists of these things. Your words are a valuable tool (extremely valuable). But to think that the narratives that words construct can somehow serve as the foundation of who you are is a tragic misplacement of your identity. That’s why powerful, self-realized, fully-actualized humans often don’t need to say much (they may do a tremendous amount of verbal teaching, but speak very little about themselves). They have nothing to prove to themselves and others about who they are. They live on a self-perpetuating foundation of knowing, a self-understanding that persists in the most silent of moments. In fact, self-knowledge is silent. It is a place of simply being that cannot be evoked by words.
I know, easier said than done. Especially since there isn’t a technique for, like, switching on self-actualization. It is something that eventually arises through all of our practices, actions and accumulated wisdom. Hopefully, in this lifetime. For some techniques to start stabbing at this, check out the practices section of the Serve Conscious website. Stay tuned for more articles since this “being yourself” topic probably demands at least a part III…and maybe even a IV. Or check out the podcast since that’s where most of my creative energy is going right now (dare I call it self-expression? Hope it’s not the deluded egoic kind. Have a listen to the latest episode and see if I’m trying too hard to prove my worth).