There’s a startling passage about the power of hospitality in the classic novella, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Carson McCullers writes (and I apologize for this paraphrase of a great work of art) that, for many people, the judgments and deprivations of the world they encounter every day make them feel that their lives aren’t valued by society and commerce.
Partaking of hospitality when they have the opportunity (in her example, spending an evening at a café) provides them with a time and place where, “for a few hours at least, the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low.”
It’s true that McCullers’ vision of hospitality expects a lot from the customers as well. They tidy up as if they’re children going to dinner at a neighbor’s house; they wash up beforehand and “scrape their feet very politely on the threshold as they enter the cafe.”
Unfortunately, it’s the rare customer-facing professional who can regale you with tales of customers politely wiping their feet and behaving like they’re playing dress-up. Yet it’s still worth remembering that service can be an occasion, a time when customers venture out—not only physically but mentally as well—in the hopes of an escape from the ways they’re being treated in other aspects of their lives.
Consider the realtor leading her umpteenth house tour. Can she can remind herself of how big deal a deal this is (the process, not just the result) for her new-homeowners-to-be?
Likewise, can the IT professional troubleshooting yet another laptop can keep in mind that the employee being helped is looking forward to tomorrow’s big (to them) presentation?
And can the lawyer working on yet another last will and testament keep in mind all the ways they can increase their client’s feeling of dignity during the process?
If they succeed in doing so, they’ll be realigning themselves with the experience of the customer or guest. And this can be powerful indeed.
My favorite quote on the reframed viewpoint we should be striving to bring to our work every day comes from a bus-tour operator and guide, and I’ll never tire of quoting it:
‘‘No matter how many times I’ve previously given a tour of the government sites in Washington, D.C., for example, I consciously work to remember that for this group of kids this tour will be their ﬁrst, and maybe only, glimpse of Washington in their entire lives.’’