Four months after a new fast food restaurant had come to town, we employees began receiving reviews. Mine went pretty poorly, to say the least.
"You have all the mechanics of the job down. You’re an amazing employee. Always on time, always keeping yourself busy."
The store owner grinned pleasantly, giving no forewarning of the bad news to come.
"Right. When everyone else has down time, she’s workin’ away. She doesn’t get pulled into chatting or leaning on the counter or anything,"
The general manager added, speaking furtively into his ear.
"The thing is… you just need to work on that smile. If this were, say, McDonald’s, you would be perfect. But actually looking happy is a big deal here."
The store owner gave me a grave look as he spoke, finally breaking the smile. Oh boy...
"I mean, we’ll give you two to three weeks to kind of get your act together..."
I couldn’t believe my ears. Nonetheless, I could feel my face twisting into a very forced smile as they spoke.
"Do you have anything happening in your personal life? What can we do to help you? You got, like, kids or something?" The two stared at me expectantly.
With a strained smile and no verbal affirmation of her comment, I stared back. The manager examined me.
"See, she does have just a beautiful smile."
"She really does. Usually when they don’t smile it’s ‘cause they have messed up teeth or something."
The three of us sat there like that for another half an hour (until basically every obnoxious speculation that could be made was made).
Anyway, that was my employee review. A few weeks later, I had completely turned my act around. Frown? Upside down! No problem there. I had moved on and figured that they had as well. I worked hard and delivered excellent service with a smile, just like the job description. The words "management material" had even been thrown around!
On one fateful night, I was showing a new employee how to do a menial task involving taking the temperatures of the food products in the restaurant. I had in one hand a beaten up little thermometer, and in the other, a clipboard. At one point, I held the clipboard up, and in doing so inadvertently illuminated my left arm, revealing several scars.
"Anna? Wow. Did you cut yourself? Do we need to have a talk?"
The woman was not subtle.
The energy of the space shifted. I loved my job and the guests that I served each shift. My behavior on the job was never anything short of professional at all times. Bonus, I even smiled now! As far as I was concerned, the faint marks that my manager was prodding at were none of her business.
I took a few steps back, instinctively turning my inner arm away from the manager’s prying eyes. I was still clutching that ugly little clipboard.
"I cannot believe that you just said that," I remarked.
My face began to feel hot after those initial comments. Several co-workers had stopped, open mouthed, to watch the situation escalate. It was one of those instances of public humiliation where one feels irrationally fight or flight, and I couldn’t figure out how to proceed.
She then further ignored my obvious discomfort in an award-deserving display of tactlessness. "Wow. What is going on in your life that you just can’t handle?"
She kept shaking her head, in faux sympathy, as if she had any concept of the complexities that riddled my personal life and was in any position to judge me.
Things had become awkward.
The new trainee spoke up. "It’s obviously something that she isn’t willing to talk about right now? In her personal life?"
The two of them made eye contact for a few unsettling seconds before they both resumed silently judging me.
"I mean, look how red you made her face…"
Yes, it really was that uncomfortable. But hey, at least we were all grinning like fools.
"OK, but can we stop talking about this now?" My voice was now shrill.
I suddenly felt an unprecedented anger that physically shook me. Have you ever heard your own pulse, even in a crowded space, as the blood rushes through your head? The manager turned back to her task; preoccupied with her responsibility as head of sandwich bagging, but apparently unwilling to let go of the topic.
"I can’t believe you’re a cutter."
I exhaled noisily in a passive aggressive display of my anger. Did she actually mean well, or what? Was I just some spectacle to her? Something to laugh at? The woman was actually laughing. I will never know if this was out of discomfort or genuine amusement, because I apparently have remarkable trouble interpreting social cues. The manager’s "concern" continued for the rest of the night.
"Anna, talk to me," she harried.
Did she expect me to stand there and explain my angst to her? Why are people expected to explain their troubles to strangers; to justify choices that they have made in the past?
Previous to this conversation, I had even considered it courtesy to cover my "bad arm" at work and at school; even in front of my close friends. From wearing heavy sweaters year round to slathering on my best concealer every day that a work uniform prevented me from wearing full length sleeves; I protected all of us from uncomfortable confrontations. What happened to empathy as opposed to shaming those with suffering mental health?
I realize that my manager’s display of concern was probably well-meaning, if superficial and tactless. Even so, I put in my two weeks just a few days after the whole episode. I didn’t tell any co-workers why I quit until I found a new job. I don’t think that the manager deserves to be spoken to about it. It was frankly embarrassing for everyone involved. I chose to move on.
As much as I loved my job, I left it, knowing that I had done all I could to keep private the issues that had zero effect on my work performance. What happened to me was insensitive and unnecessary; even violating.
That just doesn’t sit right with me. Apparently, it wasn’t enough just to smile.