Too Much Over-the-Top, Over-the-Counter Good Cheer

I went into our local Starbucks today, wondering whether it was going to be one of the hundreds that will get closed.  I hope not.  I need someplace reliable to go to when I’m striving to stay awake in mid-sentence — and I don’t feel like going to the other nearby franchise that’s in the shopping center owned by a vegetarian lunatic.  (Over the years since she inherited the shopping center, the lunatic has run off business after business that isn’t pure enough or pro-four-footed enough for her standards.  In the meantime, she’s caused several stores and restaurants to close, putting two-legged creatures out of work and earning the undying enmity of our neighborhood.  But I digress into local bitterness.)

At the Starbucks, I couldn’t help noticing, the usual behind-the-counter clerk wasn’t there.  He’s a perfectly swell guy and all that, but his unbridled enthusiasm often drives me nuts.

“How are you today?” he always screams at me, as if we were long-lost friends.

Fine, I usually mutter.  Which isn’t true.  If I were fine, I wouldn’t be needing a caffeinated pick-me-up.  Then, out of Southern politeness, dammit, I always have to ask him how he is.

“Fan-TAS-tic!”  he screams back.  “I’m having a great day today!”

God.  To the Starbucks town crier, every day is fan-TAS-tic.  He announces my “great choice!” of a beverage, then turns to somebody else.  “Have a wunn-derful day!” he tells me before I leave, his face lighting up like an all-purpose Christmas tree.

By this time, my nerves are so frazzled I don’t need the damned coffee.  Why, I wonder, can’t I just get my drink from somebody who’s nice and quiet and appreciates the fact I don’t go to Starbucks to engage my own personal cheerleading squad?  I just want a drink, a little lift, my God-given right as an American to get some kind of overpriced, bastardized latte.  I’ve come to dread the ritual, the screaming, the neon-lit good cheer.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s Starbucks’ problem.  Too many counter cowboys like this guy who are driving mild-mannered coffee drinkers away.  Can’t I just order something from a sullen teenager who glares at me and forgets to command me to have a greaaaat day?

It reminds me of a nearby restaurant my husband and I have been to a couple of times.  The food is good, the atmosphere is fine, and all that.  But the waiter, whom we always get, no matter how hard we try to seek out a faraway corner, drives us nuts.  He has a deliberately soulful-looking face with a carefully cultivated resemblance to Nicolas Cage, and he wants to tell us all about himself and his life.  One time, he even gave us his business card.

We want to sit.  We want to eat.  We want to talk to each other.  It’s a restaurant, not an encounter group or a mixer.

So maybe the restaurant will close, our neighborhood Starbucks will fold its tent.  And you won’t be able to blame the economy, the vegetarian lunatic or the product.  They’ll both be the victims of too much over-the-counter personality.  We don’t want your life story or your admonitions to go out and knock’em dead.  All we really wanted was a good meal or a cup of coffee.  Maybe somebody forgot that.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

9 comments… add one
  • Lee Link

    What a mean-spirited, unfunny piece! Synopsis: “When we Tarrytown folk (that’s the neighborhood referenced) want a latte, we want the minimum-wage-earning service class to be seen and not heard. Spare us the pleasantries and well-wishing – speak when spoken to!” I just hope the poor guy who has routinely offered you his presumably genuine goodwill and friendly service that you find so irritating doesn’t read this blog. How humiliated he would feel. The most ironic part is “we don’t want to hear your life story.” This from a writer whose work is premised on the assumption that we want to hear hers…

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I’ve been thinking about your comment ever since I got it (and originally deleted it) yesterday. I don’t completely agree with it, but do think you raise a good point: There was an element of mean-spiritedness to the post that I’m not proud of. What can I say? I write a lot and some of it doesn’t always hit the mark I’m aiming for.

    But that doesn’t excuse anything. It’s hard to look back at something and see I messed up — but it’s important to do. I do appreciate your tenacity in holding my feet to the fire, even though it hurts. So your point is well-taken and it’s something I’ll continue to think about.

  • Lee Link

    What a wonderful response. We all do things we wish we might do a little differently given another shot. You could have chosen not to post the comment. You could have been snarky or defensive. But you chose a graceful and admirable path. Thanks for your openness, willingness to publicly re-think your position, and grace. Ok, I could have been a little more graceful in my comment as well. We both learned. Now THAT’S responsible dialog and meaningful community…

  • rachelbirds Link

    A civil exchange —
    how lovely. Thanks for being
    honest. Both of you.


  • Steve Link

    I didn’t read the piece the way Lee did, but appreciated the follow-up exchange.

    On the pendulum between sullen and cheery, we should all strive to be near the pleasant middle (although a friend of mine who waited tables for years in NYC insisted that, in that upside-down world, his tips went UP in direct proportion to his increasing rudeness; it would only happen in NYC).

    I don’t think it has to do with interaction with the “service class.” It has to do with an uncomfortable intimacy presumed by those who don’t know us and with whom we’re not ready for nor desire an intimate conversation. For me, a gregarious extrovert, this is writ large with first names. I don’t want the waiter (or receptionist) to call me by my first name, nor do I care to call the waiter by his. But I don’t want my doctor or lawyer to do so either, unless it is justified by the circumstances of the relationship.

    A few months back, over a period of several weeks, I stopped by a local non-Starbucks coffee house once or twice a week following a recurring early morning appointment. I don’t want a latte or some other fru-fru coffee concoction; I just want a cup of coffee. I understand why the barista (is that a generic term now?) needs a name to write on the cup if I’m waiting for my spouse’s nonfat skinny decaf vanilla latte without whipped cream; but I just want a cup of coffee. When the barista asked my name, I was taken aback. “Why?” I asked. “I was just being friendly!” she churlishly replied with unfriendly indignance. At that point I was mildly embarrassed and stammered, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t figure out why you needed my name to hand me a cup of coffee.” “Fine,” she said as she handed me my cup to fill myself from the pump pot. As I was stirring the cream and replacing the lid, another customer doing the same thing leaned over and, with quiet consolation, said, “I thought it was weird the first time she asked me, too.”

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    You haiku-ers are so great
    Want to meet you
    next time I’m in New York.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Steve, as usual, you were considered spam and I didn’t find you till just now. What is it about you that Wordpress doesn’t like?

    Anyway, you do write about the point I was trying — however unsuccessfully — to make. Sometimes I just want to slink in somewhere and not have a rousing conversation or name exchange. Being mostly an introvert, I don’t always feel like talking. And I almost never feel like giving my name to a total stranger.

    I do appreciate Lee’s comment and follow-up, though. Life’s too short not to try to be kind and civil toward one another. Especially on the Internet or in a place of business.

  • It’s so nice when people play nice!

    I just finished reading an interesting little book called The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude. It had some good life lessons in it. I’m trying to write about it.

    I think the overly-cheerful employee and the overly-friendly waiter are two different issues. The latter, IMO, is a valid complaint.

    I once met a friend for dinner when we both had life issues to discuss. We needed what we call “talk me off the ledge” conversations. Except our waiter did too, and he actually pulled up a chair to tell us all about his divorce. We were polite and felt bad for him, of course, but it spoiled our dinner and was completely out of line.

  • I didn’t interpret this post the way Lee did, but also appreciate the exchange of opinions. I think the Starbucks employees are trained to be friendly and helpful. Some may go overboard – a personality thing, like the waiter you mentioned at the restaurant.

    But, you definitely don’t want a sullen, snarky teenager. Please…NO! 🙂

Leave a Comment