Written by Esther Harris

In The News

Work for that smile

According to recent reports, young people are missing out on basic work skills because they no longer take summer employment. Esther Harris reflects on what she learned through her series of shit jobs.

smiling teenage girl
I couldn’t help but LOL at the news report that a growing number of young people are losing the ability to interact with strangers.

The lack of skills in customer service and general poor communication is apparently linked to the fact that the number of 16 and 17 year olds with summer jobs has halved in the last 20 years. My first reaction was OH COME ON.

I was 17 in 1995 (a million years ago), and I had summer jobs and I was STILL SHIT at interacting and communication. That’s just being young. Who wants to look old people in the watery eye, smile and ask how you can help them? That’s just torture.

It’s every conversation with your uncle or great-aunt or elderly neighbour you’ve squirmed and yawned through magnified – and made even worse because you’re forcing yourself to do something that goes against the very fibre of your not-yet-fully-formed being. Yet you have to do it for one big reason: MONEY.

To be fair, it’s as good a reason as any to learn some manners. I remember in one of my first jobs in retail I had to ‘watch the front’ of the shop, which basically meant stand and smile. Stand and smile. Hard? Impossible.

“What better time to clock up a major life lesson when you have time on your hands and someone is paying you to do it?”

I tried. I tried really hard to do the cheeks-pinching-stretching-lips thing but I couldn’t. I barely smiled when hanging out with my best friends whose company I enjoyed a bit, so smiling for strangers asking for a black pencil skirt in a size 16 was just TOO MUCH. Clearly my internal turmoil was massively showing on the outside too as customers started edging away from me and my manager actually pulled me aside and asked me if anything was wrong at home.

Back then I blushed, avoided eye contact but took it on the chin and forced myself to be human one last time and, whaddya know, with practice, I learned how to do it. I copied the other girls who could smile. And I copied my mum, who smiled and did small talk all day long. (The weirdo even seemed to enjoy it.) I still hated every second but something started to happen… I got better at it. Customers seemed to like it and even TALKED TO ME.

And guess what? That made the job actually a tiny bit more enjoyable: the time went quicker and I spent less time clock watching. Interaction became slightly less painful. I became slightly more grown up and a lot better at my job. What better time to clock up a major life lesson when you have time on your hands and someone is paying you to do it?

grimacing girl
My jobs since then have improved: I’ve worked in newspaper offices, media agencies, shops, factories and publishing houses and in all of those I have had to smile, look someone in the eye, and ask them how I could help. Making friends, approaching people you don’t know that well, and connecting with them. And a realisation dawns that I was not doing it just to be polite and earn money back then, but because I knew it was survival and life skills.

Rather than laughing at the poor young people, I suddenly feel all like a wise elder and like I’m all growed up and have finally LEARNED SOMETHING and REALLY DONE SOMETHING OK. I feel really sorry that they are not having the same opportunity. Because actually, if you aren’t doing it then, when do you get the chance? And if you miss the chance completely, are you going to be prepared for the grafting, the interviews, the relationships, and the work colleagues? No.

Turns out that my shit jobs in factories, picking fruit, washing cars, going bright red and sweating talking to strangers and awkwardly thrusting CVs into hands were all very precious. At the risk of sounding like smug old person, we must all help young people get a job. I know it’s all internships and volunteer opportunities now and getting paid is harder, but the importance of what you pick up makes it a vital experience.

@writer29

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Written by Esther Harris

Esther Harris is (still) writing her first novel and tweets @writer29