Opinion: You Can’t Have Your Cake And Smear It, Too
ILLUSTRATOR Louis Miguel Talao
Yesterday, a video of Alex Gonzaga smearing cake on a server went viral online. The video started off with the host/ actress standing front and center of a crowd cheering "happy birthday" to her, and a server holding a big tray of chocolate cake topped with a party sparkler and candles for her to blow. The chanting ends, Alex blows out her candles.
And then, after an almost imperceptible pause, she casually dips her fingers into the cake and smears the frosting across the server's forehead. The camera follows this motion, and the last thing you see before the clip ends is the server scanning what must be the crowd of people before him, presumably looking for a way out of what seemed like an uncomfortable situation.
It made me cringe.
And it made me think of my former students from the culinary and hospitality training center I used to teach at. Might they be subjected to this kind of entitled customer behavior as well? How would they handle it? What do they think about this?
As an instructor, I mainly handled baking and pastry classes, but occasionally I taught hospitality courses as well. We taught our students how to respond to guest requests and what phrases to use to de-escalate irate customers.
We drilled into them that at the core of every interaction, the key thing to remember is that all of us are human and that means regardless of how rude or unreasonable our guests may be, we are to treat them with respect.
Dealing with difficult guests is part of the job, and these future service workers are trained to handle these situations with grace and respect. But clearly - and this doesn't only include Alex Gonzaga and her like-minded party guests - some customers could benefit from attending a course or two about Basic Human Decency.
Why It Isn't Funny To Make Servers "The Butt Of The Joke"
There is something problematic about the unconscious or implicit bias that many people have about those who work in the service industry. To an alarming number of people, service workers like drivers, waiters, janitors, security guards, kasambahay, and sometimes even small online sellers are seen as inferior. As if, by the nature of their jobs, people who work in the service industry are "lesser than."
And sure, having an implicit bias in and of itself isn't bad - after all, you are most likely unaware of it - but the problem arises when this particular bias begins to show. When you start treating people rudely. When you smear cake across the face of a server... just because you can.
Just because we're paying someone to provide us with service doesn't mean we get to treat them any way we want. It is, after all, still a business transaction; you wouldn't treat a business partner rudely, would you?
In the wake of the viral video, this clip of Heart Evangelista also began trending, and that says a lot about how poorly Alex's cake-smearing shenanigan was received.
"I would never, ever make tarayan someone, especially if they're a guard or server, you know? I cannot. As in," she firmly says. (I would never, ever intentionally snub someone, even if they're a guard or a server, you know?)
She goes on to say that she can't appreciate people who wouldn't even say a simple, "thank you" to waiters.
And the reason is simple: "Because for me, yun yung sukatan ko kung mabait ka, or kung mabait ba to. It's how you treat the people around you." (Because that's how I measure someone's kindness. It's how you treat the people around you.)
And no, it's NOT a prank.
As of this writing, neither Alex Gonzaga nor the server has issued a statement about the video, and the said video has since been taken down (but not before netizens were able to save the receipts. Thanks, Internet!) But regardless of what either party might say, the fact of it is that even if it was meant to be a "harmless prank," this act was done in bad taste.
Smearing cake on a person's face at birthday parties isn't unheard of, but every other video you might see where this happens involves family or friends doing this to each other.
But here is where the problem lies: there is a fine line between pranking and bullying, and a lot of it has to do with power.
When pranks are done in good taste, the prankster and their victim are usually friends or know each other well. It means they must be close enough that practical jokes are accepted behavior in their interactions. Usually, the victim can turn into the prankster, and they can respond to the prank in kind.
This didn't seem to be the case in this video. Imagine how Alex Gonzaga and her friends might have reacted if the server thought it would be funny to put cake on Alex's face.
Imagine the fallout if the server expressed anger or irritation when he was unexpectedly smeared with frosting.
In the hierarchy of the service industry, the customer is king. In that situation, there was an imbalance of power between Alex Gonzaga the customer and the server. He was powerless to retaliate or even react negatively as not only was he clearly bewildered at what had just transpired; as a service crew member, his ethics will prevent him from reacting negatively or retaliating in kind.
The only way we could have given Gonzaga the benefit of the doubt was if maybe this was an isolated case. Maybe she was ignorant of the impact of her behavior. But since this video has made the rounds on social media, people who have formerly worked with her have come out of the woodwork to tell stories that allegedly show a pattern of disrespecting people she deems are below her station
The Truth About Whether The Customer Is Always Right
Service crew workers have one of the most difficult jobs, and it's not because their responsibilities usually include performing physically taxing services. It's because, to be considered professional, they must deal with the likes of Alex Gonzaga with a smile and still perform their duties to a tee without breaking stride.
While we do prepare our students for these kinds of situations at training school, the real test of their character and professionalism doesn't really come until they are actually already at work. There's no final test, no simulation. Just a moment where they need to quickly decide whether they should react in a personal capacity or as a professional.
And as someone who has also been at the receiving end of the tempers of difficult customers, let me tell you: it takes a lot of grit, self-control, and emotional maturity to endure difficult customers while keeping interactions cordial.
Towards the end of our hospitality courses, here's a little secret that we tell our students: The customer isn't always right.
However, the customer should always be treated with respect.
But what I dearly wish we could teach guests or fellow customers is this: Service crew workers have never been, and will never be, lesser than you by the nature of their jobs. Even if they mess up their service, and especially if you're unhappy with it, they still deserve to be treated with respect.
Just because we are paying them to provide us a service does not give us the license to treat them poorly, much less put them in humiliating and uncomfortable situations.
And while we're at it, there is nothing that will give us the license to act disrespectfully or be unkind to a fellow human being. Even if it's our birthday, and we think it would be funny.
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