Sometimes, I Hate Being Famous

September 20, 2014

Working in the customer service industry and being a white face abroad (in most countries, anyway) have a lot in common. I’ve already done my share of ranting over my superficial treatment in Asia: for as many benefits as there are in being a foreigner – e.g. not expected to know or necessarily conform to all customs – there is one key factor that always gets under my skin. It’s not the attention per se, nor is it the condescension with simple speech or ignorant statements.

It’s the arrogance, the entitlement.

Whether you’re a celebrity, a woman (that comes with a set of pros and cons all its own, which I will not get into here), a foreign resident, or someone in uniform, whether it be serving burgers at McDonald’s or flying off to serve your country, the reactions from men and women on the street can be so awfully intrusive so as to make one wish he could just fade into the background noise.

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Photo by Chuck Hagel

Obviously this is true for being notorious, as anyone who’s been wrongfully shamed on the Internet can attest; if you’re famous for misdeeds, short of being a sociopath, you don’t want others calling attention to that fact. On the other hand, what of actors? Politicians? Sports heroes? Assuming they haven’t fallen out of favor (with the media’s never-ending question to dig up or create dirt), people representing popular brands and ideas don’t fare much better.

I can’t speak for anyone on a Hollywood level of fame, but I have an inkling of what they must go through based on my own experiences in San Francisco and Asia.

Let me give you a few examples. I once worked as an ultrasound model for an LA agency. Essentially, we would be sent to different medical conferences and be used to demonstrate new equipment; lacking any artificial substitute of a torso with working internal organs, these companies had to hire men and women to take their shirts off and get lubed up. As you can imagine, such a job leads to some awkward and very inappropriate statements from people who are deemed to be medical professionals. I’ve had doctors joking that they saw something suspicious that really wasn’t there, taking advantage of my state to use the machine (rather, my body) in ways beyond what I had been told – e.g. pressing down much harder than necessary – and filling the void with personal questions.

Now, this is hard to describe, because I’m sure more than a few read that summary and thought they did nothing wrong; it must have all been in my attitude. Fair enough. Maybe I am too sensitive. I just happen to believe sharing personal information, even being personable in and of itself, isn’t a requirement for any job. Would it make things better for coworker morale? Of course. But can you blame someone for not sharing something in what should be a professional environment outside the scope of the work? You can choose your friends, but you can’t always choose your coworkers; being made to feel like you’re the one at fault for not making friends with everyone is all too common in offices.

But this is only secondary to what I really want to address. The entitlement others – not even employers or coworkers – feel when faced with someone who’s in the limelight, whether it be someone on stage, in a shop, or catching your eye at the pub. I represent an extremely popular ice cream brand. My job consists of pushing that product in stores and at events. Without fail, at least once during my working hours someone will share something far too personal without any prodding whatsoever from me, and another may act belligerent when I deflect answering personal questions.

Customer service is a tricky social scenario. In a way, it’s no different that working at a strip club. Just remember that when you’re facing someone at the register or on the pole, it’s entirely possible they may just be happy-go-lucky people who want to smile and share their life stories, but any who don’t aren’t being difficult or even antisocial (that implies a situation outside of work); they simply don’t want to expend their personalities in their working lives. They give the necessary amount of courtesy where appropriate because it’s their job to smile and handle customers. Some might consider that stuck-up, unacceptable, and plain rude. I happen to think it’s professional.

You might think it’s appropriate to ask someone in a Starbucks uniform about a certain drink if you see her outside a store smoking a cigarette, i.e. when she’s obviously on her break. However, this, to me, is the height of rudeness; their jobs, my job, consist of serving customers. Talking to them appropriately. Fielding ridiculous, even downright stupid questions. To ask them to continue doing that on the street because you feel it’s not taking too much of their time is arrogant. I’ve had people yell questions at me through the closed windows when I’m in the company vehicle and expect me to drop what I’m doing, open the door, and cater to their every whim for however long it takes. Instead of conversations around the products, they inevitably return to me, and my involvement with the company.

Sometimes I’m happy to answer these questions, just as you could have caught me answering my standard chopsticks questions with a smile on my face from time to time. Having patience and wanting to be happy is natural. But, when you’re worn down day in and day out for months or years with the same questions, even if they do reflect something positive, something is going to give from time to time. Actors who have their TV catch phrase screamed at them when they’re at dinner with their families. Women who have heard the same pickup lines thousands of times and are expected to react as though the pickup artist is the cleverest, most original of all time with a smile on their faces. Foreigners in Japan who are asked where they’re from.

I used to think that being late was the only method of stealing someone’s time. But having worked in customer service, I now see thieves everywhere, co-opting others’ time with personal questions and otherwise. There is such a thing as a stupid question, and I’ve had my share of them. If I’ve learned anything from this experience in San Francisco, it’s that I’m near my breaking point when it comes to repetitiveness. Despite working in different areas, my job is essentially spewing the same talking points and dealing with the same inane questions five days a week. I don’t think I can handle it, even if I should find something I’m passionate about.

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