I recently visited a Chick-fil-A for the first time, having first heard of it (like many New Englanders) through its anti-same-sex marriage controversy. I was curious to compare Chick-fil-A’s food to that of its Nebraska-staple, chicken-serving cousin, Raising Cane’s, after one of my students wrote an essay about the differences, and it seemed disingenuous that I could know so much about Chick-fil-A without ever having actually eaten there.
Everything about Chick-fil-A seemed fine—it was clean, featured a large children’s playplace, and I observed no signs of homophobic activity. The high-school girl behind the counter also struck me as not only polite, but genuinely interested in making conversation that wasn’t rehearsed or perfunctory—another plus, as I’ve always detested space-filler conversations with waitresses and salespeople that have no merit of their own. Then the guy in front of me thanked the server for taking his order, and she immediately replied, “My pleasure.”
Now, the phrase “My pleasure” shouldn’t have seemed out of the ordinary—in fact, it should have struck me as more authentic than a robotically repeated “You’re welcome.” When I heard it, though, I remembered a line from my student’s paper that went something like this:
“I like how Chick-fil-A employees always say “My pleasure,” which shows how much more polite their workers are.”
The student was writing from his experiences in Nebraska, while I was then in Nashua, New Hampshire talking to a different girl behind a different counter who was using the exact same phrase. I wondered whether the girl would say the same thing to me, and when it became my turn to order I made a few jokes (probably about waffle fries) until she handed me my ticket.
“Thanks a lot,” I said.
“My pleasure,” the girl replied.
The phrase, once noticed and observed as something she’d said to the previous customer, now appeared repetitive, part of a routine in which I was now a participant. The routine was further enforced when a different server arrived to bring us our food:
“Thanks for bringing it out,” I told her.
“My pleasure,” the girl said.
The phrase now sounded almost eerie, since for two servers to have independently adopted the same phrase was too perfect, too neat, and too in keeping with the spotlessly clean tables and pristine white backgrounds on the backlit menu. I felt as if I’d stumbled upon a terrible secret—that every Chick-fil-A employee in every Chick-fil-A restaurant in every region of the US had been instructed to use the exact same gracious phrase just as every Chick-fil-A restaurant was to offer the same menu choices and the same soft drinks and to stock the same sealed packets of sauce that I was now fiddling with at the table. Having the same menu choices and décor didn’t bother me, but requiring one’s employees to talk in the same way seemed to cross a line, seemed to lump the very-human workers we deal with into the same category as mass-produced food and cushion-backed chairs that could be chosen by higher-ups in a corporate office. It was an attempt to control the way workers interacted with customers, to achieve the effect of politeness through standardized phrasing.
The problem with this model is that it takes initiative away from the workers and places it in the hands of a corporate office. The workers don’t get to choose how to be polite with customers; they’re told exactly what to say, so the politeness is imposed on them. Not only does this constitute a loss of worker freedom, it strips workers of both the independence and responsibility that comes from making one’s own choices, a sobering thought, considering most fast-food employees are still learning essential job skills that they’ll hope to bring to other positions.
In addition, regardless of how genuinely friendly servers might seem, the “My pleasure”s uttered by Chick-fil-A employees constitute an act performed for the customer, thus stripping the phrase of what authenticity it may have held had the server chosen to say it of her own volition. When this façade becomes apparent, it can’t be unseen, and the “My pleasure”s don’t seem as polite anymore. Though some may argue that all fast-food politeness is an act, I argue that at least other chains let their employees choose how to be polite, rather than enforcing specific scripts for how to do so, thus allowing for (slightly) more authentic interactions.
As unfortunate as it is, I’ve grown accustomed to how much of America has become a standardized succession of chain stores, logos, and brand names that fill out the landscape from Maine to California. This uniformity crosses a line, though, when it’s imposed on the casual utterances spoken by workers in these places, opening up new possibilities for corporate models where everything that everyone says is the same, leaving no room for servers to voice their own thoughts at all. In a world where fast-food serving robots haven’t yet been invented, how close can corporations come to total control by training servers that function like the machines that haven’t yet made total control possible?
When fast-food robots do become the norm, though, I don’t know if people will despise them, or if they’ll accept the change as another facet of reality and move on, maybe even finding relief in an interaction that’s as forgettable as the digital instructions on an ATM screen. Maybe that's the world we're really moving toward.