Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gender and Coffee

If you haven't read or heard about it already, you should look at this study about wait times in coffee shops. The study was conducted in Boston, by a professor and undergrads from Middlebury College, which is cool. Basically what they found was that, even allowing for the fact that women are more likely than men to order "fancy drinks," women's wait time was significantly longer than that of men.
As a former barista, and a woman who frequents coffee shops, I found the study quite fascinating. First, I acknowledge that I was pretty bad at customer service. I don't like people, and bitchy women ordering "skinny vanilla lattes" are just about the worst thing ever. But I could make coffee and do it fast. One interesting part of the study found that when the staff was all female, wait times for women were still longer, but not statistically significant.
So the upshot is that women are nicer to women, but men make women wait longer. Why? It's an interesting study, and I wonder what kinds of conclusions we can make. It will be interesting to see what economists and sociologists make of this. Hmmm.
It also reminded me of a time I was at a party and a friend of a friend told me that I should smile more. At the time I was working as a cashier at a food co-op. She said it was part of customer service. I made the argument that I was paid to scan and total groceries. I understand, of course, that being nice is part of it. But every once in awhile a person has a bad day, right? And I have the right to be in a bad mood, right? But she seemed to think that smiling and being fake was part of the deal. Maybe. This friend of a friend said she didn't like to come through my line because I was intimidating. I don't understand this. How can you be intimidated by a person who is ringing up your groceries? In practice, I liked this aspect. It meant when I was working with the young, flirty girls, my line would be empty, while hippy men lined up to be helped by them. Great for me, I thought. I can stand here and drink coffee while she works. I should also add to this that I had the best record for till correctness of any cashier. They wanted me to become a manager. Ha! I quit to go to graduate school. Thank god. That job would have killed me.
But it begs the question, do we discriminate against customers based on gender? Did I? I don't think so. Though I have to say, in my memory of terrible customers both at the coffee bar and at the co-op, all of them were women. Men, in general, seemed to care less about my general mood. As long as I made their coffee and it was fast, they didn't care. I really did hate those non-fat vanilla latte women. Hated them!
I also had some high maintenance shoppers at the co-op. Once a woman returned more than a hundred dollars worth of cleaning supplies. I sighed heavily and did the return. Then I went back to the customer service desk and told the supervisor that the woman who I had just helped was going to come complain about me. And when she did, the supervisor said, "Yeah, I know." It was actually kind of funny. I just can't stand the shoppers who feel they deserve special attention just for doing what everyone else is doing: shopping.
Which is why my customer service career came to an end. But not quickly enough for me. Never.
So my opinion is, yeah, women probably wait longer. Maybe men are just less likely to put up with perceived bitchiness. Or maybe they are just sexist pigs. A little from column A, a little from column B?


susansinclair said...

Hmmmm...I think some folks are better at customer service than others, because they're willing to suffer fools. Which you are not. Which is good. I suffer them until I snap, which shocks folks. So maybe its better to be honest all along.

Also, I used to train folks to work at the library in B'ham, and I would remind them that you don't have to be nice. You do have to be professional. Smiling isn't essential (though in this sexist world, it's expected)--other techniques also work. A wee bit of eye contact. A verbal cue. And, for those young women who had trouble being intimidating--which you sometimes had to be when folks owed too much money or whatever to check out, rather than looking mean, one could look concerned. It's very easy to fake that--just knit the brow, incline your head, and say, "hmmmmm." Works with students, too. :)

Condiment said...

This is pretty interesting. Customer service is something I have a lot of opinions about. I don't think I expect the off-putting Japanese department store approach (although I admit some men might prefer that from women), but, like Susan says, I expect the clerk to be professional and polite and I don't want any surliness or attitude. They should thank me for my business and they should get me through the line as efficiently as possible. I think these are pretty low standards, but it's surprising how infrequently they are met. I don't really care if they smile or not. Or if they fawn or chitchat... That just slows me down.

Now when I worked in customer service I responded to difficult people a couple of different ways. Usually I'd act concerned and try to get them out of the store as quickly as possible. But I do admit I'd go into foot-dragging mode if 1) I were in a bad mood, or 2) there was no line and it was just them waiting, or 3) the line was out the door all night and it was never going to go down. I don't think my foot-dragging was ever done across gender lines, but, hey, you never know.

So maybe these stats are the result of a few male baristas dragging their feet for a few seconds more when some "difficult" women order their fancy drinks.

I would like to see more studies like this.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting study. I can't stand bitchy woman or men for that matter. My only experience with customer service was my job in the toy department at ShopKo. During Christmas, it was hell. Now I am a pretty easy going person and I am one of those people who smile and are "peppy" however when there are tons of children running around screaming for a Teddy Ruxpin or pulling toys off the shelf I tend to lose my patience. Toy departments are not for the weak of heart. Anyway I think usually I was nice. I usually saw women with children. I found those completely inattentive moms to be the most annoying. But I think that if I were a barista and I had a grumpy customer I would chalk it up to caffeine deprivation. I mean the faster they get the coffee, the faster they leave-and the better their mood becomes right?? This study is interesting. I wonder if Starbucks was involved??


Lisa B. said...

I never had a customer service job, really, except for being a receptionist, sort of, at an office at BYU. Your discussion of it makes me realize how good it was I never was one. I would also have hated the skinny latte girls. College daughter, however, has some amazing stories about customer attitude. Both men and women. Assholicism knows no gender, apparently.

Nik said...

I am woman. I want coffee. I want it now. But I guess I'm willing to wait a bit if you have other things to do. I'll just be over here, looking at the CD's, wishing I'd just made coffee at home.

Nik said...

Wait a minute. I thought under the new world order, teaching WAS customer service.