Read an Excerpt
INTRODUCTION: MIND AND WORK
I grew up a witness to the intelligence of the waitress in motion, the reflective welder, the strategy of the guy on the assembly line. This, then, is something I know: the thought it takes to do physical work. Such work put food on our table, gave shape to stories of affliction and ability, framed how I saw the world. I come from a family of immigrants who, with two exceptions, did not finish high school, and who worked in blue-collar or service jobs all their lives. I did not do so well in school myself, spent several years in the vocational track, and squeaked my way into a small college on probation—the first in the family to go beyond high school. Measures of intellectual ability and assumptions about it are woven throughout this history. So I’ve been thinking about this business of intelligence for a long time: the way we decide who’s smart and who isn’t, the way the work someone does feeds into that judgment, and the effect such judgment has on our sense of who we are and what we can do.
It was tough work that my family did. I would later come to understand the dynamics of occupational status and social class, but I could sense early on how difficult the work was, and that without it, we’d starve. I also saw that people knew things through work. And they used what they learned. This experience was all very specific to me, not abstract, emerging from the lived moments of work I had witnessed, from all sorts of objects and images, from sound and smell, from rhythms of the body. These sensory particulars stay with me, resonant.
There was a table covered with slick plastic in the center of my grandmother’s kitchen. Anyone who visited drank a cup of coffee there, wooden chair turned sideways to talk to her as she cooked. All meals were eaten at this table. My uncle Frank, a welder for the Pennsylvania Railroad, has come in from work, soiled denim, the smell of machinist’s oil in it, his face smeared with soot. He washes at the kitchen sink, sleeves rolled up, scrubbing his arms, full lather, angling them under the faucet. He settles in at the table; there’s a radio at its edge, and he turns it on to hear the evening news. My grandmother sets a large plate of steaming macaroni before him, deep red sauce; there is a bowl of chops, cooked earlier, in the center of the table. Frank’s hands are huge, and as he talks to us—a deep voice that can quickly rise in amazement—he tears off a big chunk of Italian bread and begins to eat with a focus and capacity that made its way into the comic tales told about him by his brothers, stories I would acquire through the hearing. After a while, he pushes the chair back, but not too far, unbuttons the top of his trousers, says he’s eaten way too much, dear Lord, and reaches for a chop, or for that loaf of bread, and leans in again, a deep pleasure against the bitter cold and exhaustion of the roundhouse.
Frank was a guy who made it a point to know things; he read a lot and inquired until he understood how something worked. It felt good to be with him. I remember him, his well-spoken voice, guiding me through the Railroader’s Museum: cutaways of running gear; diagrams and technical information on steam, diesel, and electric locomotives; photos of wooden freight cars, cabooses, the interiors of luxury passenger cars; posed workmen; lots of repair equipment; an operational model railroad. I knew of Frank’s many complaints about the railroad: layoffs and erratic scheduling, the brutal hours, the biting cold or sweltering heat, the burns over his arms and legs. But Frank also saw himself as a “railroad man,” someone who had made his contribution to this major American industry. Doing a job well mattered. “Work hard,” he wrote to his son, away in the army. “No one likes a half-assed man.” One of the moments I remember from that day at the museum, a simple but lasting one, is Frank standing before a display case, pointing to some miniature assembly of cable and gear, explaining in detail how it worked, taking his time until I got it. Many testaments have been written, both in fiction and memoir, about the physical labor of our forebears: from accounts of the prairie farm, the mills, and the mines to tales of immigrant life—the Lower East Side to the agricultural fields of Central and Southern California. One of the most stirring moments in Mario Cuomo’s keynote address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention is the memory of his father working long and hard hours in the family grocery store, teaching the young Mario “all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.” Such invocation speaks powerfully to Americans, stirs things deep in our cultural and personal histories. How interesting it is, though, that our testaments to physical work are so often focused on the values such work exhibits rather than on the thought it requires. It is a subtle but pervasive omission. Yet there is a mind at work in dignity, and values are intimately related to thought and action.
It is as though in our cultural iconography we are given the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain. I find myself here wondering about Cuomo’s father. I imagine the many decisions he had to make, the alternatives large and small he weighed, the moments when he had to think quickly through his fatigue.
My mother shaped her adult identity in the restaurant business and, all the while I was growing up, worked as a waitress in coffee shops and family-style restaurants. My father and I would sometimes visit her at Coffee Dan’s, waiting for her shift to end, riding the bus home together, her feet killing her. When she worked the counter and took cash, we would find two stools by the register; when she had the main room, we sat at the back booth where the waitresses took their break. We would pass the time with her once the lunch or dinner rush had faded. There wasn’t much for a child to do, the hours stretched out, so I listened to the cooks and waitresses. They talked about the customers, or the boss, or each other; about the things going on at home with their kids; about how tired they were. And I watched what they did.
I remember particular people, like my mother’s coworker Rose Goldstein, a gentle woman whose house across town we visited, and Bobbi, the new hire just out of high school, on whom I had a desperate crush. And there was a cook whose name I’ve forgotten, but who would sit in the booth on break, smoking, solemn, food splattered all over his white uniform, down to the shoes. At the back booth, you would catch the thick smell of the grill and the whiff of stale food and cigarettes, scraped and dumped. These odors hung in my mother’s uniform and hair. When things got busy, there was a heightened clatter of kitchen and dishwasher, and I could feel the rise in the pulse of the place: the cacophony of customers’ voices; waitresses weaving in and out, warning “behind you” in a voice both impassive and urgent; all these people eating separately in one big public space.
I remember the restaurant’s lingo, remember liking the code of it. Tables were labeled by the number of chairs—and, thus, customers—around them: deuces, four-tops, six-tops. Areas of the restaurant had names: the racetrack was the speedy front section. Orders were abbreviated for the cook: fry four on two, my mother would call out as she clipped a check onto that little rotating wheel. To speak this language gave you a certain authority, signaled know-how.
I have many images of my mother at work, distinct from the other domains of her life: her walking full-tilt with an armload of plates along one arm and two cups of coffee somehow cradled in her other hand; her taking orders, pencil poised over pad; her flopping down in the booth by my father, the whoosh of the cushion; “I’m all in,” she’d say, and whisper something quickly to us about a customer. She would stand before a table, her arm stacked with those plates, picking one order off for this person, then another, then another—always seeming to get it right, knowing who got the hamburger, who got the fried shrimp. She’d argue with the cook over a returned order; “he gave me lip,” she’d tell us, rushing by. I remember her sitting sideways at the back booth, talking to us, her one hand gripping the outer edge of the table, watching the floor, and noting, in the flow of our conversation, who needed something, who was finishing up, whose order was taking longer to prepare than it should.
What did I come to know about work like Frank’s or my mother’s, mechanical-industrial or life in the restaurant? Surely, that it was hard, physically taxing, dirty, injurious. I never knew my grandfather—he died of pneumonia before I was born—but I heard, with some frequency, a story about him losing his leg in the railroad stockyards, the same place where Frank worked. This was not the kind of work my parents and uncles and aunts wanted their kids to do. I knew, as well, that work was unsteady; you could lose your job, with disastrous consequences. Hard as it was, railed against as it occasionally was, work was coveted, for it was a stay against poverty. One reason my mother valued waitressing was that she knew she could always find work. I also got the clear sense from observing people in my family or in the neighborhood that having work, though you’d be wiped out at day’s end, affected your overall mood, your bearing. The men in the neighborhood who were out of work were unhappily at loose ends, sitting around, listless, time on their hands. My mother bemoaned the physical punishment of her job, but she spoke as well about “being among the public.” The phrase carried for her a claim of achievement. The Pennsylvania Railroad had Frank—had much of the town—in its grip, and he cursed it often. But he was, finally, a railroad man—hard work, masculine, with national consequence. The work that my uncle and my mother did affected their sense of who they were, and, though limiting in so many ways, it provided a means of doing something in the world. Doing something in the world. I couldn’t have expressed it this way when I was growing up, but the work I saw connected in my mind with agency and competence—that’s what being an adult meant to me, and it was intimately tied to physical work. And, as does any child, I craved competence. Special terminology caught my ear, the idiom of freight trains or food orders, because not everyone could speak it, especially speak it the right way, and it made things happen. Particular movements of the body made things happen, too, in the restaurant or the stockyard. And there was knowledge of tools and devices, wrenches and hacksaws and measures, but the cash register, too, and the whirring blender. Tied to this knowledge were tricks of the trade. And what a kick it was when one of my uncles or a cook or a waitress showed me how to do something a little more effectively, with a little less effort and a little more finesse. Hold it this way. Move it in, like this. See? I became the work’s insider, if just for a moment.
I have been a teacher for over thirty years in a wide range of settings: from kindergarten to adult literacy programs, and now in a research university’s graduate school of education. Many of the populations I’ve taught and studied were considered to be educationally at-risk, and questions about intellectual capacity, either implied or explicit, were ever-present. And in a school of education, issues of ability, schooling, and work are part of the conceptual terrain. One thing I’ve learned from all this is the powerful effect our assumptions about intelligence have on the way people are defined and treated in the classroom, the workplace, and the public sphere. It seems fitting, therefore, to turn with the investigative tools I now have to the work represented by my forebears—factory work, skilled and semiskilled trades, and service occupations—with a focus on the mental processes involved in doing such work, the thought that enables it. To be sure, our view of occupations is shaped by the form of capitalism that has developed in the United States and by the social traditions that attend particular occupations. But running through this economic and cultural history are beliefs about mind. The Mind at Work, then, offers an analysis of physical work and intelligence and a reflection on how we might think more clearly and fairly about them.
Labor, as a political and social force, has diminished in power and has less immediate grab on the national imagination. The work that currently captures our fancy involves high technology, electronic media, and “symbolic analysis.” Trumpeted as an unprecedented kind of work, such “knowledge work” represents emerging opportunity. It is associated with advanced education, and there is no doubt that work of this type requires high levels of analytic skill. What concerns me, though, is the implication—evident in popular discourse about work—that so-called older types of work, like manufacturing or service work, are, by and large, mindless, “neck down” rather than “neck up.” (There is, by the way, a degree of historical amnesia here: each industrial generation heralds the unprecedented intellectual demands of its work.) But, though identified with another era, work of body and hand continues to create the material web of daily life. As with any human achievement, such work merits our understanding; the way we talk about it matters. And the dimension of it that is least discussed and appreciated—and that we can continue to learn from—is the thought it takes to do it well.
A related issue is the way we classify work itself. “Writers on work,” notes sociologist Steven Peter Vallas, “routinely employ certain stock categories—‘blue-’ versus ‘white-collar,’ ‘mental’ versus ‘manual’ labor.” Vallas acknowledges that these categories are sometimes useful, but we rely too heavily on them and fail “to observe subtle commonalities between apparently different forms of work.” These limiting categories reaffirm longstanding biases about particular occupations and cause us to miss so much: The mental processes that enable service. The aesthetics of physical labor. The complex interplay of the social and the mechanical. The choreography of hand, eye, ear, brain. The everpresence of abstraction, planning, and problem solving in everyday work.
More immediate policy deliberations about work—I write this, for example, during a period of economic downturn and a fragile “jobless recovery”—are focused on specific tangible remedies: economic stimuli, job creation, training programs, and the like. Tied to such discussions are assessments of the state of the workforce, the number unemployed, gross measures of skill level, breakouts by race and gender. And there is, as well, a broader assessment of the workforce that will be a central concern of this book: the general sense of what workers can do, their competence, their intellectual capacity. Such appraisals may well include specific measures—for example, high school graduation as an indicator of literacy and numeracy—but there is also a psychological and cultural dimension to this reckoning, just as there is, at least in some schools of thought, to assessments of the economy. Consider, then, an observation by labor journalist John P. Hoerr: “Since the early days of industrialization, a peculiar notion has gained ascendancy in the United States: that wage workers and their representatives lacked the competence to handle complex issues and problems that required abstract knowledge and analytical ability.” This sense of deficiency is in our cultural bones, and it affects, and distorts, the specific economic responses we develop, from education and job training to the way work is organized.
The nation is currently engaged in a discussion about the training of the workforce and about a range of educational experiments involving the integration of the academic and vocational curriculum and the transition from school to work. Yet the educational literature on these issues tends to be pretty thin on any close analysis of the cognitive dimension of physical work. This absence, I think, is rooted in the reductive notions the society carries about such work and the people who do it, notions that prove to be especially troubling as we try to rethink the connection between the schoolhouse and the workplace.
I also believe that there are important social issues here. Judgments about intelligence carry great weight in our culture, and one of the ways we judge each other’s intelligence is through the work we do. There are many distinctions that can be made among types of work, distinctions related to income, autonomy, cleanliness, physical risk, and so on. These have a harshly real material meaning, but carry symbolic meaning as well. There’s a moral and characterological aura to occupational autonomy, income, cleanliness, leading us to slip from qualities of the work to qualities of the worker. This kind of generalizing, this slippage of assumptions, runs through our cultural history, from post–Revolutionary War mechanics who were portrayed as illiterate and incapable of participating in government to the autoworkers I heard labeled by one supervisor as “a bunch of dummies.” These generalizations about mind and work are intimately tied to the dynamics of social class and affect the way we think about each other and ourselves. One of the more striking things writer Barbara Ehrenreich found as she worked a series of low-wage jobs to write Nickel and Dimed was how invisible she became. The way work gets defined and the attributions we make about it affect more than occupational rank and income; these attributions color the kind of social and civic life we can imagine.
Running through the upcoming chapters are several key terms, terms with such broad sweep, used in so many ways, that, as I begin to preview this book’s contents, some defining is in order.
First, intelligence, and the broader term cognition. Cognition refers to those mental processes involving perception, attention, memory, knowing, judging. These processes will be displayed throughout the work we’re considering as the waitress prioritizes tasks during rush hour or the electrician troubleshoots a faulty circuit. Some researchers study cognition in laboratory settings and others in natural contexts. I will discuss more about method in the afterword, but here let me say that I draw on both kinds of studies to inform the argument of this book. The portraits of cognition you’ll read, though, are for the most part developed from my studies of people at work. The busy restaurant, the job site, and the factory floor each present different tasks to be solved, calling forth different cognitive processes. Also, cognition is, I believe, intimately tied to motives and values, to long-range as well as immediate goals, and to one’s life history. As a friend of mine so vividly put it, we’re not just a brain in a bottle. We think in a material and social world. So when I can, I provide biographical information for the people we’re observing, and I am able to provide much more of that kind of detail in the family sketches that run through these pages. It was, after all, through my family that I first saw work close at hand.
Though a more specific term than cognition, intelligence is a much-debated concept. To get us started, I’ll use a composite of the most familiar Western definitions of intelligence: it is the ability to learn and act on the environment, to apply knowledge to new situations, to reason, plan, and solve problems. Such definitions have a pervasive effect on educational policy and occupational classification—so they will prove useful to us, for they are the terms of our public discourse. We need to keep in mind, though, that there are aspects of human mental activity that are not captured in the standard definitions of intelligence. They will be evident, however, in the work settings we’ll explore.
Because intelligence is such a loaded term, let me sketch out a little more background and offer my own perspective. The way we think about intelligence in the United States has been shaped over the last century by the psychometric tradition, mental measurement, known to most of us through an intelligence test taken in school or in the military. This tradition has contributed—sometimes through misinterpretation—to a number of interconnected popular beliefs about intelligence: that it is a single and unitary quality (so if you’re smart, you’re smart across the board); that it’s fixed, consistent (and this plays into further beliefs about the degree to which intelligence is inherited); that it can be accurately measured with an instrument like an intelligence test and represented numerically, typically through an IQ score; and that people’s success in life, or more broadly, their place in the social order, is a reflection of their intelligence. This book is not the place to unpack the many arguments within education, psychology, anthropology, and cognitive science about these claims. Suffice it to say that they—and other aspects of mental measurement, including the statistical procedures that are central to the field—are hotly contested, and, in fact, have been since the father of the modern intelligence test, Alfred Binet, himself raised concerns about the use and interpretation of his instrument.
It is also important to note that within the West there are powerful research traditions that yield other conceptions of intelligence and other means to assess it. In various ways, these traditions posit, for example, that there are multiple components to intelligence, or even multiple intelligences; that intelligence is variable and dynamic; that social context is crucial to its emergence and display; that creativity, emotion, aesthetic response, and the use of the body—removed from traditional psychometric definitions and tests of intelligence—must be considered as aspects of intelligent behavior. And, finally, it is very important to note that any discussion of intelligence is culture-bound. Some aspects of what we consider intelligence might well overlap with definitions from other cultures, but many cultures posit a range of further or different attributes to intelligence, for example, the ability to live in harmony with others.
It is undisputed that formal education will affect one’s score on an intelligence test, since the tests tend to be heavy on verbal and numerical items. The big challenge to test designers, then, is to create at least a few components that, in theory, will not be affected by schooling, for example, identifying the missing element in a visual pattern. Though the success of this endeavor is (yet another) contested issue, it seems pretty clear that it is difficult—some say impossible—to tease out the effects of education (including a familiarity with and investment in tests like these) from the effect of “pure” intelligence. Here’s what concerns me, given the spirit of this book. If one does well on an intelligence test, that clearly indicates some kind of cognitive competence. But if one doesn’t do well—and, historically, poor performers would include low- income, working people—then the meaning of the score is much less clear. So, we have a measure that works only at the upper end of the scale. To do well tells us something about intelligence—and, usually, schooling—but not to do well provides much less information about intellectual capacity ... though that poor performance may speak volumes about educational opportunity. My worry is the ease with which poor performance gets interpreted as an accurate measure of intelligence, and the effect that interpretation has on the test-taker, both personally and societally.
This is not a call for a simplified egalitarianism. I am not denying the obvious fact that people come to any pursuit with different interests, talents, knacks for things, motivations, capabilities. Nor am I claiming that all bodies of knowledge and expressions of mind are of the same level of cognitive complexity and social importance. All the cultures I’m familiar with make judgments about competence in the domains that matter to them. (Though ours is more obsessed than any I know with developing measures of the mind and schemes to rank them.) No, the distressing thing is that both in our institutional systems and in our informal talk we tend to label entire categories of work and the people associated with them in ways that generalize, erase cognitive variability, and diminish whole traditions of human activity. Attributions of merit and worth flow throughout the process. We order, we rank, we place at steps upon a ladder rather than appreciating an abundant and varied cognitive terrain.
Skill. Let’s begin with the American Heritage Dictionary. Skill is “proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience.” In traditional usage, this proficiency would be related to the use of body or hand, though more recently, the word skill has come to apply to a wide range of activities. We talk, for example, of communication skills or general problem-solving skills.
It is important to remember, however, that what gets defined as a skill is historically and culturally determined, and this process is of special significance in labeling kinds of work. The politics and power plays by which particular interest groups get one kind of work categorized as “skilled” and another as “semiskilled” or “unskilled” have significant economic and social consequences. Another historical phenomenon to note here is the increasing role school has played over the past century in developing and certifying skills that, in previous eras, would have been developed within the job setting itself. The value that a skill has is also determined by time and place. In the rhetoric of the “new economy,” for example, communication skills or general problem-solving skills or the ability to work in teams are privileged, while more specific mechanical skills—associated with conventional blue-collar work—tend to be perceived as less valuable. All of these processes of definition and the status they confer involve attributions of cognition and intelligence, and thus play into the concerns of this book.
Work. What our society defines as work also changes over time and place (consider the debates over how to classify domestic labor), and what gets classified as work in one setting (styling hair in a salon, repairing cars in a garage) would be labeled a hobby if done in another context. There is a fluid quality to this concept of work. For my purposes, I’ll posit that work is purposeful, remunerated effort that provides goods or services for another. The majority of people in our society have to work for some significant portion of their lives. Work, any work, calls forth a range of human abilities, from the classifying of objects to the exerting of will. And work is freighted with meaning and moral judgment, by the society, by ourselves. “Work,” writes occupational sociologist Everett Cherrington Hughes, “is one of the things by which [people] are judged, and certainly one of the more significant things by which [we] judge [ourselves].” People work for a number of reasons, survival foremost among them, but, depending on the person, the stage in his or her life, and the particular work being done, there can be a host of other reasons as well. For some, work provides structure to one’s day. It can provide, as it did for my mother, social connection. It provides a means to buy goods and services. The work itself can have its own rewards, from intellectual to aesthetic to physical. It can make one feel a part of something bigger than oneself—as was the case with my uncle Frank and the railroad. And it can contribute to a sense of who one is.
In this book we will meet people who are competent at what they do, experienced, adept, their competence recognized by themselves and others. They will enable us to observe mature practice—and often I will elicit their commentary (and that of others of similar qualification) as one source of insight into expertise. We will also meet people, usually younger, who are just entering a field, though some of them have already begun to identify with it—one high school student speaks of the integrity of working with wood. These less-experienced, even novice, practitioners will enable us to watch competence emerging and provide a developmental perspective on work and the thinking that accompanies it.
I will be looking at examples of proficient work, either in its development or in its mature execution, for my intention is to explore some of the characteristics of common work when it is done well, and to find the right words, the right line of sight to depict the mind that enables that competence. As journalist John Hoerr’s observation a few pages back suggests, this is not the way American workers are usually depicted. The Mind at Work offers an alternative story.
But what about the times when work is mediocre, sloppy, or downright awful? We’ve all been on the receiving end of bad production or damaging service. There are multiple reasons for poor work—in any occupation, from hairstyling to surgery—reasons of training, or motivation, or characteristics of the workplace, or the twists and turns of a person’s life. Though this book is not a study of occupational efficiency and outcomes, not a study of the quality of work produced by specific occupational groups as a whole, it will present along the way some of the factors that affect the quality of performance, particularly from the perspective of workers themselves.
A good deal of modern work—blue-collar and service work especially—is characterized by working conditions that limit, often severely, the various forms of meaning one might gain from it. Social observers from Adam Smith and Karl Marx on down have described the de-skilling, routinizing, and regulating function of the factory. More recently, the office and the “electronic sweatshop” have been the focus of concern. These conditions are not experienced equally across society; in our country, the poor, immigrants, women, and people of color are disproportionately distributed there. And within those distributions there are further patterns of inequality, experienced, for example, by women or African Americans who have been excluded from entire categories of physical work and channeled into those with the lowest pay and the fewest opportunities for advancement. Such disadvantage runs throughout the history of modern work. We have to be careful, though, not to reduce the wide range of people who work in hard conditions to a single oppressed mass of humanity. In various ways—even as work threatens body and dignity—people tend to seek agency and meaning within the constraints placed on them. While it is clearly true that many working people would quit if they could, that does not mean that, on average, they cease to assert their presence in and through the workplace. During her investigation of routine and repetitious work, journalist Barbara Garson found ample evidence of boredom, resentment, and sabotage. “But the most dramatic thing I found,” she writes, “was quite the opposite of noncooperation. People passionately want to work.... Whatever creativity goes into sabotage,” she continues, “a more amazing ingenuity goes into manufacturing goals and satisfactions on jobs where measurable achievement has been all but rationalized out.... Almost everyone wants to feel she is getting something accomplished.”
A common theme in the social theory related to modern work concerns its detrimental effect on the consciousness of the worker. How does that theme square with a book on the intelligence found in common work? There is no doubt that a good deal of the work people do is repetitive, dumbed down, and, often, dangerous, and this surely can affect one’s mood and sense of prospects. There is also research that demonstrates the negative effects of certain kinds of work on intellectual flexibility, as measured by interview questions and psychological tests. But I think we need to be cautious in assuming extensive and necessary effects of particular kinds of work on the thinking ability of the people who do them. Such analysis can obscure the nuance and variation in individual people’s experience of work, as well as real differences in the physical and social environment of individual workplaces. The complexity of working life is thereby reduced. We can pinpoint the harmful effects of modern working conditions—the people in this book certainly do—without positing an automatic diminishment of a worker’s awareness and capacity to reason.
There are other tales to tell about mind and work, and my hope is that the ensuing pages contribute to the telling. In these chapters, I present a range of familiar occupations that involve body and hand, representative of the kinds of work many in America have done throughout the last century and into our own. All the chapters deal in some way with the cognitive dimension of these, and similar, occupations. Chapters 1 through 6 focus on particular kinds of work and the particular people doing them. Though some fundamental cognitive processes are evident throughout these chapters—for example, accessing a knowledge base, attending to the immediate environment, or following steps in a sequence—each chapter will, to some degree, feature certain aspects of mental activity in the workplace. So, for example, the first chapter on waitressing will emphasize the ability to think quickly in dynamic environments like the restaurant, while the fourth chapter on carpentry details some of the cognitive processes enabling that trade: calculating, planning, visual thinking, and so on. However, it’s important to note that such emphasis does not mean exclusive treatment; cognition on the job is not so neatly segmented. Collectively, the first six chapters, with their different emphases and contexts, give a sense of the overall richness of the mind at work. Though they also contain individual portraits of people at work, chapters 7, 8, and the conclusion have a somewhat broader sweep. They draw on the themes raised in the preceding chapters to further analyze the consequential distinctions our society makes between kinds of work and the assumptions about intelligence embedded in those distinctions.
In chapters 1, “The Working Life of a Waitress,” and 2, “Styling Hair,” I examine two types of service, two traditional occupational pathways for working-class and immigrant women. These two kinds of work are typically defined in light of the social and emotional needs they fulfill rather than in terms of the thinking involved in their execution. When we examine the work carefully, however, easy distinctions begin to blur. In the busy restaurant, physical and emotional need, rituals of service, memory, economy of movement, and the regulation of the flow of work all interact dynamically. As in subsequent chapters, we’ll get a sense of such interaction through close observation of the work itself—taking orders, getting food to tables—and, as well, we’ll get a sense of the way the structure and traditions of a particular workplace initiate the thought within it. My mother holds a central role in this first chapter. Her story serves as a reminder that work is both grounded on and shapes personal history, and thus reveals motives, desires, values, and one’s sense of who one is. A working life is rich in meaning.
The hair salon, like the restaurant, is a public space in which intimate things happen. Hair is invested with great personal and cultural significance, and clients enter the salon with variously articulated needs and desires. It is the stylist’s job, through conversation and gesture, technique and aesthetic sense, to realize that desire.
Both of these chapters involve people who are expert practitioners, fluid in their performance, so the focus is on competence fully expressed. In chapters 3 through 5, we shift to a developmental perspective as we consider three of the building trades, observing novice plumbers, carpenters, and electricians in educational settings as they think their way through the challenges of materials and structures, function and force. Observing students allows us to get in close to skill as it develops, to the basic kinesthetic and cognitive moves that emerge over time—a perspective that can help us enhance standard notions of intelligence. If we observe with a belief in the remarkable nature of common work, suspending, to the degree possible, the distinctions we habitually make, what might we come to appreciate? The questions I kept asking myself in these settings were: What is going on here? How is it learned? What enables it to happen? What in this moment does it mean to be smart?
Chapter 3, “The Intelligence of Plumbing,” provides the occasion to observe a teacher encouraging a problem-solving cast of mind among his students. His role is particularly important, for the students are in a juvenile justice diversion program and benefit especially from his mentoring style. But the interaction demonstrates, as well, the critical role of knowledgeable others in the development of systematic thinking. Furthermore, the teacher and the plumbing trade provide the opportunity for these young people to display intelligence so often missed, or misunderstood, in the typical classroom. A fundamental goal of this book is to help us think and talk differently about common work and the people who do it. This chapter and the next foreground that goal.
“A Vocabulary of Carpentry,” chapter 4, offers an extended stay in a high school wood construction class, which allows us to observe growth in skill and knowledge. When I was defining intelligence a few pages back, I wondered about the many manifestations of intelligence in the workplace that might fall outside our standard measures. As we watch the students in this chapter work with wood over time, we get a sense of some of the phenomena that might be included in a richer cognitive language of work, from the strategic use of tool and body, to the making of judgments from the feel of things, to the intricate interplay of the verbal and the technical in planning tasks and solving problems.
In chapter 5, “Reflective Technique: Electrical Wiring and Construction,” we again watch people learning a trade—in this case, the electrician’s—to consider some long-standing distinctions made in the West about human activity. Since Classical Greece, Western culture has tended to oppose technical skill to reflection, applied or practical pursuits to theoretical or “pure” inquiry, the physical to the conceptual. These distinctions are not benign categories, are not neutral; in many contexts they carry significant differences in status and worth. As we get in close to students doing their work, however, we see how complicated these distinctions are: the technical gives rise to reflection, the physical and conceptual blend, and aesthetics and ethics emerge continually from practical activity.
With chapter 6, “Two Lives: A Welder and a Foreman,” we return to expert performance, but considered across the life span: a woman at midpoint in her career, a welder and a teacher of welding; and another of my uncles, a man who retired from the auto industry, having moved from assembly line to supervision. Both have gained multiple kinds of knowledge from their work. The chapter sketches their career trajectories, but with an eye toward the meaning work has had in their lives and the play of mind in that work. Cognitive biographies.
Chapter 7, “Rethinking Hand and Brain,” extends a theme running through the book: the liabilities of the body-mind, hand-brain dichotomy in our everyday discourse about work. This chapter provides the occasion to further analyze and unsettle the dichotomy through a reconsideration of a familiar portrait of an early-twentieth-century laborer; a comparative discussion of three kinds of higher-status professional work, including surgery and teaching; and a brief treatment of the process of occupational classification itself. Each of these sections encourages a reimagining of consequential occupational distinctions, and with that reimagining, a different line of sight on widely held beliefs about physical work.
In chapter 8, “Hand and Brain in School: The Paradox of Vocational Education,” we consider in more depth the negative institutional effects of one of the family of hand-brain distinctions—the separation of the vocational course of study from the academic in our schools. For close to a century, the academic- vocational divide has defined the high school experience for many young people. Here we consider the history and internal contradictions of vocational education, and the way it has undercut the cognitive possibilities of common work and of those who do it. We also consider current attempts at reform and, with them, basic questions about mind, work, and schooling in a democratic society.
The conclusion, “Working Life,” attempts a summing up of what those who populate this book have taught us about the mind at work, a synthesis of the book’s themes and portraits with an eye toward a fuller and more fitting representation of the intelligence that sustains us day after day.
We live in a time of much talk and judgment about intelligence. Some critics say we are obsessed with it to our detriment, from the way intellectual flash blinded us to the many weaknesses of the dot-com and Enron-style bubbles to the urgency with which we hurry our children through ever-higher levels of scholastic achievement. For all that, we operate with a fairly restricted notion of intelligence, one pretty much identified with the particular verbal and quantitative measures of the schoolhouse and the IQ test. And thus we undervalue, or can miss entirely, the many displays of what the mind does every day, all the time, right under our noses. It is not my intention to take anything away from the accomplishments of those whom the culture certifies as intelligent, but rather to widen our gaze enough to catch the presence of mind up and down the ladder of occupational status.
My purpose in writing the book, then, is to provide an alternative lens on everyday work, to aid us in seeing the commonplace with greater precision. I believe that such a change in perception could contribute to a more accurate portrayal of the full world of work, and could help us think more effectively and humanely about education, job training, and the conditions in which so many people make a living.
THE MIND AT WORK
THE WORKING LIFE OF A WAITRESS
Several years ago, I sat down at my mother’s kitchen table with a tape recorder and began a series of interviews with her about her work. She had not been able to do any kind of physical work for quite some time, six or seven years, and in the last one or two had gotten very ill, increasingly limited in what she could do. These interviews became the occasion, then, for the two of us to reminisce about her work in the restaurant and for her to tell me, in as much detail as she could summon, about the way she executed it. We talked about the relationships among boss, cook, and waitress; about the importance of regular customers; about her motives for working and what—in addition to income—she got out of it; about the physical punishment of waiting on tables; about the complex emotional field of the restaurant.
I was particularly curious about the thinking involved in doing a waitress’s work well. How did she remember all those orders? How did she organize the many tasks that emerged minute by minute? How did she decide what to do first? How, in fact, did she learn how to do these things? As we talked, she would use the kitchen table, cluttered with pill bottles and letters, as an imaginary four-top. She and I would sketch out the floor plan or counter space of Norm’s or of Coffee Dan’s. She would get up, steadying herself on the back of my chair, and demonstrate how she placed all those plates along her arm. Her memory for the particulars appeared sharp, and her demonstrations were precise. There were times now, the mornings especially, when she seemed so frail and not altogether there—in addition to her weakness, her many medications made her stonato, out of sorts, foggy—but the talk about her life in the restaurant vitalized her, a reliving of lost capacity, bittersweet, but sure in its knowledge. She had done this work for over thirty- five years.
Since the interviews with my mother, I have observed and interviewed six other waitresses, from a range of restaurants, using a similar set of questions. I’ve also been reading whatever popular and scholarly literature I could find on waitressing: from journalistic accounts and training material written in the 1920s and 1930s, to labor histories, to sociological research on the social and emotional dimensions of waitressing, to a handful of cognitive psychological studies of the memory capacity of waiters and waitresses. In synthesizing these interviews and literature, I found correspondence with my mother’s account as well as some interesting points of divergence, which I pursued with further interviews or reading, using one source of information to open up the other.
With the exception of those psychological studies of memory, most of what has been written about waitressing focuses on the social aspects of the work—admittedly a vivid story. And, interestingly, as waitress unions developed through the last century and sought to define their occupation, they did so— reflecting the times—primarily in terms of its social abilities, nurturing and caring. What I came to appreciate, though, was the significance of the waitress’s ability to process information, to think on her feet. There is the perception in both policy circles and the public mind that waitress work involves little intelligence and is among, in one writer’s words, “the least skilled lower class occupations.” Gender bias is likely at play here; occupations populated by women have historically been seen as requiring less intelligence. But I think there is something else going on—not unrelated to gender, or to class—and it applies to a lot of service work. The intelligence of the work, the thought that makes it possible, is so embedded in social interaction, routines of service, and emotional dynamics that it goes unacknowledged. The skill of the work, as labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble puts it, is “rendered invisible.” What follows, then, is both an homage to a particular waitress and an attempt to represent the intersecting cognitive and social demands of the work itself.
One of the truest things I know about my mother and her work in the restaurant is how central that work was to her sense of self and engagement with the world. What I also know from our shared experience is that her choice of work and the meaning she ascribed to it was shaped by the course of her own life history and the web of social and economic forces surrounding it. My mother didn’t choose or execute her work in a vacuum—none of us do. Let me begin, then, with a brief overview of my mother’s working life—a life initially defined by the immigrant experience, poverty, and the Great Depression.
Rose Emily Meraglio came to the United States from southern Italy as a little girl in the early 1920s and settled with her family in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Her father worked as a laborer for the Pennsylvania Railroad (and would eventually leave the yards disabled). Her mother raised seven children, took in boarders, made illegal wine and beer, and did whatever else she could to enable the family to survive. Rose was taken out of school in the seventh grade to help raise her three younger brothers and to assist with the tending of the boarders: cooking, cleaning, laundering. She did this work well into her teens, eventually taking a job in a garment factory and, briefly, in a local Italian restaurant, a job that wouldn’t last, for “not a soul came in there.” This early work at home and beyond was surrounded by profound economic need— and a sense of financial vulnerability would remain with my mother for the rest of her life.
The next phase of my mother’s economic history came with her marriage to my father, Tommy Rose: the two opened and ran an Italian restaurant in downtown Altoona, open twenty-four hours a day to cater to the round-the-clock schedule of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the core of the city’s economy. Self-described as a “raggedy” and “shy” girl, Rose developed quickly from private household labors and routinized factory work to a young woman in a public role, laden with new, often unpredictable, responsibilities: from cooking, hiring help, and ordering supplies to hostessing, waiting on tables, and tending the register. She would sometimes work fifteen to seventeen hours a day, for she had to remedy whatever mishaps arose. Here’s a not atypical entry in a daily journal she kept during those years:
Mrs. Benner walked out on account of Mrs. Kauffman. So here I am alone cooking. June didn’t show up either ... I’m so tired.
But along with the accounts of exhaustion and anxiety, there is also testament to the fulfillment this new life brought:
On this day, I’m two years in business. I love it.
For all its tribulations, the restaurant contrasted with the lonely oppressiveness of her earlier labors, provided the conditions to gain knowledge about the restaurant business through immersion in it, and enabled my mother to learn how to “be with the public.”
Though financially uneven, the restaurant did well enough through World War II and just after. But as the Pennsylvania Railroad—along with the railroad industry generally—began its first stage of decline, closing shops, laying people off (my uncle Frank among them), the Rose Spaghetti House failed, ending in bankruptcy. This was 1951. Over the next year, my parents would move to Los Angeles in search of opportunity and a warmer climate for my father, whose health was failing. They had little money and no connections whatsoever; friends and family were twenty-five hundred miles away, a lament I often heard. I was seven. My father couldn’t work. So my mother went in search of the kind of work her limited formal education and her experience with the restaurant made possible, work she would continue until 1979, when illness forced her into retirement at sixty-four.
At first she waitressed in a series of coffee shops in downtown L.A., the largest stretch at Coffee Dan’s on heavily trafficked Broadway. Then she moved to Norm’s, a “family-style” chain, working for nearly a decade at the shop on Sunset and Vermont, by major medical facilities and corporate offices, like that for Prudential. She spent her last ten years at the Norm’s in Torrance, amid a more lower-middle class, local merchant, and retirement clientele. During her time at Coffee Dan’s and Norm’s Sunset, my father would slip into grave illness and, for the last years of his life, be bedridden. I proceeded through elementary and high school. Mustering what immediate help she could, she struggled to balance work, caretaking, and child rearing. This period, roughly from 1952 to the early sixties, was another period of severe hardship. As my mother put it simply: “Dad was ill, and you were little.... I had to get work.”
My father died in 1961. Eventually my mother would meet and marry a man who was a truck driver with the city, a job with stable wages and benefits. They bought a house in Torrance—a nicer house and safer— and she began her final ten years of waitressing at the Norm’s nearby. This was a decade of economically better times. Even after she had to quit waitressing, my stepfather’s employment carried them through comfortably. But my mother’s inactivity during these early years of her retirement brings to the fore the centrality of physical work to her sense of who she is. For all the strain of waitressing, the work provided her with a way to feel useful, to engage her mind, and to be in the flow of things. When in the mid-1980s a neighbor got her a job as a noon aide at a local elementary school, she was revitalized. Her primary responsibility was to seat children for lunch and assist in clearing their tables. The job provided a few hours of minimum wage and, of course, no tips—it was barely a postscript to her economic life—but it held great value for her because of its mix of utility and nurturance. And it thrust her back into life’s hustle. And it called on some of her waitressing skills. Though work for my mother was always driven by economic need, it was driven by a blend of other needs as well: cognitive, social, existential.
With this biography as backdrop, let me begin analyzing the work my mother did. Each of the restaurants that employed her had its own character and history, of course, but there are certain regularities to them— and to the many thousands like them—that can be abstracted and can help us understand the particular demands of waitressing.
On the face of it, a restaurant is a structured environment. The physical layout guides movement and behavior, and the various conventions associated with dining out are well known, to customer and waitress alike. But when analyzed in terms of the interrelated demands of the work itself, the environment, particularly at peak hours, becomes more complex, with an unpredictable quality to it.
Consider the restaurant in terms of multiple streams of time and motion. Customers enter with expectations: they will be seated without much delay and, once seated, a series of events will unfold along a familiar time line, from ordering through salad, entrée, dessert, delivery of the check. Their satisfaction— physical and emotional—is affected by the manner in which these expectations are met. But customers are entering the restaurant at different times, each with his or her own schedule, so tables (or places at the counter) proceed through meals at different paces. This staggering of customers facilitates the flow of trade but also increases the cognitive demands on the waitress: what she must attend to, keep in mind, prioritize. This situation intensifies during peak hours, for the number of customers expected can be estimated, but not known—coffee shops and family-style restaurants typically do not take reservations. If the numbers swell beyond capacity or an employee calls in sick or is late or quits, then, as the younger waitresses I interviewed vividly put it, you’re “slammed,” abruptly pushed to the limits of physical and mental performance.
Another timetable kicks in as soon as an order is placed with the cook. Different items have different prep times, and once the item is prepared, there is a limited amount of time—pretty restricted for hot items— during which it can be served. As well, the serving area needs to be cleared quickly so that the cook can deliver further items. The waitress, therefore, is aware of the kitchen as she moves among her customers. Both waitress and management work by the clock. Profit is related to time; the quicker the turnover, the more revenue for the owner—and the greater the number of tips. There can be exceptions to this principle for the waitress—but not the management—for example, the regulars who may hold a table or stool longer but tip more. Still, generally, the waitress, like her manager, is ever mindful of clearing a plate, closing out a tab, moving the process along.
Imagine these streams of time and motion as co-occurring and related but not synchronous. Any given customer may hem and haw over an order, or want a refill while the waitress is occupied, or send an item back. The cook may deliver a waitress’s hot dish while she is in the middle of taking an order and is being summoned by two other customers. Tables may be filled with variously contented customers while the manager feels the press of new customers gathering inside the door.
One more observation about this environment. No matter how efficiently designed the physical layout of the restaurant—let’s say that coffeepots, water, soft drinks, cups, glasses, and ice are all located in the same area—the waitress’s motion will be punctuated by the continual but irregular demands made of her. For example, all requests for coffee do not come at the same time or in regular intervals. So one request comes during an order, and another as she’s rushing back to get extra mayonnaise, and another as she’s clearing a table. The waitress must learn how to move efficiently through a vibrant environment that, for all its structural regularities, is dynamically irregular. A basic goal, then, is to manage irregularity and create an economy of movement. And she does this through effective use of body and mind. The work calls for strength and stamina; for memory capacity and strategy; for heightened attention, both to overall layout and to specific areas and items; for the ability to take stock, prioritize tasks, cluster them, and make decisions on the fly. I’ll consider each of these qualities in further detail, beginning with physical prowess.
What bodily skill does a waitress need? She must be able to balance and carry multiple items, using the hand, forearm, and biceps, creating stability by locking arms to torso and positioning the back. Then she moves, fast, in bursts, navigating tables, customers, other help. And since this occurs in a public space, it must be done with a certain poise. As waitress and writer Lin Rolens nicely puts it: “You learn a walk that gets you places quickly without looking like you are running.... This requires developing a walk that is all business from the waist down, but looks fairly relaxed from the waist up.” With time and practice, all this becomes routine, automatic. But early in a career, the waitress will undoubtedly be conscious of various aspects of this physical performance, have to think about it, monitor herself.
My mother gets up slowly from the kitchen table and walks over to the sink where plates are drying on a rack. She demonstrates. She turns her right hand palm up, creating a wider surface on her forearm, and begins placing plates, large and small, from biceps to fingertips, layering them so that the bottom of one plate rests on the edge of another. “You don’t dare let a plate touch the food,” she explains, “and it’s got to be balanced, steady.” Then with her left hand, she lays out two coffee cups and two saucers. She kind of pinches the saucers between her fingers and slips her index finger through the handles of the two cups. “The coffee splashes from one side to another if you’re not careful. It takes practice. You just can’t do it all at one time.”
I ask her, then, how she learned to do it. Beginning with her own restaurant, “you watch the other waitresses, what they do.” She was “cautious” at first, starting with two plates, being deliberate. Then she began adding plates, responding to the demands of the faster pace of the restaurants in Los Angeles. “Norm’s was much busier. So you had to stack as many plates as you possibly could.” And, with continued practice in these busy settings, you get to where “you don’t even have to think about it.” I’m struck by the similarity between my mother’s description and the studies I’ve read on the role of cognition in the development of athletic skill. My mother mixed observation and practice, got some pointers from coworkers, tricks of the trade, monitored her performance, and developed competence. As she achieved mastery, her mind was cleared for other tasks—such as remembering orders.
To be a good waitress, my mother says emphatically, “you have to have one hell of a good memory.” Her observation is supported by a small body of psychological research demonstrating that the competent waiter and waitress have techniques that enable them to override the normal limits on human “short-term” or “working” memory. Though there are some differences in the results of the studies, they point to four commonalities: The waiter and waitress know things about food and drink—ingredients, appearance, typical combinations—and this knowledge from “long-term” memory plays continually into their ability to remember orders. Furthermore, they have developed various visual, spatial, and linguistic techniques to aid memory: abbreviating items, grouping them in categories, repeating orders, utilizing customer appearance and location. The routines and physical layout of the restaurant also contribute to remembering orders. And, finally, though not strictly a characteristic of memory—as defined and studied in the psychologist’s laboratory—the waiter’s and waitress’s memory is profoundly goal-directed: to make their work efficient and to enhance their tips. My mother attests to each of these elements.
As she stood before a table, taking orders, sometimes repeating them back while writing them out, sometimes not, making small talk, my mother would “more or less make a picture in my mind” of the person giving her the order, what that person ordered, and where around a table (or at a counter) he or she was located. Though, surely, there was variation in the way my mother did this, her picture could include dress and physical appearance: items of clothing—a red blouse, a splashy tie—and physical features like a birthmark or an unusually shaped nose. Broad social markers such as gender, race, age, body type, and weight also aided in memorization. (“Of course, a child’s plate, you can always tell” where that will go, my mother laughingly notes.) My mother’s beliefs and biases about these markers could play into the construction of the picture.
The layout of the tables (or the stools at the counter) and people’s location at them enabled my mother to store and recall information about orders in a number of ways. A customer’s specific position (by the window or closest to her) mattered, especially if it were somehow unusual—let’s say that a woman pulls a fifth chair to the edge of a four-top. Relative location also figures in, aided by other characteristics of the person or the order. My mother and I are sitting at the kitchen table, whic h she uses to illustrate: “The one sitting at the [fifth] chair, she ordered this, this is what she ordered, and the next person over [my mother points to the next chair clockwise], that’s another lady, and that’s what she wants.” Notice that my mother seems to perform some basic cognitive operations on the spatial information, something noted in the studies of waiters and waitresses. She mentions deviation, sequence, similarity, and contrast. Again, my mother points to an imaginary customer at our table: “I remember, he ordered the hamburger [she moves her gaze to the next chair], but she didn’t want a hamburger, she wanted something else.” So specific location as well as overall configuration matters.
Sometimes, it’s a social expectation that is salient and an aid to memory. For example, cocktail waitresses make distinctions between the drinks men and women typically order, and other waitresses I interviewed spoke of these gender distinctions as well.
My mother describes a couple ordering. The man orders a T-bone steak, and the woman “would order something smaller, so naturally you’re gonna remember that.” And if an order violates expectation—the woman orders the steak, the man a chef’s salad—that will stand out, the memorable deviation.
Some items and the routines associated with them enable the use of external memory aids. My mother describes a six-top at breakfast with orders of ham and eggs, steak and eggs, and hotcakes. As soon as she takes the order she, as a part of her route to the kitchen and back to other tables, sets a little container of syrup in front of the customer who ordered hotcakes. The aid is particularly helpful in a situation like this because “a six-top is especially hard, and sometimes you have to ask the customers who gets what.” The container of syrup, then, lightens the load by one item.
Finally, a customer’s attitude, the way he or she interacts with the waitress, contributes to her recall of the order. My mother comments on “how a customer would say something—you remember this dish is on the second table because so and so acted this way.” She especially notes if “somebody is giving me a rough time.” Of course, a particularly abrasive customer would stick in one’s mind, but this raises an interesting broader issue: the way one’s personal history and social position, the feelings related to these, play into cognition on the job.
One of the things that strikes me about my mother’s report is the number of techniques it contains, the mix of strategies and processes: imagistic, spatial, verbal, and the role of emotion. Such complexity seems necessary when one is hurriedly tending to seven to nine tables, with two to six people at each. As my mother puts it: “Even though you’re very busy, you’re extremely busy ... you’re still, in your mind, you have a picture ... you use all these [strategies], and one thing triggers something else.” The strategies are interactive and complementary, and they enable us to get a sense of how much and what kind of work is going on in the working memory of a waitress during peak hours in a family-style restaurant.
Remembering an array of orders, then, takes place in a rush of activity that demands attention to the environment, organizing and sequencing tasks that emerge in the stream of that activity, and occasional problem solving on the fly. My mother’s interviews contain more than ten references to the pace and conflicting demands of waitressing. She describes a setting where an obnoxious regular is tapping the side of his coffee cup with a spoon while she is taking an order. The cook rings her bell indicating another order is ready, and a few seconds later the manager seats two new parties at two of her tables that have just cleared. And, oh, as she is rushing back to the kitchen, one customer asks to modify an order, another signals for more coffee, and a third requests a new fork to replace one dropped on the floor. “Your mind is going so fast,” she says, “thinking what to do first, where to go first ... which is the best thing to do ... which is the quickest.” She is describing multiple demands on cognition—and the challenge is not a purely cognitive one.
There is a powerful affective component to all this, one with economic consequences. The requests made of the waitress have emotional weight to them. Customers get grumpy, dissatisfied if they have to wait too long or if their request is bungled or forgotten. The relationship with the cook is fraught with tension— orders need to be picked up quickly and returns handled diplomatically—and the manager is continually urging the movement of customers through a waitress’s station. As my mother puts it, you attend to your orders or “the cook will yell at you”; you try to get customers their checks quickly, “because you’ll get hell from the manager.” The waitress’s assessment of the emotional—blended with the economic— consequences of her decisions and actions plays back into the way she thinks through the demands of the moment.
One more thing. Depending on the restaurant, the flow of work can be facilitated (or impeded) by the arrangements and negotiations, mostly informal, made among the waitresses themselves and among the waitresses and those who bus the tables. These negotiations involve, at the least, the clearing of plates and glassware, assisting each other at rush hour, compensating for absent staff, and transitioning between shifts. What do we know about the cognitive processes the waitress uses to bring some control to these multiple and conflicting demands? A good place to begin is with the psychological research on attention.
Attention is described in terms of its selectivity, a focusing on particular aspects of the environment; of the sustaining of that selective focus, a concentration as well as a vigilance for similar anticipated events or objects; and of the ability to control and coordinate the focus. In expert performance, these processes may become more refined and automatic. As one researcher puts it, attention serves “the purpose of allowing for and maintaining goal-directed behavior in the face of multiple, competing distractions.”
There are periods in the waitress’s day, lulls in activity, when she can stop and survey her station. My mother talks about a pause, standing back where she can “keep an eye on the register and all the way down the counter.” But often the waitress is attending to things while on the move. Every waitress I interviewed commented on the necessity of attending in transit to requests, empty cups, plates moved to the edge of the table. As one waitress explained: “As you walk, every time you cross the restaurant, you’re never doing just a single task. You’re always looking at the big picture and picking up things along the way.” This calls for a certain combination of motor skill and vigilance, captured in this passage where my mother describes her peripheral attention as she’s delivering an order:
You look straight ahead to where you’re going to take your food. You can’t just look completely to the side, carrying all those plates—you could lose your sense of balance. As you’re going out of the kitchen, you more or less take little glances to the side.
This vigilance—from a stationary point or while in motion—is not only a matter of perceptual acuity but also involves working memory and knowledge of the restaurant, knowledge of food preparation and of typical routines. My mother reveals this mix of memory, knowledge, and attention in her monitoring of the status of her customers’ orders: “You’re keeping an eye on who is not served yet. If it’s been too long, you go check on the kitchen yourself.” She recalls who ordered what and when and knows roughly how long a specific item should take to prepare, given the time of day. As she quickly checks her tables, she’s attuned to a possible error in preparation.
Cognitive scientist David LaBerge uses mindfulness as a synonym for attention, and though the dictionary defines mindfulness somewhat sparely as being aware or heedful, the word connotes something more, something that, I think, suits this discussion of waitressing and attention. Mindfulness, first of all, implies intelligence, a mind knowledgeable and alert. The word also connotes a heightened state and a comprehensiveness, an apprehension of the “big picture,” mentioned earlier, and, as well, a cueing toward particulars, and a vigilance for aberration—as when my mother monitors those delayed orders.
I want to return to that harried moment my mother describes where the regular is tapping his coffee cup, the cook is ringing the bell, and so on. A waitress could attend to all this clatter, and know what it means, and yet not know what to do next. How does she decide what her next move should be?
The answer is a multilayered one and involves some of what we’ve already seen. First, the waitress’s response will be driven by several interrelated high-level goals: to satisfy customers (and thus boost income), to maximize efficiency and minimize effort, and to manage conflict. All the waitresses I interviewed referred in some way to this cluster of goals. My mother speaks of “making every move count” and how “you think quick what you have to do first ... in order to please people.” Another waitress asks, “How can I maximize my effort in that moment?” Yet another emphasizes the value of controlling fatigue by “working smart.” These goals will serve to organize the waitress’s activity.
Second, the waitress’s response is shaped by various kinds of knowledge of the restaurant: knowledge of the menu, of preparation times, of the layout of the place. Included here is a knowledge of emotional dynamics, both a folk psychology about dining out and the characteristics of particular customers. My mother, twenty years after retirement, can recount the quirks and traits of her regulars. As one veteran waitress puts it: “Everybody has their own personality. That’s another level of learning ... you’ve got to learn this way of working with people.”
Third, the high-level goals and knowledge of the restaurant give rise to more specific action rules— waitressing rules of thumb—that, depending on the context, could aid in sequencing one’s response. All the waitresses I interviewed, for example, mention the importance of attending to—even if just to acknowledge—newly seated customers. (“The big part of this business is not to ignore anybody.”) They also stress the importance of picking up orders—especially hot ones—quickly. Another rule of thumb, applicable during rush hour, is to tally and deliver checks in a timely manner. And yet another is to consider the emotional consequences of action—which calls for an ongoing assessment of character and feeling. Is the cook especially touchy today? Do you have a particularly demanding customer? My mother expresses this emotional calculus when she advises “use your own mind and ask [of yourself] which customer will complain and which won’t.” Given an environment of multiple demands, these rules of thumb could guide one, for example, to attend to a new customer and serve a hot order—and forestall the circuit through the station to refill coffee. Refills would, in the moment, move lower in priority.
What is striking, though, is the degree to which the expert waitress relies on a broad strategy that makes many either-or decisions moot. And this brings us to the fourth element in the waitress’s response to multiple demands. She organizes tasks by type or location. She combines tasks in ways that greatly economize movement, that make activity, in my mother’s words, “smooth.” As one waitress puts it, she is always asking “which pieces of what I need to do fit together best.” Though some prioritizing of tasks— guided by rules of thumb—does occur, the more common move (noted as a mark of experience by several of the waitresses) is to quickly see what tasks can be grouped and executed with least effort.
This leads to a fifth characteristic: the way restaurant routines aid in this organizing of tasks. My mother and the other waitresses I interviewed all refer in some way to a circuit through one’s station that is watchful and that takes advantage of the restaurant’s physical layout. As one waitress explains it:
I always think of it as kind of a circle, because there’s the tables, there’s the bar, there’s the coffee station, and it kind of becomes a flow of organizing what can be in one full circle, how many tasks can be accomplished, as opposed to back and forth, back and forth. I think the waitresses who get going back and forth are the ones who get crazy with four tables.
This description resonates with the earlier discussion of attention—the blend of anticipation, vigilance, and motor skill—but in a way that underscores the dynamic interaction of the waitress’s ability and the structure and conventions of the restaurant.
Perhaps the thing that most impressed me in all this—and it emerged in every interview—is the claim the waitresses made that they work best when the restaurant is busy. On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense. I would imagine that one could remember three or four orders with more accuracy than six or seven, that one could handle refills easier with a half-full station. These numbers would result in a more relaxed pace but, the waitresses claim, not in more skillful performance. In fact, my mother insists she could never have developed her level of skill in slower restaurants. “You’re not as alert ... not thinking that quick”; you’re not anticipating orders; “you’re making a couple of trips” rather than a single efficient one. “In a slow place, you think slower.” One waitress notes the feeling of working “like a well-oiled machine” during rush hour. Another says that “when it gets the craziest, that’s when I turn on. I’m even better than when it’s dead.”
Of course, increased volume of trade can lead to disaster as well—if, for example, a waitress calls in sick or a critical piece of equipment fails. Every waitress tells those horror stories. But it seems that, barring the unusual mishap, the busy restaurant can lead to maximum performance. One’s physiology responds—my mother talks about her “adrenaline going faster”—and there is a heightened readiness and reaction. And the increased flow of trade itself provides a variety of demands that call forth, that require the skillful response, the necessary fluid integration of attending, memory, organization of tasks, and strategic use of routine. This is not to deny the exhaustion, even the punishment, of the work, but it is telling how my mother and the other waitresses all comment on the satisfaction that they feel when they perform well under stress. Several use language similar to that of the currently celebrated “flow” experience, felt during those times when a person responds successfully to significant challenges from the environment. “There’s a sense of accomplishment in just the mechanics of it,” says one waitress, “just knowing that ... I’m handling it all.”
Remembering orders, being vigilant, and regulating the flow of work all play out in an emotional field. “Eating is the most intimate act,” writes Lin Rolens, “we are encouraged to perform in public.” And Dorothy Sue Cobble, who has studied waitress unions, observes that waitresses “are responding to hungers of many kinds.” This emotional field has economic consequences. The very meaning of service is defined within it. To understand and appreciate more fully the thought behind waitressing, therefore, we need to ponder the many layers of what “service” means in the waitress-customer encounter.
To begin with, this encounter calls forth historically shaped conventions for the serving of food that are associated with the house servant. In Frances Donovan’s 1920 account of waitressing, The Woman Who Waits, published during the first stage of the feminization of food service, there is explicit treatment of the association of maid and waitress—and of the waitress’s desire to distinguish her work from that of a housemaid. But the association remained (my mother’s uniforms, down to the modified caps, resembled stereotyped maid’s apparel) and is reflected in a number of routines of service: from modes of address, to the sequence of questions about the order, to customs for serving and clearing food. (“[D]ishes are placed on the table without noise,” notes a 1932 educational tract on waitressing, “... the hand must be trained to slip dishes into place very close to the table rather than bring them down directly from a height.”) Conventions and symbols change over time, and vary by the type of restaurant, but waitressing continues to involve the acquisition of customs of service—and one’s accommodation to them. The residue of the servant’s role rankles the women I spoke with, and they resist it in a number of ways: from covert criticism and ridicule of haughty behavior (my mother’s typical response) to direct rebuke and declaration of status, letting customers know when they’ve crossed the line. One means by which the waitress expresses agency is through her use of skill and strategy to regulate the flow of work. “The customer has the illusion that they’re in charge,” observes one of the waitresses I interviewed, “but they’re not.” It’s the waitress who must “get command of her tables,” who is “the commander in chief of her section.” This waitress still performs the customs of service, but within routines of practice that she controls.
The encounter between customer and waitress potentially gives rise to a further range of emotions and social scripts, in addition to that of server and served. On any given shift, a stream of customers enters with needs that vary from the physiological—and the emotions that attend hunger—to the desire for public intimacy. And the waitress, depending on the type of restaurant, her reading of the situation, and her own history and motives, may fulfill, modulate, or limit those needs and desires. There has been a fair amount of sociological study of the emotional dimension of waitressing and similar occupations, and this research tends toward two broad-scale findings.
The first is that providing service requires “emotion management” or what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has termed “emotional labor.” Regardless of what the waitress actually feels, the interaction with the customer requires that she display emotion that is dictated by the social and economic demands of the restaurant. My mother illustrates such emotional labor through her account of a churlish regular, a man who was always sending his steak back to the cook: “You’ve got to make an effort to try and please him, even though you can just kill him.” Generalizing to all difficult customers, she advises: “Just try the best you can to be nice to them. Even if they’re rude to you, you still smile and just go on, because that’s your living.”
The second finding is that the roles afforded to the waitress in her encounter with the customer play out within stereotypic gender scripts: the waitress becomes servant, mother, daughter, friend, or sexual object. The house uniform and policy, customs of service, and other restaurant traditions contribute to this construction of gender-in-the-moment, as do broader expectations from the culture at large. Though I surely wouldn’t have understood her behavior in these terms, I recall the sense I had watching my mother work that she smiled and laughed more than when at home, a quick, not-quite-true laugh, flirtatious, with a touch on the arm or shoulder, a focused vivacity. As she summed it all up while we were sitting at her table, “You’ve got to be damned good, damned fast, and you’ve got to make people like you.”
The social dynamics of the service encounter affect the tip, a critical economic consideration, given that the base pay in most restaurants is terribly low. The wage structure forces a reliance on gratuity, so the successful waitress soon learns how to play the dynamics to maximize her income. There is actually a fair- sized social-psychological literature on the factors that influence tipping. The shrewd waitress, for example, suggests items—appetizers, desserts, more drinks—that will increase the bill, and thus the size of her potential tip. She can also increase her tip by smiling, by touching the customer on the hand or shoulder, or by squatting or kneeling to get closer to eye level. This literature parses out the social skills and gestures learned in the context of restaurant work, the devices that can increase the amount of money customers leave on the table.
The reward is an economic one, but it is also one fraught with symbolism—at the least, a reminder of servant status—so the reward structure includes emotional factors as well. Customers, Lin Rolens observes, “tip in every spirit imaginable,” from a display of status, to an expression of gratitude, to an overture of friendship, to a sexualized gesture. My mother and the waitresses I interviewed and read about express a wide range of feeling about tipping. There’s eager anticipation (“You’re thinking, ‘Oh boy, I’m gonna hurry up and clear that table off ... because that’s a good tipper’”) and satisfaction (“It’s fun to have a good night ... all that cash in your pocket ... it’s a very immediate reward”). There’s anger: “Something that really pisses me off is when people stiff the waitress because something happened in the kitchen.” And there’s a sense of injustice leading to action. Anthropologist Greta Pauff Paules writes of a waitress who “followed two male customers out of a restaurant calling, ‘Excuse me! You forgot this!’ and holding up the coins they had left as a tip.”
Though this field of customer-waitress emotion is shaped by the historical residue of servitude and by stereotyped gender roles, the waitress attempts to control it to her economic and emotional advantage. She does this by the way she defines the situation, by her manipulation of role and routine (“[P]lay the people and the tips will follow,” says one waitress interviewed by Lin Rolens), and by judgments that enable her to attribute a low tip to a customer’s personal situation, character, or ignorance. These judgments and attributions are part of the restaurant’s folk wisdom, played out continually in the talk among waitresses that customers don’t hear.
The service encounter provides the tips that enable the waitress to make a living, but in concert with the financial need, other needs of hers, depending on the waitress, can be met as well. Some waitresses gain satisfaction from contributing to a customer’s enjoyment: “You supply nurturing and sustenance, the things that make life pleasurable.” Some respond to the hustle and stimulation of a busy restaurant, the sense of being in the middle of things. (This was a big one for my mother, and its loss has been difficult for her.) Some like the attention (“the spotlight’s on you”) and the safe flirtation. Some comment on the pleasure of the brief human interaction: “Though we’ll never get to know each other, there’s a really nice feeling that goes back and forth.” Some waitresses comment on the feeling of independence the job affords; anthropologist Paules characterizes the waitress as a private entrepreneur. And some gain satisfaction from the display of their skill (“I get to show off my memory”) and, as we saw, gain a feeling of competence by performing the job well.
Though perhaps obvious, it is worth stating that this array of feeling—like the cognitive processes detailed earlier—is situated in the restaurant; the various feelings are legitimized and shaped by the waitress- customer association. My mother developed a number of friendly relations with her regular clientele. But when I asked her to perform a thought experiment and imagine how those relationships might have changed if tipping were outlawed, she gave sharp expression to the situational nature of the restaurant friendship. “If you know they’re gonna tip you, well, then you talk about your flowers, or you have a son, or you have a daughter, or whatever. But if you know they’re not gonna tip, you’d be disinterested.” My mother got to know some of her regulars pretty well, would talk about their problems at home, worry over them, yet, at heart, the connection to their lives was restaurant-based, for everyone involved.
Waitress-customer interaction, then, is shaped by history and gender. It involves a good deal of economically motivated emotion management and interpersonal manipulation, all centered around the tip, which, itself, is laden with symbolism and feeling. The waitress-customer encounter also provides the occasion for the fulfillment of other needs that are not directly economic, though that fulfillment is embedded in an economic context and defined and bounded by life in the restaurant.
As I talk to my mother and to other waitresses, I’m struck by the way cognitive processes and emotional dynamics are interwoven. Memory, for example, draws on emotional material to aid in storage and recall. Customs of service and social display incorporate the cognitive, certainly in one’s reading of people, one’s social savvy, and one’s folk knowledge of the ways of the restaurant, but also in the very particulars of routine that create the experience of service. One waitress comments on her ability to recall little details about her regulars’ typical orders—that they don’t like pepper or they like extra horseradish—and, as well, comments on her vigilance: “Attention to detail ... keeping water glasses full, keeping extra stuff off the table, just the little things that make it a more pleasant sensory experience ... that’s why I like it so much ... that I’m a contributing factor in somebody having a good meal.” Memory, attention, the creation of service, and a waitress’s personal satisfaction are all of a piece in the busy restaurant.
The interview for the day is completed; I turn off the tape recorder and gather up my notes. My mother rearranges a few things—paper napkins, salt and pepper shakers, some letters—on the cluttered table. “You know,” she muses, folding the napkins, “you learn a lot as a waitress. You work like hell. But you learn a lot.” There’s a small television set to the side, by the wall, propped up for her by my stepfather. She reaches over and turns it on, clicking through the channels: a rerun of The Beverly Hillbillies, a basketball game (“blah”), a base-thumping Ironman competition (“Boy, I couldn’t do that”), a PBS documentary on the building of some huge suspension bridge. Is it the Brooklyn Bridge? She stops at this. There are historical photographs of workers—excavating, welding, a remarkable shot of four men sitting in a net of cables high in the air. The men look southern European, possibly Greek or Italian, like so many of the men in the old photographs I have of Altoona. “This is interesting,” she says, “they should show more things like this.” She keeps watching, and we talk over the images about work and those immigrants of my grandfather’s generation.
Her work in the restaurant business—and physical work in general—meant many things to my mother, and even though she is now infirm, work continues to shape her memory and desire, influence her values and identity.
Many of our depictions of physical and service work—popular accounts but more than a few scholarly treatments as well—tend toward the one-dimensional. Work is seen as ennobling or dehumanizing; it is the occasion for opportunity or exploitation; it functions as an arena for identity development or class consciousness. Work is considered in terms of organizational structure or production systems; or of statistical indicators of occupational and employment trends. To be sure, each focus can have its analytical benefit. But one of the things the writing of this book has made clear to me is how difficult it is—given our standard “story lines” for work and the constraints of our disciplinary lenses—to capture the complex meaning work has in the lives of people like Rose Emily Rose. Let me try to tease out the layers of significance restaurant work had for her. They are interrelated, at times contradictory, of a piece in her experience of waitressing.
Through waitressing, my mother generated income, supported a family, kept poverty at bay. The income was low and variable, but, as she saw it, given her limited education and her early work history, she couldn’t make better money elsewhere. Also, her income was somewhat under her control: by the hours she was willing to work and the effort she put forth, she could increase her tips. Though economically dependent on the generosity of others, she had developed, and could continue to develop, the physical, mental, and social skills to influence that generosity.
My mother’s work was physically punishing, particularly over the long haul. She pushed herself to exhaustion; her feet were a wreck; her legs increasingly varicose; her fingers and spine, in later years, arthritic.
The work required that she tolerate rude behavior and insult, smile when hurt or angry. Though she did not see herself as a servant, she was economically beholden to others, and, in some ways—particularly in public display—had to be emotionally subservient. Yet, although she certainly could feel the sting of insult, my mother also saw “meanness” and “ignorance” as part of the work, and that provided for her a degree of emotional distance. The rude or demanding customer could be observed, interpreted, described to peers, quietly cursed—and could be manipulated to financial advantage. Explaining how she would be nice to a troublesome customer, she adds: “And, then, what happens is he becomes your customer! Even though there are other tables that are empty, he’ll wait for your booth.”
Work for my mother was a highly individualistic enterprise, to be coveted and protected. She would coordinate effort in the moment with busboys and waitresses in adjoining sections. And she made several good friends at work; they would visit our house and provided a sympathetic ear for restaurant complaints. But much of my mother’s interaction with other waitresses—both by my recollection and by her interviews—was competitive. Though she considered Norm’s “a good restaurant,” I can’t recall any expression of attachment to the company; and though much of the time she worked in Los Angeles was a period of union activity, my mother was barely involved in her local. I realize now how isolated she must have felt: thousands of miles from family; responsible for a sick husband and a child; vigilant for incursions, even treachery, from coworkers; not connected to a union or to any civic, social, or church group. And, given her coming-of-age in the Depression and the later waning of the Pennsylvania Railroad, she was always worried about the security of her employment. My mother possessed a strong, if desperate, sense of self-reliance and an in-her-bones belief in the value of hard work that mixed inextricably with a fear that work would disappear.
A restaurant owner I know told me that the business “attracts people who want to step outside of their own lives. There aren’t many professions that require you to stay so focused. You don’t have time to think about anything else, and that gives you a rush, and you make money.” Who knows to what degree this observation holds true across the restaurant population, but it resonates with a theme in my mother’s interviews. I asked her, for example, if there was any reason, beyond the economic one, to want a full house. “When we’re busy,” she answered, “the time goes so fast. You’re so tired, but it’s better to be real busy than not busy, because then you’ll have time on your hands, you’ll have an idle mind.” This is a somewhat different expression of the flow experience mentioned earlier. I suspect that the strongest protection my mother had against her pressing fear of destitution was to be consumed on the restaurant floor, attentive to cues from the environment, executing routines, her mind filled with orders, working at peak performance, the tips appearing and appearing by the empty plates, scattered between cups and glasses.
Waitressing enabled my mother “to be among the public.” This phrase carried a certain pride for her, as it reflected a social facility that the once-shy girl had to develop. The work provided the opportunity for a low-responsibility social exchange—“I like that part. I like to be with people, associated with people”— that must have been pleasant for someone with so many cares at home. (This casual sociability has traditionally been more afforded to male occupational roles.) To be among the public was also a sign of attainment: it was not the kind of solitary labor she had known as a girl, and it brought her into contact with a range of people whose occupations she admired. There’s paradox here, but the logic goes like this: yes, you are serving the doctor or the businessman, but it’s your ability that makes everything work right; you are instrumental in creating their satisfaction. As she is fond of saying, not everyone can do that.
The restaurant, then, provided the setting for Rose to display a well-developed set of physical, social, and cognitive skills. It was her arena of competence. Balancing all those plates on your right arm and carrying two cups of coffee in your left hand “is damned hard to do.” Remembering your orders during rush hour and getting them served “gives you a feeling of satisfaction.”
And the restaurant provided a context for other kinds of learning. Educational researchers are increasingly studying learning in nonschool settings—workplace programs, social and civic clubs—but still very much unexplored is the learning that occurs in everyday, informal social exchange. Given the restrictions of my mother’s formal education, her personal predilections (she did not, for example, read for pleasure), and all the demands on her life, she had limited time and means to gain information and learn new things. Yet, to this day, she possesses an alert curiosity. The educational medium available to her was the exchange with her customers, regulars particularly. (“How else can I learn about people?” asks Dolores Dante, the waitress Studs Terkel interviewed for Working. “How else does the world come to me?”) Through the waitress-customer interaction, she acquired knowledge about a range of everyday activities—gardening, cooking, home remedies—and, as well, fed a curiosity that my mother had for as long as I can remember for topics related to medicine, psychology, and human relations: “There isn’t a day that goes by in the restaurant that you don’t learn something.” Some of what she learned was a fact or a procedure (for example, on planting roses), and some was more experiential and relational. The restaurant became a kind of informal laboratory for her to observe behavior and think through questions of human motivation. This aspect of waitressing engaged her; “you learn a lot, and it interests me.”
Waitressing contributed to the development of my mother’s identity. In that 1920 account of waitressing mentioned earlier, Frances Donovan bears witness to the social transformations involving young women from the farm and from urban working-class and immigrant backgrounds, women seeking pathways out of “the restraints put upon [them] by the members of the group from which [they] came.” Given the recent studies of waitressing as an occupation embodying stereotyped gender roles, it’s interesting to note that historically the work provided the occasion for a certain liberation from constraint and an opportunity for a working-class woman to, as Donovan put it, “set up new standards for herself.” Approximately two decades later, my mother would enter the restaurant business, and, for all its hardships, it enabled her to begin to think of herself in a different way, to become relatively independent, to develop a set of skills, and to engage a wider social field than would have been possible in her mother’s house or in the surrounding immigrant Italian community.
Talking with my mother about waitressing, and letting that talk generate talk with others, younger, of a different era, getting a sense of the history and sweep of the work, provides for me an opportunity to more fully appreciate the hard but meaningful working life my mother created out of terrible circumstances. As I leave the kitchen table, to return again—these days, this is where my mother and I most often talk— one thought, then another begin taking shape and will play out as I go back to notes from other settings, other observations. I’m struck by the fact that particular kinds of work can be defined and perceived in ways that mask the range of human abilities that make the work possible. And I’m struck by the intelligence manifest in making choices within constraint. And I’m struck, quite struck, by the way we try to shape our lives and gain a little control by the work we do.