Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Who decided that some professions are noble?

There is always a line at the Subway sandwich shop where I have lunch. Subway usually has about six bread options, but today, they were out of everything except for wheat and honey oat. As I made my way through the line, I noticed that the worker explained to each patron that there were only two bread options. The worker was clearly not happy about having to explain this deficiency to people and her irritation showed; she practically yelled the remaining two options to people.

I just ordered my sandwich efficiently and waited for it to be toasted. As I was waiting my turn in the lettuce-tomato slot, I watched as two more people encountered the rude worker. Then the next guy in line, who hadn't been paying attention, ordered his sandwich: The worker said, "Alls we have is wheat and honey oat." The customer replied, "Whatever is fresher."

That was not the right thing to say. If the worker was agitated to begin with, she was downright angry after that comment. For the remaining time I spent at the counter, the workers just looked at each other with sideways glances, frustration and shame. It was not a pleasure to dine with them today. And, that's mostly because it's clear that they hate their job.

Honestly, I don't blame them. These Subway workers go to work everyday, and they have to deal with customers who show them very little respect. When they return home, they cannot talk about their time at work as something that was meaningful in their life because ... well... society does not respect sandwich artists. That kind of sentiment can wear on you. Not many people thank the worker for making our sandwich, or tell the cashier at the food court to have a nice day.

In contrast, we have parades for teachers, firemen and police officers. Workers in these noble professions frequently receive public gratitude. A significant portion of the population feels as if they owe a teacher a piece of their heart for being a teacher. Very few people feel that they owe their local department store worker anything but criticism.

What are the noble professions, anyway? Teachers, firemen, soldiers and police officers have noble professions; they frequently receive public gratitude just for doing the work they do. A big reason for this public gratitude is because it is politically popular to show public gratitude to people in noble professions. Doing so makes you appear noble yourself.

Some other professions carry a negative social stigma. It's politically popular to hold disdain for these jobs. For example, plenty of people hold disdain for our consumer culture, blaming our financial troubles on consumerism (at least in part). Indirectly, this creates a negative stigma on any sort of service job: sandwich artist, retail sales associate, or cashier at Walmart to name a few.

What's the purpose of noble professions? I'm not sure. We might believe that people who work in noble professions are underpaid. In this view, we bestow gratitude on workers in noble professions to compensate them better. But then, the flip side of this perspective is that we bestow disdain on ignoble professions (i.e., retail and sales) to incentivize workers from being in those professions in the first place.

On the other hand, when you verbally accost your sales associate, what do you hope to accomplish? Are you seriously trying to incentivize the worker to switch careers? Even if that's the effect of your insults, I doubt that's why you mistreat sales associates and sandwich artists. I think it's because some people are just ungrateful, and when you're the customer, being ungrateful goes unpunished. After all, the customer is always right.

On a more serious level, it's wrong to take sales associates and sandwich artists for granted. First, the person behind the counter is just as human as you are. On that fundamental level, you have no right to judge. Second, sales associates and sandwich artists obviously provide a service you're unwilling to provide, and you value that service enough to pay their wages. Put differently, how would you like to make your own sandwich? Or, why didn't you shop online?


  1. I can tell that sincerely thanking someone I deal with (service or otherwise) makes a difference to them, and the self-serving bonus, it makes me feel good too :) Trying to be as warm and friendly to those around you not only makes their day brighter, but it is sure to make yours as well! Also happiness is contagious -- pass it on!

  2. I suspect that - however misguided - it's the act of directly paying for something that makes us disrespect the provider.

    If I'm paying $5 for my sandwich, I may somehow feel that my role in the transaction is to get as much sandwich as possible for my money. If my Happy Hour Meal Deal includes as a free bonus the psychic "benefit" of making myself feel superior to my counterpart in the negotiation, perhaps I'll take it.

    Teachers, firemen, policemen are all people we don't directly pay for their services. Thus we talk ourselves into thinking they work for free. That's noble.

  3. Farming (by real farmers) is, IMHO, the noblest profession. Why? Like the other examples, it is hard to pin an exact real reasons. They are doing something that is ultimately critical for the functioning of society? Whereas retail sales... though important, isn't a "survival" profession. Maybe that is it. I don't know.

    Regardless, being polite to each other. Respecting someone for the work they do, regardless of the profession... is just a great way to live.

  4. That's a very well written article!

  5. All work or labor should be respected. Anyone who is doing a job to earn a living instead of begging, borrowing or stealing money or living off social security must be respected.

  6. Interesting article. It primarily touches on two subjects - noble professions and respect for people.

    Noble professions, in my opinion, are those that help create, build, protect and serve society; such as - teaching, medical, legal, scientific, police, armed forces, fireman, coast guard etc., AS WELL AS all service professions.

    Respect for people - well this is fundamental to creating and living in a healthy society.

    The noblest profession of all is, perhaps, the one that teaches us to respect our fellow human beings since we are all equal regardless of whether we serve or are being served.

  7. Civil engineers should be added to list of 'noble' professions. If for no other reason than no one ever thinks about the quiet, diligent men and women that bring shelter, transportation, and clean water to the world. That being said, hard labor sure makes me feel more noble at the end of the day.

  8. My top 3 noble professions: Teachers (I've been one, you have NO idea what they go through until you are one), Military/Law Enforcement (Protecting those who can't protect themselves), and Nurses (Decently compensated for their job, but they chose to devote their lives to taking care of the sick)


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