Today, while I was reading a book, I was struck by something that I had never seen as a problem or difficulty. Many people are aware of a standard of behavior known as the waiter rule, which lets people know that the way people treat a waiter is going to be the way that they will treat anyone they view as an inferior. Now, partly because I find waiters (and waitresses) to be among the friendliest people I am ever around, and partly because I like eating food so much, I have always viewed myself as being particularly kind to waiters. And likewise, because my father was a bus driver and because I once worked as a campus taxi driver during my undergraduate days and have since then schlepped quite a few people to and from various practices and events, I have also tended to view myself as being the sort of person who is kind to others when I am a passenger with them. Yet today I was struck by reading a book that suggested this may not be the case.
According to Joseph Telushkin, there is a fundamental difference between the way that Americans and Europeans refer to people like drivers and waiters and the like. According to the author–and he may be speaking here of Ashkenazi Jewish culture in Poland and neighboring areas rather than Europeans in general–Europeans say that they are waiting for the taxi driver, while Americans say things like waiting for the taxi. While I cannot vouch for his comments about Europeans personally, I can affirm that what he says about Americans is very accurate. I have even blogged on this matter myself  before. As long as I can remember, I always wrote and thought about what I was waiting for, and I would think of myself as waiting for the school bus (and not the driver), or waiting for the food (and not the waiter who brings it), and so on and so forth. Even when referring to abstinence, one would say that one was waiting for marriage and not waiting for a spouse. And so it goes. We Americans wait for things, like books, and not for the people who bring them.
Is this an act of violence? Is it being unkind and ungracious to think about what is being brought rather than who is bringing it? To be sure, there is always the intellectual awareness that whatever is brought to us is brought by someone. If you ask a kid if he or she knew that the bus would be brought by the driver, they would roll their eyes as if you were a great simpleton for even bringing the matter to mind. The same would be true if you asked someone who brought their books purchased online or who brought the food that they bought in a restaurant. Of course it was brought by so and so, and of course that was not forgotten. But the language focuses on what is being brought and not who brought it, on the object and not the one whose services brings that desired object into our lives. And as a practical rule, logistics can be forgotten. We may want something done, but it is not always obvious to show the appropriate gratitude to those who bring about what we want. We can take people for granted because of our focus on things.
It should be noted that this tendency to want to disguise the logistics of service so that objects are focused on and not people has a long tradition in the United States. Disney World, for example, preserves the illusion that their parks are magi kingdoms by making sure that any sight of dumpsters or other service elements are kept invisible while people focus on the beauty of the park’s design and landscaping. To be sure, there is garbage that needs to be disposed of, but no one wants to see it. The same is true of our sewage systems and our low view of those who serve as custodians who clean up the garbage and make sure that toilets are cleaned. Much of the time, it is preferred if such people are only around when no one else is, because we do not want to be reminded of such things. The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, apparently installed a dumbwaiter system in the White House so that his guests could enjoy their food without having to be reminded of the slaves whose unpaid and often unappreciated labor went into preparing that food. And so it goes.
For us to be grateful of what we have, and what others do for us, we have to notice it for what it is. We have to realize the processes that provide us with what we want, to know who is responsible for providing us with the food we eat, the goods and services we purchase for our own convenience, and the various logistical and infrastructure concerns that we tend to take for granted. Yet all that we have in this world comes as a result of the labors of others. If we have indoor plumbing, we have it because someone laid pipes and those pipes are connected both to a water source and to some sort of sewage line that brings in fresh water and takes out wastewater, and that usually treats it somewhere before it returns to creation for the process to begin again. If we have electricity or the internet, we have it because of infrastructures that include transformers and power lines and fiber-optic cables and cell-phone towers and communications satellites and the like, and the people that installed them and manufactured them and maintain them. If we eat, it is because someone grew the food, someone else shipped it in trucks or boats or trains, and someone else likely prepared it. The same is true for everyone else in our lives. We may wait for it, but it is brought to us by plenty of people, most of whom we never think of at all. Does it make us ingrates to take what we have for granted and to seldom think about those whose efforts provide us with what makes life enjoyable for us? It is unwise to take the people whose labor enriches our life for granted, for a process that works without our knowledge or interest is one that we use without recognizing our debt of gratitude and appreciation for what we use so carelessly. And when we forget those who serve us and enable us to live as we do, we tend to exaggerate our own responsibility for the blessings that we have, and to believe we deserve every bit of it.
 See, for example: