You can learn a lot by being a waiter. You learn how to manage situations when they go wrong. You learn how to relate to people with different life experiences. You learn how to deal with entitled people and garner a new appreciation for anyone in the service industry.
For me, however, the most important lesson I learned while waiting tables in college is a simple fact that many inside the beltway seem to forget: people aren’t always thinking about politics.
It was early Sunday morning when I clocked in for work at the local Bob Evans I began working at in high school. I was back in Ohio for winter break four years ago, after my first semester of college in Washington D.C., and went straight back to waiting tables to earn extra money.
The December sun had just begun to rise, defrosting a thin layer of ice that coated the landscape overnight. The air was cold but the coffee was warm and regular patrons started lining up at the counter while hot plates of pancakes, bacon, and eggs were being served.
I never waited on the old men who trickled in to sit at the store counter every morning for “the usual.” The “Breakfast Club,” as I called them, always had the same waitresses who had worked there for more than 15 years and never had to ask their orders. Still, I heard everything they talked about, and even with the Columbus Dispatch in hand as John Kasich, one of the town’s own, ran a competitive bid for the White House, politics barely came up. The old men usually just talked sports, the weather, or whatever else was going in their personal lives.
“Ohio State could have done better this year, but I’m looking forward to see how they do in the Fiesta Bowl.” “It was cold this morning, but it should warm up later today. Maybe we’ll get lucky with a white Christmas this year.” “Christmas is coming up, but I got all my shopping done early,” they said throughout the morning. It was rare for the men to discuss politics, and when they did, the conversations were always brief.
While a well-informed citizenry engaged in political discourse is important for the functioning of a healthy democracy, the reality is that people outside the Washington Beltway have other things happening in their lives, as they should. American politics and foreign affairs consume the lives of most people living in Washington. It’s what they study, it’s their profession, it’s their livelihood, but what they seem to forget is that, while important, Americans outside of the nation’s capital aren’t obsessed with politics.
This was a lesson I learned quickly upon returning after just one semester at American University, where a vast majority of the students (including myself sometimes) constantly talked about politics, whether it was in class, in the dining hall, or even in someone’s dorm. While I enjoyed those conversations, it was always remarkably grounding to return to my restaurant job on breaks, away from the glamour of Washington and back to serving guests who were more preoccupied with preparing for their daughter’s dance recital than who was going to be the next president. Most Americans simply have other interests and responsibilities to care about.
The way things are portrayed in the media would make someone think the opposite. Americans are flooded with polls illustrating public opinion on seemingly every topic from President Donald Trump’s approval rating to specific policies on gun control, even when the nearest election is another whole two years out.
Twitter is a perfect illustration of where the public’s real interests lie. While major political elites enjoy large followings of Twitter users, the women from Lifetime’s hit reality TV show “Dance Moms” have larger followings than do most political reporters. Abby Lee Miller, for example, the reality show’s star dance coach, has 716,000 followers.
American politics should be cared about and talked about, but it shouldn’t consume the lives of a majority of the American public.