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Paper Written by Senior Sociology Major Wins First Place in National Competition

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    Brianna Billingsley presents her award-winning paper at Southwestern's 2014 Research and Creative Works Symposium.

Paper examines how restaurant servers cope with rude customers

A paper written by senior Brianna Billingsley has won first place in a national undergraduate paper competition sponsored by Alpha Kappa Delta, the sociology honor society.

Billingsley won the prize for her paper titled  “‘Literally, My Money Comes From How Happy I Make Them’: The Positive and Negative Consequences of Emotional Labor Among Restaurant Servers.” She wrote the paper for her sociology capstone class in fall 2013, which was taught by Maria Lowe, professor of sociology.  

Billingsley said she got the idea for her paper because she has worked in restaurants since she was 15. For her project, she spent 58 hours observing servers at a restaurant that is part of a large national chain and conducted in-depth interviews with six servers.

The typical restaurant server makes $2.14 an hour and relies heavily on tips left by customers. Some servers, like the ones Billingsley studied, also work in a corporate setting where management dictates how servers greet and interact with customers. In this type of work environment, servers are expected to provide “service with a smile,” but what happens when they are forced to interact with customers they perceive to be rude or poor tippers?

Billingsley’s research addresses this question. She said “emotional labor” is the effort servers have to put in to making customers happy so they will get good tips, even when those customers are rude to them.

But while servers are friendly to customers out in the dining area, it may be a totally different story in the kitchen and other places out of earshot of customers. There, servers find comfort by commiserating with each other about overly demanding customers or those who leave a poor tip. 

Billingsley found that while this backstage banter helps build a sense of community among servers, it sometimes relies on and helps reinforce racial and class stereotypes about particular customers. For example, Billingsley said, if someone comes back and complains about receiving a bad tip, fellow servers may presume the tip came from a customer of color or from a lower socioeconomic status. And if they get a good tip from a black customer, they treat it as an exception to the rule.

“It is amazing how everyday activities can perpetuate patterns of racism and classism,” Billingsley said.

Lowe said she nominated Billingsley’s data-rich paper for the national award because it “exceeded her expectations in every sense.” 

“The paper is engaging, well organized and adeptly written,” Lowe said. “Skillfully using excerpts from interview and ethnographic data, Brianna is essentially able to bring the reader to the restaurant and allow us to see the familiar nuances and patterns we have experienced as customers and possibly as servers in an analytical light. As such, she offers new sociological insights into the work demands of restaurant servers, the various ways they cope with these demands, and the positive as well as negative consequences of their coping strategies.”   

In addition to a $500 cash award, Billingsley will receive up to $1,000 in travel funds to present her research at the August 2014 American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco. She also will also have the opportunity to submit her research for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Sociological Inquiry.

Billingsley has already presented her research at the 2014 meeting of the Southern Sociological Society, which was held April 2-5 in Charlotte, N.C., and at Southwestern’s 2014 Research and Creative Works Symposium.

Billingsley grew up in Granger, Texas, and became familiar with Southwestern through her participation in the Upward Bound program, which is designed to assist students who will be the first in their family to attend college. She received an Upward Bound scholarship to attend Southwestern.

The national award for her capstone paper is not the only award Billingsley has received while at Southwestern. In March, she received the Sociology Program’s award for the outstanding senior and she will be inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society just before graduation.

Billingsley has been accepted into the Teach for America program, and will begin teaching in San Antonio in the fall. After that, Billingsley said she plans to attend graduate school in sociology.

“I would love to be a life-changing professor like Dr. Lowe one day,” she said.