I didn’t know that having breakfast at a coffeeshop could also be educational.

The other day, my father asked me to accompany him on his morning meal. Although I preferred to have mine in the comfort of my room, I agreed – and was glad I did, as I met my “teacher” in the form of…

…the coffeeshop “Uncle”.

To me, he was an affable old man with a ready smile – an excellent example of a salesperson. The way he treated us made my tea taste sweeter and my chai tao kueh (carrot cake) more delicious.

But he seemed to become another person completely with some other customers. He was cold, grumpy and bad-tempered. He seemed to have split personalities. To us, he was “Dr Jekyll” and to the other customers, he was “Mr Hyde”.

I took the opportunity when he was free to ask: “Uncle! Why are you so upset?”

My father, who knew him well, interjected: “Kaypoh! (busybody) It is none of your business.”

The Uncle’s sullen face melted into a grin. He said animatedly in broken English that some people did not deserve good service. They treated him like dirt and cheated him.

He shook his head, pointed to a group having their meal, and added: “There are six people there. I asked them for their order but they ignored me. After making me stand there like an idiot, one of them wanted a cup of tea while the rest could not make up their mind.

“I served the tea and the next guy asked for a cup of coffee. After serving the second guy, the third person placed his order. I had to serve them six times!”

“Well, at least they made you go the extra mile,” my father joked.

The Uncle continued, “That was not all. Before them, someone bought a packet of cigarettes while having his coffee. When I was not looking, he disappeared. I have to pay for it with my small salary. As you can see, it is not easy to be nice with this kind of experience.

“Some of the things that the customers did to me 10 years ago hurt me so much that I can still remember them today. I can still remember being scolded by one customer. Trying to offer him my best service, I asked him politely if he wanted any drinks. He reacted angrily and asked me if I was blind and could not see that he was eating.

“A few days later, the same person was furious because I did not ask him for his order. He yelled at me and accused me of thinking that he could not afford to pay. It was difficult for me to be nice to this kind of person. If I did not value my job, I would have splashed hot coffee on his face.

“How not to be frustrated? Some customers always complain. The coffee is too thick, too diluted, too sweet, too . Sometimes, they get an extra cup by asking for more coffee as it is not thick enough, and later, more water and more sugar.

“When some customers left, I thought a group of pigs had just finished their meal. They left with such a nauseating mess that I found it difficult to clear the table.

“It is enough to ‘kill’ me if I have one customer from hell a month.”

Wow! Now, I can understand why some service staff behave as they do.

But do they have to conduct themselves in that manner? After all, it is their duty to serve with a smile and delight their customers.

I asked: “Uncle, shouldn’t you tolerate the nonsense and give your customers the best service at all times? Your attitude may drive them away.”

“Young man,” he responded, “it is easy for you to say. I love to think with my head instead of my heart. But these people just get on your nerves. They turn you into a sensitive bomb – ready to explode at any time.

“Sometimes, I was so distressed that I vented my pain on the next customer. I could not control myself. No wonder, some of my customers call me seow (mad). Who is responsible for my madness? If you have the same experiences, you will understand me.”

“I empathise with you,” I told the Uncle. Taking care not to press his buttons, I suggested: “But if you don’t mind my saying, perhaps this job may not be suitable for you.”

He shrugged his shoulders and laughed: “I have been a coffee ‘boy’ all my life. What else can I do?”

I have no answer to that question. But I have learned that we should refrain from criticising others for their “misbehaviour” until we understand them.

It is always easy to say that he should not have done this and that. But were we in his position, would we have done any better?

(This journal entry can be found in TODAY of 24 August 2006)