When You Say ‘My Owner’

I don’t know if this is just a Seattle thing, or if people do it other places. Maybe it’s just something that comes up in the kinds of joints I worked in back when I was still bartending. It’s a dumb little thing, but it always bothered me, and in light of a few months outside the Industry, I find it bothers me more and more.

It’s not uncommon, in my experience, to hear Industry folk use the term ‘my owner’ in casual conversation.

Point it out, and you get this moment of exasperation and incredulity. “You know what I mean.” And I do. It’s an easy shorthand, and ‘my boss’ usually refers to your manager. And in most non-corporate houses ‘owner’ is basically a job description, even if that job is mostly to loom over the proceedings, present or not, and express approval or disapproval to keep everyone on their toes. And hey, lots of them are right there in the trenches with you, pulling their weight and more, and I have lots of respect for anyone crazy enough to open a restaurant or a bar as a way to make a living. That takes a kind of dedication and perseverance of which very few people are capable.

But it still bugs me to hear people say that. Because how you say things matters. It matters on a psychological, even a neurological level. To say the words ‘my owner’ makes a physical connection in your brain. You hear yourself say the words, you experience yourself thinking the thought, and it strengthens that physical connection in your brain. Strengthening that connection makes the concept more real. It reifies it, makes it a thing that exists in your world, in however small a way.

Think about the implications for a moment. To concede the possibility of ‘my owner’ concedes the possibility of the loss of personal agency inherent in being someone’s property. Yes, we do this every time we clock in, to a certain extent. Such is the nature of working for other people. But to frame one’s employment in those terms concedes much more than trading your labor and skill-set for negotiated compensation for a set period of time.

Sure, no one consciously intends that concession. But people get invested in the places they work. It becomes part of who they are. And hey, you spend that much time with the same people doing the same thing in the same place, a certain degree of identification is bound to take place, even if you do not consciously pursue and embrace it, as many people do. It’s like family. You didn’t necessarily pick them, but here you all are, and it’s time to make it happen, so you work it out and you do, because that’s what you’re selling. Working in a prestigious or even just busy house requires a certain degree of dedication, much of the time, an inherent promise that goes beyond time and effort for compensation, a promise to do your part to make the business run.

In theatre they say ‘The show must go on.” It’s like that in the Industry, too. Service must happen. A certain degree of loyalty to that premise is a given, most of the time. Especially in this job market. And honestly, making it to pro level, where the money is real, requires a certain predilection for that kind of dedication. How else are you going to take so much shit and keep smiling?

But the line gets a little blurry. And we all know, deep down, what an exploitative business it is. Accepting that is part of taking the job, and that’s a choice everyone makes. But it bothers me when people lose sight of the line between trading labor and skill-sets for negotiated compensation and pledging fealty to a business. And don’t get me wrong. I’ve done it plenty, myself. Which is probably why it bothers me so much.

That’s why I’ve always consciously referred to the owner of the establishment I work in at the time as ‘my employer,’ which, however subtly, reframes the relationship in terms much more empowering to me as a person (this is also why I gravitated toward bartending over serving, at which I was also quite good). While I always traded both loyalty and time and skill-sets, framing it thusly highlights the latter over the former in my speech, which helps comprise my world. Every time I consciously said/thought/chose ‘my employer’ I positively affirmed my own agency and independence. I reminded myself that my loyalty was also for sale, that it was contingent not only on my satisfying my employer, but on my employment being satisfying to me.

It may seem like too much to ask, especially in this job market. It is also, most likely, another expression of my unconscious privilege as a cis white male. But unless the house is taking care of you as much as you’re taking care of it, which in my experience is exceedingly rare in such an inherently exploitative and difficult business, then it just seems crazy to me to privilege its well-being over your own.

You deserve better than that, don’t you? Doesn’t everybody?

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