Active/passive power: Is the customer always right?
May 1st 2022

An example of a formally powerful woman having less power than an old drunkard – and how many of us are this woman

In Denmark being a waiter is often associated with smacks on the bottom, along with comments like “smile a little, it will look good on you” and other verbal abuse. “It’s just a part of the game”. I have been a part of that game – not as an abuser, but as a victim of harassment. Therefore, this article will disclose my personal experience from my time as a waiter.

I was a waiter at a bar In Odense in Denmark in the summer of 2020. It was a bar that was seen as a very classy place; Businessmen held their meetings here. And yes, I may have some bias when I describe this example. In the bar my boss was a conventionally beautiful, cis-gendered woman.

In the rear-view mirror, she was most likely, just fumbling around for some kind of power, over all these important businessmen. It was first when I stumbled upon the concepts of active and passive power, that I really noticed how little power my boss had, compared to how much power the drunk businessmen had.

One example of active power could be a parking guard, who hands out fines. One example of passive power could be, that people avoid parking illegally to avoid the active power, that in this example is the parking fine.

In my experience the active power is being executed, the exact moment a drunken businessman slaps me in the ass on a busy Saturday night. The passive power is being executed by my boss, who, instead of using her active power to throw the businessman out, chooses to use her passive power on me, her employee. She does that by not throwing him out, and then telling me that “the customer is always right”. 

My boss could have actively done something. She could have chosen to throw the drunken businessman out. She could have let me call our doorman, or she could have given me a hug and supported me in the fact that this was repulsive behaviour.

But whether her formal power would be used to call for help, say no or be supportive, then her use of her active power would rarely have a passive power as an effect. Because men smacking women on the bottom clearly is acceptable behaviour in large parts of our society, a “part of the game”, which you as a female employee must expect and silently accept.

In some sense, I am in the same position as my former boss. The easiest way I can achieve some sense of passive power, is, as an example, by supporting a drunken cis-gendered businessman just like my boss did in the experience described above. You can also call it kicking downwards, or more precisely; the way you get satisfaction while using power, is using it on people who are in worse positions than yourself.

But now that “slaps on the ass” are just a “part of the game” maybe our focus should lie on the “whole game” and not just on the singular cases.

This should be understood as the structure of our community, a community which accepts guests slapping waitresses on their asses just because they’re guests at their workplace?

”The whole game” surely includes not only my experience, but it also includes the male cis-gendered waitresses and of course the BIPOC-female waitresses, who on top of the sexism, experience racism as well, the fat female waitresses who, because of fatphobia, should just “take it as a compliment”, the transgender waitresses – given that there’s even place for transgender people in the very binary waitress-world – and the list could go on…

But if we all decide to use our active power, to create a new norm and thereby a new passive power, where it, as an example, would not be accepted for men to slap female waitresses on the ass, then it would actually make a difference.

Even though BIPOC-persons, transgender, fat women or physically disabled people (just to mention some examples) do not have the same active power, as, for an example, I have – just because I, strangely enough, fit into the boxes that in our society could also be called the “norm”. This just demands that we use our power together!  

And that is why it is important that I use my active power with others – and for others. All of us formally powerful barchief-kind of women (and men) should use our active power for all of the “waitresses” of the world – which is everyone with less power than ourselves. If we actively take a stand together – all of us – then maybe, someday, we will come through with new passive power.

A passive power, where none of us will get slapped on the ass ever again. 

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Active/passive power: Is the customer always right?