Everything I needed to know about relationships, I learned from a hotel maid

There I was, rushing out of my hotel room to head down to the conference when I suddenly realized I hadn’t left a tip for the maid. I’m one of those people who leaves a tip every day for the hotel maid, rather than leaving it all at the end. The cleaning staff have different schedules and throughout my years of travelling, I have noticed, sometimes, that there can be different maids on different days. I figure that if I leave the entire tip at the end, then one person can clean up and any others might go without.

Leaving smaller tips every day has its drawbacks. It means that you can’t be carrying all $20 bills in your purse (unless, of course, you leave the maid a $20 every day.)

Although I haven’t seen her (or him, or them), I suspect that it has been the same person cleaning my room during the three days of my conference. Here’s why:

After the first day, I left a reasonable tip. I had mostly $20s with me, but I cobbled together enough of a tip that it wasn’t an insult. I came back to the room at the end of the day, and my room was clean and nicely arranged. There were a couple of extra drinking glasses in the bathroom. I always stick my toothbrush in one to dry out during the day, leaving only one other glass. The housekeeping staff had added a couple of extra so I wouldn’t run out. Nice touch. (When your job involves enough travelling, you notice the little details in hotels.)

On the second day, I realized that I’d forgotten to get change. All I had were larger bills. “Oh well,” I thought. “I don’t like to do it, but I’ll leave double tomorrow.” I knew in my head what my plan was, but it never occurred to me to leave a note for the housekeeping staff. I went on my way, with a small twinge of guilt in my gut — and a plan to correct my wrong the next day.

When I came back to my room that night, the bare minimum had been done… and the extra bed pillows I’d tossed onto the  arm chair before bed the night before remained there. Again, when you spend enough time in hotels, you notice.

During the day, I had made a point to get some smaller denominations. So, at the beginning of the third day, I did as I had intended and left a double tip.

What happened? I came back to an immaculate and sparkling room. The pillows were arranged perfectly, my personal toiletries were neatly organized on the bathroom counter and there were even extra towels that I had not asked for. Oh yeah, and there were extra bars of soap and bottles of shampoo and conditioner, too.

Of course, we don’t know for sure if it has been the same maid for the last three days. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was. If I reflect on this possibility, then it occurs to me that there is much to learn from this. Here are 7 things I learned from this exchange:

1. Show appreciation. A little acknowledgement goes a long way in letting others know that you are thinking about them.

2. Non-verbal communication speaks volumes. I have never spoken with the hotel maid. I don’t even know what he or she looks like. But over the last three days, we have communicated with each other in non-verbal ways. Sometimes, it isn’t what you say, it is what you do not say that speaks the loudest.

3. Notice what is going on. Non-verbal communication may say a great deal, but if you are not listening, you will not hear the message. Take the time to notice what is going on around you, what is communicated silently and perhaps, deliberately.

4. Say what needs to be said. I just didn’t have any cash on me yesterday to leave a tip. It wasn’t a sign that I was dissatisfied or that I was being cheap. I could have left a note to say, “No cash with me today. Promise a double tip tomorrow.” I didn’t. In fact, it didn’t occur to me until much later.

5. Consistency creates security. The first day I left a tip and the next day I did not. I was inconsistent in that unspoken language of between a customer and a service worker. If I had been consistent I would have been sending the message that I was consistently pleased with how things were going. In relationships, it is helpful to act in a consistent way.

6. If you screw up, fix it — and fast. I understood from the minimum services that were performed on the second day (the day I didn’t leave a tip) that my house keeper was not happy. In the unspoken rituals of being a hotel guest, I screwed up. I corrected the situation the next day by leaving a double tip. In other words, I fixed the faux pas as soon as it was appropriate.

7. What matters is reality, not theory. Really, it shouldn’t matter if I leave a tip or not. The maid gets paid to do a job and certain duties are expected. That’s the theory. The reality is that to people in the service industry, tips matter. Whether or not you agree with reality is a different issue entirely from the fact that reality itself matters very much.

I’ve learned a great deal over the course of this three-day, silent exchange with this hotel housekeeper whose face I have never seen. I silently salute her (or him) and say, “Thank you for this lesson in human relationships.”

What relationships do you have where non-verbal communication speaks louder than any words between you? How are you listening? How do you address what is real in a relationship, rather than the way you think things “should” be?


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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