How not to piss off a server

I want to take a couple minutes to talk about restaurant etiquette.  I’ve worked in restaurants on and off for 20 years now, and as a full time server for the last several years I think I have one or two useful insights that might make life a little easier for everyone involved in food-related transactions.  I’m not talking about things like tipping; that gets covered enough in enough other places, and the bottom line is people either don’t get it (and aren’t going to have their ways changed by some blog post) or are douchebags who don’t give a shit (and aren’t going to have their ways changed by some blog post.) Instead, my concern is how a restaurant guest treats a server.  Again, I’m not interested in the basics of “don’t be a complete asshole,” because a restaurant patron either is by nature an asshole who isn’t concerned about treating others like shit, or generally cares about others in which case asinine treatment isn’t going to be the dominant issue. Rather, my concern is about understanding boundaries.

By now, I would like to think everyone understands the basics: a server exists to take the guest’s order, to give them a pleasant dining (and/or drinking) experience, to try and cater to the guest’s needs, even when occasionally somewhat unreasonable. Believe me, we do some crazy shit at my restaurant that would not fly in a lot of other industries, but because the goal is to have happy diners, somehow crazy unreasonable people get to have crazy unreasonable things done for them on a regular basis. But never mind that. While making the diner happy, the server is juggling other tables, negotiating with kitchen staff, bartenders, other support staff, making sure things are timed properly and proper items get to the proper tables, etc. More importantly, the server is trying to be pleasant, kind, friendly to the guests, to establish a rapport. As a diner, I always enjoy a meal more when I feel that a server cares about me as a person, so I understand that on a good day the diner cares about the server as well. But in the end, that’s the server’s job, to be nice and appear to care about you as a person, and it does not give you a right to any intimacy with the server beyond what happens at the table.

Case in point:

DINER: So are you an actress?

PIP: Oh no, not me.

DINER: I just ask because, you know, waiting tables…

PIP: (Thank you for insulting my current chosen line of work) Well actually, (if you must know, although it’s none of your fucking business) I’m in a transition period after leaving a doctoral program and getting started in a new career field.

DINER: (to friend at table) That’s the problem nowadays, you know, kids rush into college and don’t really know what they want to do…

PIP: (smiling and nodding) I’m going to go check on your drinks now. (walks the hell away)

You don’t fucking know me. How dare you pass judgment on my life choices, you don’t know that I took time off between university and graduate work, or that I spent 9 years in graduate school, or any of the myriad reasons I felt compelled to leave, or why I’ve chosen to wait tables at this point in my life. I suppose I should feel flattered that you feel that my work is beneath me, but it’s not a compliment. Just take your damn food and let me do my job, I’m not your kid, or your friend, or anyone that you’re in a position to judge outside of whether or not I have done my job well with you.

It just so happens that I am currently working at what is a fairly well-known place in the city, run by a fairly well-known restaurateur, toward the end of a well-publicized three-month-long closure. Over the past few months I’ve gotten used to diners asking what I expect to be doing after the restaurant closes (I have no fucking idea) or whether I will transfer to another restaurant within the company (which isn’t big enough to absorb everyone who works here), and have come up with answers vague, humorous, and otherwise avoidant of the question. “I don’t know, have you got any jobs?” “I’m not really sure, I’m just going stay here until we close and then take my time afterwards to find something really great.” But I hate hate hate when people press me on this one. That’s nice that you have some concern for me, for us, but I’m actually not obligated to disclose anything to you, I just have to bring you the food you ask for the way you want it. And frankly, the fact that roughly 100 people are all out of a job in 3 weeks is immensely stressful, and not something I enjoy talking about with strangers.

I don’t have a job to go to when we close at the end of the month. The job I do have is massively stressful because everyone is freaking out about being out of a job, and I work so many hours that I don’t have the time to devote to any kind of thoughtful job hunting process, so I feel like my best option is to make some money while I can and pray that unemployment covers my ass while I look for a quality job, one outside this industry, because the last few months have soured me on both the company and the industry for the time being. Well now wouldn’t that just be fun to tell a table?! Wouldn’t that make their dining experience more enjoyable? I suppose it’s theoretically possible that such a sob story might lead to a big sympathy tip, but frankly, I doubt it. And I don’t want to be a downer, I want to be happy and entertaining, so don’t fucking ask me questions about my career trajectory right now. And if I give you a vague non-answer, it’s because I don’t want to give you any more than that, and you know what, you don’t have the right to ask for more information about my private life, or to expect me to give you more. I’m just your damn server, that’s all.

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About pippingeek

feminist geek starting over outside the academy
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2 Responses to How not to piss off a server

  1. chatty says:

    I think the, “I don’t have anything lined up. Why? Are you hiring?” angle could actually go over well. Especially if it turns out the diner IS hiring for something you could/wanted to do.

  2. Brent says:

    I blame Hollywood for too many waitress movies and shows that make people think they “know” servers. The gendered expectation that women are supposed to be chatty doesn’t help either. Even as a guy I didn’t dig the industry.

    Yay, I’m your first ever commenter! (I am *such* a dork.)

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