I’m a pretty happy person. I’d like to think I’m generally pleasant to be around, and I work in a business where I have to be happy100% of the time.
Most of the time, the inside of my head looks something like this:
The last day or so, it’s looked rather more like this:
I spent the weekend on my own, working and taking care of the puppy while Spouse was out of town. If you didn’t already know, I wait tables to pay the bills while I’m working on this writing thing. And for some reason, the last two nights at work ended up being a couple of the most stressful and draining I’ve had in a while. I’m in the service industry — it’s my job to serve people food and beverages and make sure they have a good time. But every so often, you come across a group that seems to think it’s their job to make mine as difficult as possible. In the last couple days, I think all of those people conspired to sit in my section.
Couple that with today being the first day since Spouse left where I don’t have to work and us waking up to the neighbors blasting their repetitive, obnoxious music through our bedroom floor enough to make our pillows hum with it, and that black hole started growing.
Last night I started thinking about people and rights and the things that can make this world just a little more harmonious. It has to do with this little adage:
Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.
That goes for so many things, gentle viewers. My neighbors have a right to listen to music in their apartment, but that right ends where our walls begin. If their music plows through our walls and wakes us up — or keeps us up, or disturbs peace — then they don’t have that right anymore. They need to turn it down. If you live in an apartment, that’s part of the sacrifice of sharing walls with others — people can hear right through walls.
That goes for you, too. If I’m blasting my music or Zumba-ing on top of your head, you have every right to ask me respectfully to turn it down a few notches. Or to find a new spot to Zumba.
What occurred to me this weekend was this: that adage apparently doesn’t apply to servers, because I don’t have a nose.
I realized also that all those little courtesies we try to ingrain in children blow out the window like Voldemort’s snot when it comes to people in the service industry, so I thought I’d point them out. In quotes are things I’ve heard real parents say to their children — some of them from my mother.
1. “I don’t have five arms! I’ll have to make a second trip for that!”
Servers, like most humanoids, do not have more than two arms and hands a piece. Which means if your server is carrying a full tray of drinks in one hand (heavy!) and a stack of side plates in the other, she will have to make a second trip to bring the waters she already promised you. Trays do not function like Hermione Granger‘s magic purse — they have a physical limit to how many drinks you can put on them, and filling those drinks takes some time. So does filling 12 waters.
Also, if your server has a stack of dirty plates in one hand and a precarious tower of empty glasses in the other, she probably cannot take your nacho tray away when you try to hand it to her. Unless you want something to fall on your head, just let it chill on the side of your table until she comes back. While restaurants often have the magical helpers called bussers or assistant wait staff, there are usually 1-2 of them for every 10-15 servers and 100 guests. Omnipresence isn’t part of the job description.
2. “Don’t holler at Mommy while she’s talking!”
Story of my weekend. I’d be talking to a table, taking an order, and out of the corner of my eye I’d see someone frantically wagging their arms around saying, “Hi! Miss? Excuse me!” as if I were picking my nose and watching TV instead of serving a guest. It happens pretty often, but my jaw still drops when it does.
Not only is it incredibly distracting and caused me to mess up someone’s order last night (right before the kitchen closed, no less — so they got mad at me), but it’s really quite rude. I know where my tables are in their progression at any given moment, and I patrol my section more or less incessantly during a shift. If someone needs something, I’ll get to them.
When I’m standing at a table, my focus is on their needs and what I can do to make their experience better. When I come to your table, that’s my same focus — I see you. I do. All you have to do is make eye contact and I will stop by as soon as I am finished serving the table that has my attention right now.
On the subject of waving, if you must do it, just put your hand in the air like you would to answer a question in class and make eye contact with me. That’s all it takes — I’m not going to pretend you don’t exist or ignore you, but I’m also not going to do my other table a discourtesy by breaking my attention with them.
3. “You should have peed before we left!”
Okay, so I don’t have to potty train anyone on the job. But when I stop by a table and inquire politely about whether or not they need anything and if everything is satisfactory only to be ignored and have someone turn their back on me, it makes it that much worse when thirty seconds later that same person is waving at me like I’m the last lifeboat and they’re sinking in the North Atlantic while I’m talking to another table.
I understand that people are out to have conversations and enjoy the company of their parties, which is why I try to be as unobtrusive as possible — but if your drink is below 1/3 full and your server stops by, at least have the courtesy to respond to that polite inquiry. Last night I had about thirty people in my section: a table of ten, a table of six, two tables of two, a table of three, and a table of four. I can’t be everywhere at once, and you wouldn’t want to see me try.
It feels distinctly rude when someone has blatantly ignored me for fifteen minutes only to wait until I’m serving someone else to act like I’m the worst server of the year because they decided they need a new drink after all. Respect that 20-50 people depend on me for their drinks, for food, for pre-bussing their tables.
4. “It’s bedtime.”
If you go to a grocery store ten minutes before they close, you will hear announcements telling you to essentially get your stuff, pay, and get out. And I’ve never heard anyone complain about that. Same thing at pretty much any other place with a closing time — except restaurants. For some reason, managers and restaurant owners feel that it is a mortal insult to ask someone to respect the set business hours of their company.
Now, this is a sticky subject, and I’ve read many impassioned debates from both sides. I’m not saying that the second the clock strikes ten you have to be out, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people to understand that restaurants do close and that servers are generally expected to stay until their last guests leave — which means if you walk in at two minutes to close, order one beer and an appetizer and sit nursing both for two hours, your server is probably doing nothing but waiting for you to leave for the last hour of it.
I’ve heard people say that’s their right, to sit for as long as they like, and maybe that’s true. But people have a right to do many things that still are rather inconsiderate. Servers make less than minimum wage in almost every state. It’s $3.63 in Maryland. Many of us don’t even get paychecks because it all goes to taxes. So when we have to stay for hours past closing time, we don’t really get compensated for it past whatever the guests decide to give us (which we have to share with the bussers, the bartenders, and the line expediters). Waiting two hours to get five dollars when I’m at the end of a fourteen hour day on my feet and just want to get home to my husband? Painful at best.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect guests to pay and leave the closed area within an hour of last seating. If I’m the last table somewhere, I’m very conscious of it — but maybe people just don’t realize how many people have to wait to clean, put up chairs, etc. when there are still tables remaining after close. Maybe it’s your right to stay, but once we’re closed and guests have eaten, I’d like to think my nose begins there. It goes from a time where I am being actively compensated (having many tables and the prospect of having more) to watching precious home time with my family dwindle.
All that said, here are some brief and simple ways that you, as a consumer and a guest at restaurants, can help yourself have a great experience — and stay on the good side of the people who serve you. Because let’s face it — the last people you want to mess with are the people who handle your food.
All in all, just recognize that the people in the service industry are people. We have noses that can be hit when you swing your arms. You can hurt our feelings and stress us out — and beyond that, you decide at the end of the day whether we get paid or not. Imagine your boss being rude to you, making difficult demands, making you work late, and then simply deciding not to pay you at the end of your shift. Sound like fun? That’s what we do for a living.
Some days it’s an absolute pleasure. Some days it makes me want to cry. Working in this industry on and off for a decade has made me think 6 months as a server should be required of all people. It can be a joy, a laugh-riot, and heaps of fun, but I’ve also had people behave so nastily that I wanted to throw down my apron and never come back.
Like many things in life, the little things make all the difference. Manners, empathy, and kindness go a very long way. Please.
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