Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bitch, bitch, bitch.

And what is Right Speech? Abstaining from telling lies or deceiving, from slander and divisive speech, from rude, impolite or abusive language, and from idle chatter and gossip: This is called Right Speech. If your speech is not useful or beneficial it is best to keep silent.

-The Pali Cannon


If you do not like something, change it. If you cannot change it, change your attitude. Do not complain.

-Maya Angelou

I don’t know about you, but I love to bitch. I bitch about the guests, I bitch about my GM, I bitch about the kitchen and the bar and the bussers, I bitch about lousy tippers, campers, people that come in 5 minutes before close, people with ridiculously special orders (chopped salad: dressing on the side (house vinegarette and honey-lime vinegarette), bacon, blue cheese, egg and avocado on the side plus an additional side of cheddar; cucumbers and shredded carrots added, and please separate onto two plates - Actual order), my coworkers (specifically, a-holes that kill the coffee and don’t re-brew it) and just about everything and anything that isn’t the way it should be.

For those of you not familiar with Buddhism, one of its core teachings is the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s kind of like the Buddhist Ten Commandments except that they’re more like suggestions (Buddhism doesn’t really have any “Thou Shalt’s…,” it’s more like “It might be helpful if you…”). One of the eight elements of the path is Right Speech (“Right” in this usage meaning not “morally” right but more like “ideal”). The principle behind it is that one should not only speak truthfully and honestly but also that your speech should actively promote harmony and good will; as it says: if what you say is not useful or beneficial don’t say anything at all. So while it may be true that table 6 has been camping for over an hour or a foreigner just left me ten percent, is it useful or beneficial to complain about it? Is my bitching promoting harmony and good will?

It’s a high standard, and it’s only when you start actively trying to practice it do you realize exactly how much of what we talk about at work is completely negative (and this is just complaining - forget about gossip, which is a definitely the unofficial sport of wait-staff everywhere). Part of the problem I’ve found in trying to practice this is that it seems to cut me off from my co-workers; complaining is the main way we relate to each other – it’s the way we bond. It’s us against them, “them” being the guests, the kitchen, the managers, the bussers, or anyone else getting in the way of our night and our tips . Bitching in the side station over shared irritations is fun, it lets of steam. It’s why the “waiter-rant” blog is so popular. It’s why when waiters go out for drinks after work almost all they can talk about is work.

But does it really let off steam? If it did, why is it that I feel the need to bitch about the same thing multiple times to different co-workers? Far from dissipating the gripe, I think the complaining just keeps it alive; there may be a temporary relief but what really seems to happen is that the annoyances just accumulate and accumulate, and by the end of the shift all I can think about was how awful the night was and how glad I am to be done.

I think inherent in any complaint is a boost for the ego – they are wrong, I’m/we’re in the right. We like to be pissed off because it means that we know better than they do – that we are better. Guests do it all the time – any waiter will tell you that some guests come in just actively looking for something to be upset about. To wit: at my restaurant we have this ridiculously gigantic burger: 10oz angus beef, plus bacon, short ribs of beef(!), cheddar cheese, mushrooms and sautéed onions (it’s phenomenal). So I’m bringing this to a table the other day, and rather than the oohs and ahs that usually greet it the guest just kind of stares at it and then starts poking at it with her fork. I ask if everything looks all right and I get back “It looks a little small.” I assure her it’s 10oz, plus all the toppings and she replies, “No, I get this here all the time, this is too small. I want to see a manager.” I apologize, and go grab a manager. Well, it turns out that we just recently (like, the day before) changed the way we press the patty – it’s still 10oz, just thicker instead of wider. The manager goes to explain this to her, that it is the exact same burger, just the proportions are slightly different, and the guest is still angry, still doesn’t want it. We offer to get her something else and she says no, she doesn’t want anything now. So here is someone who took such personal offense at not getting what they wanted (even though they did get it, it just looked a little different) that they would rather miss their own meal than let it go. I mean, we weren’t even asking them to admit that they were wrong - we offered to freaking get them something else when there was absolutely 100% nothing wrong with the meal in front of them, and they basically decided they would rather be indignant than eat. It’s an extreme example, but don’t we all sometimes go around looking for things to be pissed off about?

And I should clarify – Right Speech doesn’t mean that you don’t stick up for yourself when you’re being mistreated or that you don’t speak out against injustice when you see it. It’s not saying that you should walk around being super sunny and positive all the time, or that you should pretend everything’s okay when it’s not. What it is saying is not to complain just for the sake of complaining. Either do something about it, or don’t. One of the side-effects I’ve found from the few times I’ve actually managed to make it through a shift practicing Right Speech is that not complaining forces me to accept whatever slight it is I’ve suffered. Because if you can’t bitch about it, you can either keep rehashing it in your mind over and over again (which is essentially just bitching to yourself) or you have to let it go. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is that if you have to bitch, you get five minutes to bitch as much as you want. After that, don’t ever mention it again. What do you think? Is it possible to get through an entire shift without complaining once? Outside of restaurants, can you go a day without complaining? Moreover, even if it is possible, is it something you’d even want to do?

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