Saturday, March 13, 2010

(Servers) How to deal with rudeness or (Guests) How not to get your food messed with: a cautionary tale

One of the most difficult tasks in waiting, as in life, is to have patience for those you serve, especially when they are demonstrably rude. How does one have patience for those that are antagonistic, demanding and short-tempered? If a guest comes in with an attitude, or is untenably rude, above all do not take it personally. For, though it may feel that way, it is not personal; the guest does not know you, nor you them. For whatever reason - a bad day, frustration, a poor childhood - the guest is cranky and taking it out on you. You need not be affected by this. The master waiter allows rudeness to slide off him as water off the back of a crane. Be grateful: in most jobs when you have a difficult client you must work with them for months. Yours will be gone from your life in an hour, hour-and-a-half.


Soften your self.

Do not take things personally.

You cannot be annoyed or frustrated if there is no “you” to frustrate.

Become as water.

We all act out roles in our day-to-day lives; to a certain extent we all play a part. There are socially defined norms that determine how we behave - roles like husband and father, son and daughter, employee, employer, even artist and “individualist” come with certain expected behaviors attached. In service, there is a very clear delineation between server and served – as a waiter I am a guide, a facilitator, and sometimes somewhat an entertainer. But the one commonality is that my guests have a certain power over me. That’s not to say I let my guests run me, or that I don’t have control over my tables, but at the end of the day what the guest wants the guest gets, and it’s my job to get it for them. I really don’t ever get to say no (how I sometimes envy waiters and bartenders who work at those kind of jobs where they can be openly rude to the guest, and tell them straight to their face that their tip or behavior was inappropriate, or have managers that will tell guests not to come back. But alas, that is not the path I have chosen. It’s definitely not very “Zen” of me, but I absolutely revel in those rare times I get to tell a guest “no.” One time a guest asked if he could substitute his vegetables for extra short ribs(!), to which I was able to reply, “I’m sorry sir, absolutely not.” It made me so happy).

So with these two defined roles of server and served comes a certain agreed-upon relationship. In acknowledgement of their power over me I am granted a certain level of respect, since it's understood that I am in a position where if I am disrespected, I’m pretty much powerless to say anything or respond in any way. One guest complaint, even if I’m completely in the right, can cost me my job. So when a guest is rude, it puts me in a very awkward position of having an insulted ego and not being able to do anything about it. I simply have to swallow my pride and go about my business.

One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years is how not to take rudeness personally – if a guest is a jackass they’re just jackass and I usually let it go at that. Sometimes the guest pretty much just refuses to acknowledge me, and I’m fine with that. I know a lot of servers can’t put up with this but I understand that sometimes guests just want the bare minimum of service necessary and don’t want to be bothered: they don’t want my personality, they just want their food and drink in a timely fashion. And that’s fine. I’m not going to force service or social interaction on someone that doesn’t want it – I’m usually pretty outgoing with my tables but if the guest wants unobtrusive and reserved I give them unobtrusive and reserved. And sometimes guests are not very forgiving of any delay whatsoever – and that’s fine too. It’s nice when guests understand that there are things out of my control, or that I’ve got more to deal with than just them, but I don’t necessarily expect it. Sometimes the behavior is so rude I find it amusing – like when a guest snaps their fingers at me, it just makes me laugh (though it’s definitely taken me awhile to get to that point. And to all the non-servers reading this, let me give you a little insight: I have access to your food and drink before you do. And in that interim, all sorts of things can happen. Some rather foul and disgusting things. Not to say that I would ever do such things, but let’s just say that in the industry as a whole it’s not unheard of. So when a guest is that rude it just makes me think to myself – do you really think I’m not going to mess with your food now? (I don’t of course, but it makes me chuckle)).

But there are certain behaviors that are just really, really hard to swallow. Because the very nature of my job is a subservient position where I can’t fight back, to be pointedly insulted with no means to respond is almost untenable. Example: one of the little “finer points of service” my restaurant requires is that I say the guest’s last name when I’m handing back their credit card after payment – e.g., “Thank you very much Mr. Simon, have a nice day.” I think it’s a little cheesy, but the company wants me to do it, so I do it. Sometimes, however, it’s not completely clear how the guest’s last name is pronounced (I’m actually pretty good at this – a basic understanding of phonetics and the rules and tendencies of different nationalities/ethnic backgrounds is key). This was one of those situations. I can’t remember for the life of me what this guest’s name was – but point being it could have been properly pronounced at least three different ways. So I did what I always do in that situation: when returning the card I said, “Here you are sir and, if you’ll forgive me, how do I pronounce your last name correctly?” Then, 99.99% of the time the guest will tell me the correct pronunciation, and I respond in kind, “Thank you Mr. So-and-So, I always prefer to ask rather than to butcher someone’s last name.” And, usually having their last name regularly butchered in these situations, they laugh (again, going back to roles - the guest subconsciously understands that this is a part of my job: that while Jonas the server cares about the pronunciation of their name Jonas Simon the actual person probably couldn't care less. I'm just doing my job).

Well, this time when I did my usual spiel the guest responded, with a palpable air of contempt: “How do I pronounce my name correctly?” Taken a little aback, I threw out my line about not butchering the name and the guest rolled his eyes and turned away from me, not responding. The entire exchange made me feel about three inches tall. I wanted to grab him by the collar and shout, "Hey (expletive), do you think I actually give two (expletives) what the (expletive) your name is? Go (expletive) yourself with a garden hose!" But of course, valuing my job more than my pride, I said nothing and slunk away.

So, the Zen response to all this clearly is to divorce myself from my ego – to not allow one man’s rudeness to injure me in any way or make me feel any differently about myself. His arrogance and self-importance are a reflection of the qualities he is lacking, not mine. The “self” I feel the need to defend against insult so vehemently is just a mental construct - it’s not who I really am, it’s just an ego. And, as I said, I’ve gotten pretty good at this.

However if I ever see this guy again, he might be getting my (expletive) in his water.

Just saying.

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