Elaine Atwell last wrote for The Toast about your dead literary mom.
You are a good person. You are exactly the sort of person you would want to wait on if you were waiting tables. You consider yourself a lovable scamp when joking with your waitress*, a model of appropriate mealtime behavior to your fellow diners, and a tipper in the best tradition of rosy-cheeked liberality. So it may come as a shock to learn that your waitress hates you.
It’s not personal. Your waitress hates everyone who walks through the door, wanting things, from the beginning of the shift to the end. The only time you are briefly redeemed in her eyes is if she picks up the check, finds a good tip, and thinks for a moment, “I guess they weren’t so bad after all.” And by then, you are already gone. This hatred is the sad consequence of the tipping system, in which the ability of a waitress to make money for her physically and emotionally demanding labor is entirely subject to the whims of her customers. Many of these customers—no doubt criminally undervalued in their own jobs—take this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations upon the powerless person refilling their bread baskets.
You would never dream of doing that, of course. You are not the person sending their fish back for being too fishy (a real thing), or requesting a specific number of ice cubes in their water (another real thing). You want this transaction to go as smoothly as possible. But you may still be engaging in behaviors that, while inadvertent, are nonetheless further crushing your waitress’ already broken dreams and collapsed arches.
Here are some things your waitress would really rather you didn’t do:
1. Do Not Ask Your Waitress’ Name
At many establishments, waitresses are obliged to greet every table with a chipper “Hi, my name is Ashley and I’ll be taking care of you tonight!” Do not be fooled by Ashley’s smile. She tells you her name because there is a balding manager in a cheap suit prowling the outskirts of the dining room, making sure she does. As anyone who has read the Earthsea trilogy knows, (and you should really read it, except for the last book, which kind of falls off in quality) having a thing’s true name gives you a mystical power over it. It stops a waitress in her tracks when you yell it out across the dining room, demanding that your water glass take precedence over all her other concerns. I know you are acting with the best intentions. You are trying to bridge a class divide by asking your waitress’ name. But this divide is inherently unbridgeable, since a) this waitress’ ability to pay her bills is subject to your whim, and b) your waitress is not permitted, as in more equitable social interactions, to ask your name in return. This is not a social visit; this is a business transaction. No names.
2. Do Not Plan A Breakup, an Intervention, or Any Emotional Confrontation at a Restaurant
Contrary to popular belief, a public setting does not ensure that an upset person will not cause a scene, it merely affords you the opportunity to inflict that scene upon other people. Furthermore, it is very difficult for your waitress to tell if someone is crying until she is already at your table, at which point it is too late and she might as well just go on reading the specials. If you are worried for your safety, consider holding your confrontation in the soothing environment of a park, or perhaps a library, where they are used to crazy people.
3. Do Not Hand Plate (After Plate After Plate) to Your Waitress
Unless this is part of some prearranged Vaudevillian entertainment the two of you have been rehearsing, in which you give her outrageous numbers of bowls, bread baskets, and ramekins, and she holds them all in comically unexpected ways, please do not assume that your waitress has a tight-rope walker’s sense of balance and/or a third arm waiting to burst forth and carry that last spoon.
4. Do Not Trust Your Own Powers of Calculation to Determine Your Tip
It’s not your fault. The American educational system has failed you both. You, for being unable to find a number between fifteen and twenty percent, despite your robust assurances that you are “a great tipper.” And your waitress, for ensuring that her liberal arts education prepares her for no other vocation than relying on your ability to do mental math. Thankfully there exists on your phone a calculator, which can solve at least one of these problems.
5. Do Not Laughingly Exclaim “We Hated It!” While Pointing to a Plate You Have Licked Clean
You are not the first person to say this to your waitress tonight. You are not the first person to say this to your waitress in the last fifteen seconds. You are no more unique than a Triscuit. You are but one more straw on the back of an exhausted woman making $2.13 an hour. Will you be the one to break that back? Who can say? Perhaps you enjoy the Russian Roulette-like thrill of wondering. Perhaps your palms sweat in greasy anticipation to see whether your waitress laughs along with your clever little joke. In that case, be my guest. Tell her just how much you hated it.
6. Do Not Mischaracterize Your “Preference” as an “Allergy”
People with Celiac Disease have it hard enough without all you goddamn joiners.
7. Do Not. Ever. Blow Your Nose at the Table and Leave it There
This last offense crosses the line from mere annoyance to outright evil. It is the sin no one believes herself guilty of, but the wadded-up tissues tell a different tale. You know those movies in which one person spreads the plague to an entire continent through a single lapse of personal hygiene? When you force another person to make physical contact with your nasal discharge, you are that person. You are patient zero. You are how the world ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but with the wet slap of mucus from someone unwilling to walk the fifteen fucking steps to the bathroom.
*I use the word “waitress” rather than the gender-neutral “server” because the latter sounds like one of the downstairs people on a British period drama and the former sounds like a shark-eyed, cigarette-smoking warrior woman who you do not fuck with.