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The other night I was standing in the prepared foods section of my local supermarket. Prepared foods, as the name implies, is the section where patrons can purchase hot, prepared foods to go. There’s a very nice woman who works there who is constantly busy. In addition to attending to the cleaning, stocking, and maintenance of the food, she is incessantly interrupted by customers seeking to pay for their selections. At this particular moment she had her back to the register, embroiled in one of her many tasks. A man approached the counter and snapped at her in a harsh tone about ringing up his items. Rather than politely saying “excuse me, could you ring this up for me?” he executed a curt directive. She pleasantly obliged and sent him on his discourteous way. Afterward she lamented to me about the frequent customers she contends with who are demanding and sometimes outright rude.
While virtually all occupations necessitate having to deal with difficult people, those that must interface with the general public encounter the greatest onslaught of curmudgeons. Naturally the food industry is square in the public domain with enterprises such as restaurants and supermarkets. To make matters worse, the average employee is over a barrel when it comes to negotiating the never ending flow of churlish individuals. Proprietors don’t want any customers feeling alienated, even the surly ones. Money’s money and these are tough economic times. Therefore, job security forces the worker to maintain “service with a smile” or else risk the wrath of the customer and the owner. Psychologically this is very stressful. It’s not easy to maintain one’s composure for hours on end in the face of repeatedly unnerving people. Understandably, we all reach a breaking point sometimes.
One night during my first waiting job over two decades ago, a boorish couple was seated in my station. From the onset they displayed an abrasive attitude: terse commands, disparaging looks and in general, thinly veiled hostility. Throughout the meal I maintained my “service with a smile” comportment. In fact, I even tried to soothe their gruff disposition by being a little extra pleasant and attentive. My attempts were in vain as their brusque attitude remained impervious to my pleasantries and my patience started to wear thin. Finally, toward the end of the meal I approached their table and was immediately accosted by the woman, who sharply snapped at me: “I just saw a roach.” I snidely retorted “I’ll have to charge you for the extra meat.” They left me a paltry tip but it was worth the satisfaction of dropping my congenial facade and returning fire.
But my example pales in comparison to how far others might go. We all know that some people are ruthless and vindictive. This awareness underlies the generalized fear we all harbor about affronting our waiters or cooks. The old “they’ll spit in my food” anxiety.
This fear of retribution from those handling our food behind closed doors is by no means groundless. There’s a website, which I will not dignify by identifying it, where servers from around the country can write in to vent their tales of annoying customers. In fact the site describes itself as: “dedicated to the venting of food servers’ frustrations and a harsh education of the dining public.” They’re not kidding about the “harsh” education. In addition to the posts from whining, peevish servers carping about their maddening patrons, are the stories of unmitigated revenge. These stories from vengeful and licentious servers proudly tout how they exacted retribution on their offensive diners. Some of these acts of retaliation go well beyond spitting in the food. The decorum prevents me from being any more descriptive but I’m sure you can rely on your imagination.
Responding to inappropriate behavior with such vitriol is no more excusable than the original offender’s behavior. It’s tempting to fall back on, (as I have myself), a “they started it” defense, and argue that a truly abusive customer is getting what he deserves. But responding to belligerent behavior by introducing bodily fluids into one’s dinner is even more barbaric. The mature person seeks to defuse the situation diplomatically, not inflame it. Rather then stooping to the offender’s level, the mature server should engage the manager, not his retaliatory impulses.
I am by no means the first to comment on what many perceive as a moral decay in our society; a deterioration of civility and etiquette. Or to put it conversely, a proliferation of bad manners, sometimes coupled with outright hostility. This is a serious problem for it not only adds to the day to day stress of life, it undermines us as a nation and as a people. This is one of the reasons “Why We Hate Us,” the title of Dick Meyer’s thought-provoking book about the decline of mutual respect in America.
But returning to the microcosm of the food industry, as stated, it is a very public business. Everyone has to eat. Everyone must interact with people making, selling or serving their food on a nearly daily basis. As I’ve written so many times before, food has the power to unite people. It’s one of the fabrics that weave its way into most of our social interactions, from the grandeur of a celebratory wedding reception to the simple “Good morning” exchanged with the guy who sells you your bagel every morning. Our food related interchanges are a venue for connecting to a hectic, impersonal world. Treating one another with respect during these times feeds our social appetite, our sense of decency, and our connection to other human beings. These are the ultimate table manners.