Hello, and thank you for reading The Waterlogger today, my name is Eric and I’ll be escorting you through your graphemic endeavor. Just to let you know, this article will begin with an introduction, of which we’ll come to momentarily, and that will be summarily followed by several paragraphs supporting in detail the themes presented in said intro, and we’ll finish up with a statement of concluding ideas. Very excited about those. We’ve got a great selection of other essays and arguments and photographs, to be found in the menus above, and I’ll be happy to entertain any questions or comments you might have concerning your reading experience just as soon as you get settled in. Now, may I start you off with some vulgarity?
Can you imagine if every article or essay or story began that way? I’m only hopeful you’ve read this far, to the point where I get to write like a human. With a little pizzazz, if you’re lucky. Similarly, there is nothing more awkward, to both a dining party and their kitchen liaison (aka server, aka waiter, aka hey you) than for each member of the party, as they’re greeting each other and removing purses and jackets, pulling chairs in and out, to have to pause the natural flow of their evening or hurry themselves to acclimate and zip it so that everyone may properly endure the interruptive and boorish recital of the evening’s Specials.
It seems almost silly to hand each guest a giant list, even a book of the food and wine that a restaurant is prepared to serve, that decidedly omits several items from the menu. Do they want the server to sell them to us? As opposed to interrupting my friends and myself to prattle on for the first several minutes of the dinner about oysters and starters and cocktails and entrees while we feign polite interest, forgetting it as we go along, why isn’t there simply a supplemental menu? Are you awkwardizing our evening to save trees? Wait, what did he say? What kind of rémoulade comes with the scallops? Oh, skate? Wait, a skate rémoulade or the scallops are skate? Fuck it, I’m getting the chicken.
This isn’t to say that the server shouldn’t be knowledgeable about the food he or she is serving. In fact, they should have the specials memorized in case any questions or allergies arise, as they should with the rest of the menu. But to put it somewhat bluntly, we didn’t ask. And now that the routine has begun, we feel a little rude interrupting you (ahem), because we know that you’re programmed to do that as soon as you hit your mark tableside. Let’s all just smile and nod and get this thing over with so I can tell him what I want to drink.
Contrary to popular opinion, the server, doomed to spout the spiel forty or so times a night, realizes how rude and intrusive the whole thing can seem. However, it’s part of their job, and they want to buckle down and get through it just as much, if not more, than does the patron. Even the slight sense of remorse associated with making such a forcible interruption automatically places the server in a position of contrition (unless they’re a sociopath, of course), and begins the dining experience with the regretful, latter half of the patron/server relationship sorry for the interruption and now with the full (or worse yet, complete in-) attention of the people before them, for whom the server now must sing and dance. Remember your lines…
But most servers aren’t singers or dancers. Most of them feel their annunciation, memorization, and public speaking skills on display (using the notorious and ventriloquistic table voice instinctively raised half an octave to give an air of happy compliance) during that initial phonetic onslaught, and it forces the server to attempt to show some sort of personality through a filter of protocol. Dance for us monkey. Tell us about the food.
The understood rudeness of interruption, in combination with this banal yet nerve-wracking (for many) recital can make the server seem, if they aren’t careful, more like a servant, by permitting, and even encouraging, the patron to view the server as subservient at best and subhuman at worst. By allowing the server to greet the party like everyone involved is human, that the server is a person, as opposed to an android, it subtly reminds them that Please and Thank You aren’t expletives, that a modicum of casual human respect isn’t too much to bear, even if you are tipping. Servers have to wear uniforms and listen to complaints and touch people’s half-eaten food and get yelled at by chefs, so there is absolutely no occasion where a patron should be incentivized to feel deified. This should be the case in any industry.
Not that the server should or cares to shake the hand and get the name of every person to whom they bring dinner; functional relationships don’t need introductions, merely a tolerable experience for both for the short duration of their time together. But literally hindering the language, or forcing it stiltedly, gives an air of restriction to the server’s communication, making them appear either ignorant or less privileged when they aren’t permitted to use the same language the very guests themselves are using. Many restaurants discourage the use of “you guys” (should be “the table” or “everyone”) or “specials” (they’re “featured items”, fancypants), and even go so far as to bar the use of the response “You’re welcome” (it should always be “My pleasure” – which is strange because it’s most likely a lie, as opposed to an at least truthful response) and even the word “No”, which should be replaced with something along the lines of, “Let me check on that for you,” or “Unfortunately, our chef is unable to yada yada yada”. Even this minute language barrier subtly fosters a lack of kinship, and provokes a mindset of separation. I bet there were no restaurants in the Tower of Babel.
The paradox of the server employment interview, then, seems rife with irony. In such an interview, the employer wants to make sure that 1) the potential employee possesses the proper credentials and experience, but also 2) they are personable, and won’t come off unnatural or stiff when performing a two-minute lecture. The personality that the employee is hired upon, then, is immediately dulled by the bindings and restrictions of the job, at least when the server is tableside.
Functional relationships are exactly that, but they are relationships, unlike the connection you have with your sink when you want some water or your microwave went you want a Hot Pocket, that require just a hint of societal politesse, a modicum of human decency. When a real live person is made to appear robotic (not to mention intrusive) in the opening seconds of an exchange that could last minutes or hours – from the guy taking your change at 7-11 to the tour guide on your cruise – it emboldens a sense of self-centeredness that so easily bleeds into everyday life, and cultivates the practice of treating people as appliances, as opposed to fostering the hopeful notion that we all live among one another, that we’re not a world of distant individuals. We’re all in this thing together, and we each deserve our privacy and liberty and individualism and the decency of a collective respect.
May I suggest as a starter the soupçon of humanism? It’s my favorite dish on the menu.