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July 4th, 2007

Even more on restaurant language

by Barbara Wallraff

Anonymous, of Oakland, Mich., writes: “If ever there was a more useless mundan [sic] what you call a job telling people that have no lives and are probably as boring a person as you are, you nut case kook.”

Dear Readers: Such is the level of eloquence and clarity of my critics. Well, OK, I’m being unfair -- such is the level of one reader who evidently disliked a recent column about annoying expressions we hear from restaurant employees. In that column, I offered employees equal time to complain about annoying things that restaurant patrons say. A few of them took that as an opportunity to attack the patrons who’d reported expressions that bother them. I don’t get that. Isn’t the customer “always right”? If responding to a patron’s request with “no problem” or asking someone who has walked in alone “Just one?” tends to bug people, why not be glad to know that and start saying something else?

Then, too, I received a number of variants on “I don’t give a fried chicken about grammar” and “What do you really expect from a server who makes $2.65 an hour? If we had Ph.D.’s in English, we would be college professors, not servers.” These comments also miss the point, I think. None of the annoyed patrons were talking about servers’ education and grammar. The language they didn’t like struck them as flippant, insensitive or crude. Whether or not it was intended that way, that’s how it struck them.
Well, guess what? Restaurant employees don’t like to be treated insensitively or crudely either. One wrote me: “You know what I can’t stand? People who have a half-hour lunch or are just in a rush, but they put their hand in your face as they proceed to talk on their cell phone, when we are trying to help make their lunch quick and easy. Then when they are ready, we get treated like we have ignored them.”

Another server wrote, “I can’t tell you how many times we hear ‘Give me another ...’ or ‘I want a ...’” And another: “‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are forgotten commodities for servers. Patrons snap their fingers, lift coffee cups from across the room, allow their children to run through restaurant aisles and leave huge messes on the floor. We smile and tolerate all of this for a tip that is at your discretion.” Yet another pleaded, “Is it too hard to be friendly and respectful to a waitress?”

One more point that restaurant employees made again and again is this: “We truly want the customer to be happy. We want the return business. So when we ask you if everything is all right, please let us know if there is a problem. We would like to know at a point when we can correct it and ensure your satisfaction and probable return. Letting us know when you are at the register puts everyone in a tough spot.”

Obviously, many restaurant employees are articulate, smart and caring. But even capable people with the best of intentions sometimes say things that annoy other people. To repeat myself from the earlier column, it’s a two-way street. If all of us try a little harder not to be annoying, someday we should all have less to be annoyed about.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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