Some lessons in life we learn immediately, from a single experience; catching your penis in your zipper comes to mind. Others take a little more of the trial and error method, like loaning money to your Crankster buddy from High School; or trying, yet again, to make a go of a relationship with that “free spirit” Hippie chick you met at Reggae on the River back in ’87. Being able to learn and grow from mistakes, and developing the wisdom to avoid them once learned is a real barometer of maturity.
One of the life lessons I have learned very well is how to deal with the bitter, cranky people that cross my path as guests in restaurants. We had a classic example on Table 34 last night: a couple of people who would not be completely satisfied with their day until they had sufficiently ruined someone else’s. Married so long they ran out of things to talk about years ago, they most likely have enough money to make divorce impractical, each of them unwilling to part with, or even risk slightly diminishing, their lifestyle. So, in order to keep the His and Hers E-Class Benzs in the driveway, they have settled for tolerating each other’s presence. These were seriously old, cranky people and they were not afraid to demonstrate it to their waiter. Their server last night, however, was a seasoned pro who wouldn’t let them get over on him. Right off they challenged his knowledge of our menu, our wine list, and his career choice in such a way as to justify dismemberment and burial in a shallow grave; and no sane judge would have convicted. But the waiter didn’t take the bait. He used a technique I employed many times when I was waiting tables: he “niced them to death”.
This exercise in psychology was possible only because their waiter had ridden to Church on tougher mounts than them. He had enough life/restaurant experience to know that leaving this type alone until he could get some food and wine into them in order to raise their blood sugar and alcohol levels until they transformed into some semblance of an actual human being was the only way to go. He turned them around to the point where he could actually have a civil conversation with them, and they left happy. Well, as happy as possible.
When I waited tables I used to consider people like this a personal challenge. I was not going to let them defeat me. When they left my station, they might still be unhappy with each other, maybe complain about a dish or their wine but, God damn it, they were going to like me. I turned into a mirror of pure accommodation, reflecting their shitty attitudes and bitterness back at them until they either:
A) Came around and started being civil for the first time that day, perhaps in years
B) Clammed up when they realized I wasn’t playing and gave up on their Holy Quest to piss me off.
“A” was always preferable to “B” in these cases, but either way I won the battle.
Except in the most extreme of cases (and I’ve had one or two), this technique is more than effective on a deuce; but having one stubbed toe on a large party requires a different approach.
Most people that act like assholes when dining with a group have most likely done so before; and chances are that someone at tonight’s table has seen their Dog and Pony Show already, and will empathize with the waiter who’s on the receiving end this time. My method with the “one loudmouth on the 6-top” scenario is, again, “nice-ing” the offender to death. Then, at some point in the exchange, I will look around the table and find that person or persons who have tolerated the behavior before, make eye contact with them, and usually get the look that says “She does this every time. We are so sorry it’s you that has to get it tonight.” And more often than not they will be the one paying the check. Game over. I win.
The Young Gun Server, cocky and secure in his wine and food knowledge, but without the twin six-shooters of patience and experience tucked into his belt, will take to this challenge in a different way. He will get all puffed up with the “I’m not going to take shit from this bitch” attitude, and decide right off that it is not worth his time or effort. He is “better than that” and “no one is going to talk to me that way.” He will challenge the guests, further alienating the rude; and more importantly, he will lose his possible alliance with the sensible and polite people at the table by being a dick right back. This attitude only makes recovery more difficult and unlikely; and as the alcohol flows and attitudes get more strained on both sides, the situation escalates.
I used to be a fairly decent basketball player and I learned early if you don’t celebrate the three-pointers too much, you won’t get so pissed at the occasional air-ball. My philosophy on service and difficult guests is the same. Don’t crow so loudly about selling the $300 bottles of Bordeaux and getting the 25% tips and you won’t get as upset at the 10-percenter and rude people. And don’t feel you deserve better when you get occasionally get them. A server’s job is just that: to serve; and if you remember it’s not who you are, it’s only what you do, you will be able to rise above even the most difficult situation.
Despite what the Navy recruiting ads used to say, “It’s not an adventure, it’s just a job.”