There are some questions, asked of celebrities, that are beloved of weekend newspaper supplements. Among them are: who would be your dream dinner-party guests? (Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Dolly Parton, duh.) Another is: what trait do you most deplore in others? That’s an easy one. When people are rude to staff in bars, cafés and restaurants, my reaction is whatever’s the next level up from a full-body cringe. A part of my soul dies and, with it, any affection I ever had for that particular person.
Even recalling the moments where I’ve witnessed it is giving me a stress headache. I’ve sat next to a friend who literally told a friendly barman to “Okay now, shoo”, simply because he was engaging in some harmless pally banter (part of his job. He wasn’t about to make a pass at us or anything.) Another time, my companion issued some very specific instructions to a bartender regarding a whiskey and some ice. The ensuing disregard for the original instructions sent my companion into a full-blown hissy fit.
There is nothing more mortifying than being a bystander when someone decides to complain, be performatively difficult, or even bully someone who is, to some extent, expected to take this crap as part of their job. And this exchange says so much more about them than they could ever imagine.
More recently, I found myself in a restaurant with my friend, and her boyfriend. The establishment in question has a “no tap water” policy and offered us bottled water instead. Annoying and daft, yes, but when you’re forking out plenty of money for food, you’re not going to let a bottle of water ruin the overall experience, right?
Well, you are if you’re my friend’s boyfriend. “I actually find this really shocking,” he started off with. Our waiter began to wilt, his smile fading at the corners. The boyfriend began to work himself up with more indignation, until he walked up to the two (young, female) managers and read them the riot act. Was this about tap water? This was about tap water.
I watched in disbelief as his head shook around his shoulders in fury, jabbing a fat, middle-aged finger in their faces. My friend either didn’t see this exchange or chose not to.
This was beyond the point of reason.
Minutes later, and sufficiently creased with embarrassment, I approached the two restaurant managers to apologise for my friend’s boyfriend’s behaviour. “That was actually properly abusive,” they reminded me, their eyes shiny with angry tears. How I found myself apologising for someone else’s appalling behaviour and on the receiving end of their contempt, I still don’t know.
I suppose my question is: why bother being overtly rude to hospitality staff? Complaining about bad food or dismal service is one thing.
What I don’t understand is being hostile or outright aggressive to hospitality staff. Eating out or having a few drinks is a lovely experience. Why ruin it for yourself and others by throwing your weight around, often just for the sake of it? Why the need to show the room that you are the supposed “superior” one? And do you think that paying for a meal or drink honestly affords you that “privilege”?
I worked for years in pubs, plastering on my most pleasant and servile smile for eight hours at a time. I’m aware that there’s a delicate theatre involved in being a bartender or waiter. Your “performance” is that of a convivial, welcoming presence. If someone issues elaborate instructions about how they like their order… well, the customer is always right and all that. But “three ice cubes and only the square ones” is not a personality trait, even if you think it is.
Luckily, I never experienced any outright aggression in my waitressing years, but I do remember encountering a lot of people who were happy to treat wait staff as though they were invisible, as though it was some signifier of urbane sophistication.
Perhaps it’s why I fall on the other end of the spectrum, which may or may not be a bad thing. You could offer me a plate of steak with a hobnail boot hanging out of it and I’d still oversmile, overthank and overtip. Had I been the recipient of those infamous million-dollar scones at the Cashel Palace Hotel last month, I’d likely have swallowed my shock, coughed up the requisite amount, made a mental note not to go there again without a Credit Union loan, and just got on with my day.
Possibly because of those years working in bars, pubs, cafés and restaurants, I usually find myself momentarily wondering about the person who is about to hand me a meal, or a drink, or a coffee. Do they enjoy their work? Do they hate the manager? Are they lifers? Are they as tired to the soles of their feet as I recall being, quite often?
Even if you never learned about floats, split shifts and FOH, you’d do well to wonder the same from time to time.