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COLUMN: Lessons from Across the Serving Tray

The Heart of the City

Heights Editor

Published: Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 22:01

A quippy little piece of wisdom popped up, as quippy little pieces of wisdom often do, on my Pinterest homepage the other morning. “A person who is nice to you but is not nice to the waitress is not a nice person.”

About a week ago I was out to dinner on Newbury St. It was relatively early—all the tables were not yet filled and I had a clear sightline across the candlelit tables. A sweet, but somewhat timid, waitress crossed the floor arriving in front of two polished, middle-aged women who only offered cold smiles in exchange for their plates.

The moment the waitress walked away I knew she was in for it. “How hard is it to cook a steak?” one of the women uttered, loudly enough that I could hear it about three tables away.

Before the waitress could get the “how is” from her chipper “how is everything?” out of her mouth, the woman snapped.

“Is the kitchen having a hard day or something?” she screeched in a shrill tone about two or three notches too high. “The soup was warm at best, cold actually. And now, when I asked for medium you give me a steak so rare it is practically mooing.”

The poor waitress was berated for about two minutes, but it felt like a half an hour. Anything she said seemingly aggravated the situation. By this point the awful woman had orchestrated such dramatics the entire top floor of the restaurant was hushed to the point you could only hear the occasional rattle. When the waitress turned, just for a second, we caught eyes. They were filled with tears.

I have been on the other side of that tray, biting my lip so I don’t cry while I’m still on the floor. The moment I was old enough to get a work permit—age 14 in Massachusetts—my parents insisted I march myself around town, in the hopes that some local business would provide me with the valuable life experience one can only learn from your first crappy job. What began as a simple job as a busgirl and waitress defined my high school and college summers. Of course I have taken away the cliche lessons like patience, respect, and work ethic. But, most importantly, it has changed my outlook on people.

Probably 80 percent of customers are truly very nice people, or at the very least, will give you the bare minimum of politeness that society requires. But the 20 percent that are bad? They’re really bad.

I’ve had every complaint under the sun, from the slices in the lemons that garnish glasses not being deep enough (ridiculous, yes, but something I do technically have control over) to being yelled at, just like this waitress on Newbury St., for how the food was cooked (something a waitress has absolutely no control over).

Whatever the complaints are, the actual problem is irrelevant, always. I promise. Yes, you are a customer and yes, you are probably paying good money for your meal and for service, but that girl serving you? Yeah, she’s a human too. Every single waitress deserves the human decency to be spoken kindly.

Next time you’re out to eat, consider that the girl on the other side of the tray is working just as hard as you have all day. She’s probably tired, just like you are. A simple act of kindness, an actual conversation or a genuine smile, can make her shift go just a little faster. When your steak is cooked incorrectly, just tell her nicely. It’s really not a problem to fix it, but yelling at her shows a lack of understanding to what she does and a lack of respect to her as a human.

Oh, the other dining companion of this woman? I saw her leave a few extra dollars on the table, a silent apology for her friend. It softened the incident I witnessed to see that she not only was nice to the waitress, but a shining example of a nice person.

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