Thoughts from a Recovering Service Industry Worker

This is not an un-biased opinion blog. I’m a recovering service industry worker, and therefore the chips on my shoulders have grafted to the bone and are now a permanent part of me. However, I do have many friends and family members who have never worked in the service industry, and the majority of them would consider themselves good people.

The fact of the matter is— in the same way that I generally don’t think about the life and times of a neurosurgeon, these friends and relations of mine generally don’t think about service workers at all until they’re forced into communication with them. This blog is not only for them, but also for my service industry family. We’re all to blame, and we, alone, can help ourselves heal and become better people.

LANCE. YOU’RE ALL I EVER WANTED AND I WANT. YOU. BACK.

Anyway. Always, always, always think before you act. Think about your attitude. Think about your words. Think about your tone. Think about the human being you’re talking to. From day one, waitstaff— for better or worse— are steeped in the phrase, “The customer is always right,” or some variation of that.

Can you imagine, just for a minute, what that would do to you? Day after day, pretending you didn’t catch that condescending language, turning the other cheek no matter how many times it’s slapped, faking smile after smile when you’re told to [smile]? It’s not that servers don’t know they’re being abused— we just take it, because it’s our job.

Now, personally, I don’t think that should be the case. After working in the service industry for over a decade in three very different states and four very different cities, I can confidently say that restaurant, bar, and event clientele is pretty much the same everywhere, and always will be: suspicious, entitled, and ignorant. After I quit my last position in the field, I decided to turn a blind eye to the whole industry— live and let live— try to escape the nightmare of knowing, by avoiding restaurants and bars completely.

But then I heard a fun story. I’ll try and retell it here as faithfully as possible, names changed. This story was vehemently told to me by “Gary and Lydia” a few days after the events occurred. They were aware of my work history, and seemed excited to have a juicy story to tell me— obviously hoping for me to approve their indignation. I understand that they felt justified in all of their actions, and unfairly treated. I am certain that the server in the story would say the exact same thing. Honestly, it doesn’t matter, because I’ve been out to eat with Gary and Lydia, and I know the way they treat servers. If you’re reading right now, Gary and/or Lydia, I’m trying my best to be tasteful and not shame you. We’re all to blame for the dynamic, but you guys need to know that you fall pretty damn far in the camp of arrogant, condescending, and rude customers that everyone hates. So far, in fact, that when you told me your story, I immediately sided with the server, even though I love you and I don’t want your feelings to be hurt (I’m sure they weren’t). Regardless— I have a point at the end of the story that isn’t meant to shame either party. So, on with the tale:

Gary and Lydia are a nice couple, living well and enjoying life. They’ve had their ups and downs, they’ve seen a sad side of life, but they’re choosing to ignore it for the foreseeable future, and get their kicks in while they can. One thing they enjoy doing is having dinner out with friends and colleagues. So one evening, they went out to a nice restaurant with a couple of friends.

The details are fuzzy in my memory, but apparently what happened was that the table was having trouble deciding whether they wanted to order alcoholic beverages before or after they ordered their dinner. So the server “left.” When they did finally make up their minds, instead of waiting for their server to return to the table, Lydia decided to scout them out herself and give ’em the scoop. The server was walking into the kitchen at that particular moment, and when Lydia yelled after them, they turned to face her and held up their hand (speak to the hand style) before turning back and entering the kitchen. Lydia was appalled by the gesture and returned to the table to tell Gary and her friends. The server returned, took their orders, their food and drinks arrived, and everything was fine for a while.

Then when the server brought their checks, they hadn’t been divided properly between the four of them, so Gary called them back and asked them to correct the bills. I could be getting some details here mixed up. Gary and Lydia were getting very excited at this point in the story and interrupting each other with explosive energy. The muddy finale is that, after a few frustrated volleys between Gary and the server, trying to decide how to address the check mistake, the server looked square into Gary’s eyes and said, “FUCK YOU. I don’t make $2.13 an hour to take your shit. Fuck you.” And left. Gary and Lydia complained to the manager, of course, who gifted them their entire dinner and assured them that the server would be “dealt with.” Lydia emphatically suggested they be fired.

All right, so— fun story, right? It was kind of thrilling to hear them tell it, because— as a long-time server— it’s like hearing that a slave stood up to their “master,” or an abused wife stood up to her asshole husband. But, of course, it’s not like that at all, because the server is getting paid. Right?

UHHHHHHHHHHWROOOOOOOOONGGGGGGGGGG.

Slavery (and all that entails) would not be fine just so long as the slaves were getting paid. It would never, ever, ever absolve a wife-beater if he just paid his wife every time he hit her. What the fuck is wrong with society that we think paying someone makes it okay to treat them like shit?

And yet! We keep it up, on both sides. It’s an unspoken caste system, probably carried on since the abolition of slavery. I mean, not that I’m allowed to talk about slavery like I know what it means, but that really is what it seems like to me— to those of you who have never worked in the service industry— we hate you, unless of course, you treat us like human beings, and make a concerted effort to apologize for the assholes of your class.

Since I no longer work in the service industry, I’ve been out to eat a couple of times, and every time, I’m surprised by how wrong it feels to engage in the farce at all. It’s like taking part in a gross little play. Only in a server/customer relationship is there this automatic assumption that one person is “in power,” and the other is “subservient.” If I encountered my server in any other situation, I probably wouldn’t even know they were a server, and definitely wouldn’t automatically feel invited to “play God” in my interaction with them.

Back when I waited tables, I would walk up and say, “Hello, my name is Carla, how are you guys doi—“ and then someone at the table, without looking at me at all, would interrupt me and say, “We’ve been sitting here waiting for like, at least an hour, right babe? Did you not see us– never mind, ugh, I’ll have a Diet Coke with three lemons and five Splenda on the side, and just in case you forget us again, how about you just go ahead and bring me a refill and three more lemons and five more Splenda. Should I write it down for you(?)”

For your viewing pleasure:

Anyway,

DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT DOES?

Do you think you’re talking to a robot?

Do you think the world revolves around you and your needs?

Do you think your server is going to treat you better when you treat them worse?

Okay, I need to get to my point though, because I know I’m getting a little rambly. My point is that this is, unfortunately, an unstoppable cycle. Just like the wife and the wife-beater, the codependent relationship between the server and the customer is unlikely to ever change. BUT that doesn’t mean that we, as individuals can’t do something about it in our own lives. By the way, I say codependent, because I made more money working at a shitty-ass 24-hour diner than I’ve ever made in any other profession (and I’ve had a few).

If you’re a good bullshitter, I imagine you can succeed at almost anything. I have. But bullshitting only gets you so far in life before it starts eating away at your integrity and moral foundation. In other words, if you lie to yourself long enough, you just might start believing it. I did.

But I’m done with bullshitting now. It definitely served its purpose, but I believe it’s been damaging, to my spirit, as well as to the customers I served. I think it’s time we all stopped pretending this sick, pervasive dynamic isn’t happening in our country. It’s time to face what we’ve known our whole lives— we all deserve respect.

So to the customer: THINK before you act. You don’t know anything. Even if you think you do, you don’t. You couldn’t. Not only are they more-than-likely working a job they hate, and hate themselves for having to work, but also— they have their own lives! Completely different from yours. There is literally no excuse for you to treat them as an inferior.

To the server: First of all, if you can get out, LEAVE NOW. If you’ve weighed your options, and simply have no other alternative but to work in the service industry, you are in a very dangerous place, ALL THE TIME. The danger, of course, is becoming numb to the abuse, and allowing it to color your perspective on life, and— infinitely more dangerous— your self image. Your most difficult job is maintaining integrity and employment. Almost impossible. It means you have to be IN THE MOMENT, ALL THE TIME. You simply have to start being more honest. You can be honest and respectful, but of course, 8 times out of 10, honesty is taken for impertinence and punished. Keep standing up for yourself. Absolutely no one else on the fucking planet will. Sad but true.

This post has gone on too long. If you’ve read to the end, congratulations, you’re probably in the service industry, because nobody else gives a shit about our feelings. If you happen to still be reading and you are not in the service industry, please, consider changing your attitude toward us.

In conclusion: We should all just grow our own food and eat at home.

1 thought on “Thoughts from a Recovering Service Industry Worker”

  1. 1. I really appreciate that Seinfeld as a TV show really agrees with you. Servers are always real people, and even Jerry is repulsed when someone treats server like shit.

    2. I can’t tell if your last sentence is completely or only partially tongue-in-cheek but let it be known that I actually believe it so strongly that no one can ask me about it without being sorry they asked. Ha. I could go on…forever

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