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Servers - Personal Life Chat

I've noticed a trend lately where servers share personal life details during the meal. I'm from the South, and this is not a high end dining area. I usually cook at home, but I will most often when eating out take my teen and college aged son out for dinner or college students who work on the newspaper. Also, I might take my Mom and new step Dad. (Thought a bit of background might help.)

Last weekend, I took my son and a friend to a seafood "camp" place. The server mentioned that she was from Texas, she had just left her husband and that she has four kids. Her kids are 7, 5 and twins age 16 months. Yes. Really, I got that much detail.

A couple of other examples:

1. Server asked if he could ask a question. OK. "Am I doing a good job?" I told him that he was. He then said, "I'm sure trying, but that table over there stiffed me on the tip. Nothing. Nada. I thought I did a good job."

2. Another server told me that his girlfriend was just diagnosed with MS. He said that he was not sure what they were going to do on insurance.

3. Server started to cry. I asked, "Are you OK?" She said the credit card reader was down, so the table beside us got mad and did not tip. She hoped I was not using a credit card. I had planned to, but I had cash on me, so I was able to pay the tab and a good tip.

4. Went to register to pay at chain. Server came over. She said someone else was on register and that her co-workers were slack as heck and stuck her with everything. "I need to find another job. This one INSERT BAD WORD."

As I mentioned, I do usually cook at home. My cooking is better than restaurants in this area. When I go out, I would like to relax. In all the cases above, the servers were young. My kids are in that age range, and my students are as well. My tips are high regardless. Some may disagree (based on the stories), but I appreciate young people working and jugglling other things like school or perhaps a young family.

I've been tempted to whisper quietly, "Keep it professional." Younger ones at chains probably are just temp in the field though. Perhaps they do not share life stories at all tables. I really don't know. I'm an easy diner who tips well, but it is hard to relax when I hear a "heavy" story at the table. I've only seen this in the last year or so. Any thoughts?

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  1. It's interesting that each story is about being down on one's luck. While it does happen, there's something in the water down there...

    The best approach is to have a blank expression and say nothing whatsoever. So often, a minimalist approach is the best route.

    But, it's not necessarily right to be rigid either. For example, last fall I was dining at an inn south of Rochester NY when it became apparent that the our server was covering way too many tables compared to others - she was covering for someone else, and the management was letting her fail. (Perhaps she was set up, perhaps it was inadvertent, there are many stories.) We let her vent a little bit - she had a crazy day, including a car accident. We kept some boundaries, but relaxed and let her relax. Her service turned around very well, and we ended up having a very delightful evening. She got tipped well and a good mention to the hostess. That was a situation where it was clear that most of what was going wrong was within the walls of the establishment, and a change of attitude on our part could be key in our enjoying our evening instead of regretting it.

    But that's not what you've got going on down there, it seems.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Karl S

      As in your case, I have to wonder if it is isolated (and random times on my part). Other than the quick "stories" the service was good in all these cases. I did not encourage more dialogue. I simply noted what they shared and said something like, "I'm sorry" and then focused back on guests I'd brought.

      It did cross my mind that this is a new way to bid for higher tips. As you noted, these really do seem to be "down on luck" stories. Personal stories do not encourage me to tip more, since I already tip well. They just make me think that it's better to cook at home where the food is better and the stress is lower. That kind of blows the idea if it is for tips, since I will then entertain at home when it's easier to do so rather than go out and then have to wonder about the back story and why someone is sharing something I would consider personal.

    2. I wouldn't do it, obviously.

      But I can say that working in the service industry does, after awhile, seem to give you the idea that most people are selfish, entitled jerks, which, I can imagine, makes a person more inclined to take the available opportunities to talk to someone nice.

      It also seems #1 and #3 involve other people who were rude to the server. So I guess I'd blame it on them - they are being overly rude and breaking down the boundaries of politeness between server and guest.

      #2 was just at his wits end, and #4 just didn't care anymore.

      Anyway, I had this happen recently with friends I was going to have *one* dinner with and had not seen in two years. After that we were leaving. The waitress found out they were from a part of the country she was moving to and stopped by 3 separate times to unload 15 minutes worth of conversation. Each time.

      I came as close as I ever have to saying something, because, I mean, she didn't know that we never see these friends of ours, right? And really, all you'd have to do is interrupt her and say "wow, I can't believe it's been two years since we've seen you guys! I'm glad we were able to get here by [ten minutes ago]" and she would have gotten the message. But I couldn't bring myself to do it.

      Anyway, one way to fix this, IMO, is to just sit at the bar. The bartender is much more worried about you doing this to them and won't talk to you more than you want to talk. Plus they are busier.

      1. I would (and have) just pull them aside and mention that hey...this stuff stinks and it's hard to deal with, but you can't load it off on your customers, because it's not going to increase your tips. They're young, they're having a rough day/week/month, and haven't been taught the concept of professionalism.

        I've then tipped them well anyway (if the service justifies)...and I've had a couple come and thank me later for it, even if I wasn't in their section.

        1. I think I'd just adopt my usual silent, eyes-glazed-over look I generally adopt when people attempt small talk that I'm not in the mood for/find inappropriate.

          1. My cynical take on this is that #1, #2, & #3 were playing on your sympathy in the hopes of getting a bigger tip. They weren't sharing their life stories with you. They were telling specific tales of financial hardship.

            10 Replies
            1. re: small h

              Ditto. Wouldn't have worked on me and I may even lower a tip.

              But, one thing. I'm thinking of how the guest interacts with the server. If a guest mentions this and that personal detail, doesn't that open the door to the server?

              1. re: ediblover

                <If a guest mentions this and that personal detail, doesn't that open the door to the server?>

                I would say so, sure. But if I were to mention a personal detail to a server, it would probably not be something like "I just lost my job, and I can't believe I'm spending money on a restaurant meal when I should be dumpster-diving." Because that sounds like a plea for comps. Just like "that table over there stiffed me on the tip" sounds like a suggestion that the current diner should compensate for the previous one.

                1. re: ediblover

                  I thought about that. I'm sure I smiled and said hello in all cases. With #1, I did ask which he would recommend between two dishes. I'd not eaten at the restaurant before. Both meals sounded good, and I thought that the server would likely have tried most of the foods and know which would be better. I did go with the one he said that he liked better. Other than that, I think I just answered the standard questions like what I'd like to order and if I wanted a refill on a drink etc.

                2. re: small h

                  I agree 100% with you small h.

                  Back when i was a waiter I used to tell people right away that it was my 1st job even after 5 years.

                  Personal stuff is accepable if and only if the customer asks.

                  As a bartender if i am asked for personal information I lie.

                  If I am being served the tip % goes way down.

                  1. re: postemotional1

                    post: in your bartender role did you ever use a "bar name"? I never did, but I did understand why some might.

                    1. re: hill food

                      Yes, I have. I've had a variety of nicknames over the years and I do use those. I will joke around and ask them what they would like to call me!

                      The answer is usually obscene...and profitable!

                    2. re: postemotional1

                      So you ding servers for using the same trick that you used yourself?

                      1. re: julesrules

                        I didn't read it that way, I think post is saying the server should keep it as impersonal as possible and did so as one. the 'ding' occurs when they break that rule.

                        1. re: hill food

                          Yes, that is that I meant. A balance of warmth and distance is best for all concerned.

                          1. re: postemotional1

                            Quite a wise observation. Thanks, Postemotional1.

                  2. I think that the informal nature of those kinds of fish camp sorts of places tends to lead to staff there oversharing. Doubly so in tourist areas where the server is trying to make a quick connection with a diner that they're probably never going to see again in hopes that they'll actually register as a human being with the diner. I've even seen servers get out the pictures of their kids to share in a not so subtle attempt to get across that they need to pay rent and groceries with their job, and aren't just living at home and blowing 75% of their tip money on pot and beer. Annoying, but I can see their point considering the reputation that the touristas have for bad tipping at times.

                    And sometimes it just gets really hard to keep the professionalism in place. I've been in a situation where an obviously stressed waitress apologized at the start of the meal for leaving her cell phone on because she was waiting for news from her boyfriend currently deployed in Iraq. Only thing you can really say then is to hope that a call came soon and was positive news and hope that her coworkers were looking out for her that night.

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: beachmouse

                      Yes. The fish camps here are informal. But, these are inland so local joints versus touristy. They do get a lot of repeat business and loyalty. Although I seldom go, my Dad liked to go to the fish camp every Thursday on flounder special day. They knew his order when he walked in the door. The friend last weekend was from out of town and wanted something local. He'd not been to a fish camp before.

                      The other examples were generally at chain type places. if I take a couple of students out for a meal, I'll ask where they would like to dine. They lean toward the trendy chain places as their favorites. Most often, the students have been working on the newspaper etc. I'll take them out as an extra thank you, so I want to be sure that it's a place they enjoy or perhaps have wanted to try out.

                      With the chains in particular, I've wondered if the servers are told to be more interactive now. I see most now having the server hand write their name on the check, and many of the females add a smilie face or "Have a great day."

                      1. re: CyndiA

                        I have to confess that I kinda like living in Europe. The server greets you, takes your order, will walk by and give you the opportunity to catch their attention if you need them, then leaves you alone until you signal that you're ready for the check.

                        No smiley faces, no writing their name in crayon on the paper tablecloth, just there to provide a low-key interface between me and the kitchen.

                        1. re: sunshine842

                          I'll bet they don't sing real loud and off key on your birthday either in Europe (-: That happened three times during our meal on Saturday night.

                          1. re: CyndiA

                            Nope. They keep things *very* low key, even on birthdays.

                        2. re: CyndiA

                          Re: smiley faces. There was a social science experiment a while back that showed that making a smiley face and writing "have a nice day" increased tips--by a lot, like 15%. These women are just doing what they feel they need to do to make their budgets.

                          Also, I've noticed in the last year or two, the norms about people you don't know sharing private information with you seem to be changing. I think of it as a consequence of all the reality TV and disclosure on TV talk shows. And the prevalence of cell phones in public, where you are suddenly privy to the most intimate conversations of strangers.

                          1. re: femmevox

                            I know...and remember reading about it when I was a waitress...so smileys went on ALL my checks. We took it to a new level - each of us had our own signature drawing - a rainbow, a unicorn, a hairy little monster holding a balloon...and people came to EXPECT the doodles!

                            But I now swear that if I see one more smiley face or Traci, Brandi, whatever spelled with a heart over the 'i' I will scream.

                      2. I have had experience with #1 for sure, server who not only told us how a nearby table had stiffed on the tip, but also offered a story of another high-profile person who had come by and didn't tip. After we left the restaurant, I wondered whether they would also talk about us (despite that we had tipped well). IMHO, anyone who has a tendency to vent about other people to people they don't know well, will also do the same to you the moment your back is turned.

                        Friends and I used to frequent a small restaurant with great food in a town I used to live in. Problem is the owner / sometimes server had a bad habit of hanging out by tables and telling her life story and ongoing problems. We knew everything from her income taxes to what happened when some guy came in to fix the furnace. Not only was it overshare, but it was one of those situations where you were literally trying to eat and she kept interrupting.

                        Neither of these women were young ones btw.

                        As for the weepies, I'm the first to admit I've had moments in my job where things got to me or a supervisor ripped me a new one. I went to the washroom, got it out of my system, and carried on. Crying over a lost tip probably wouldn't fit into the circumstances though. Don't make a customer feel guilty about something another table did. Ever. Go vent to a coworker.

                        Some people in general are big on the overshare. I've been shocked sometimes at things people will tell me when they really do not know me well at all, ditto for stories at work. Likewise for things such as FB. Maybe I'm just too overprotective about my privacy which is not always a good thing.

                        One thing I know is that I wouldn't be telling any clients at work what's going on in my personal life.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: im_nomad

                          I can't imagine discussing other customers or my personal life with strangers either and espeically while waiting on a table. I don't recall that coming up in prior years. It does strike me as odd. People do seem to share a lot these days (like on FB as you mentioned).

                        2. With the younger ones just say, "wow, TMI much?"

                          : )

                          1. reminds me of job interview #1 - never trash previous employers.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: hill food

                              (late edit) job interview RULE #1 which I think applies here.

                              1. re: hill food

                                I liked your original post better.

                              2. I was eating at The Lobster Garden for the first and only time, and our waitress, a pleasant enough person, kept me and my dining companion posted throughout our meal about how her boyfriend was breaking up with her over the phone while she worked. It was like having a soap opera played out in front of us.

                                This had no impact on my decision never to eat there again. I don't like chain restaurants, and the damned place cost more than I'd've spent in a real restaurant.

                                Of course, at the real restaurant, I'd've missed the floor show.

                                1. In NYC servers tell me only what they're auditioning for.

                                  1. Wow.
                                    I never tell my guests anything about my life unless they flat out ask me.

                                    Which, for the record, sometimes GUESTS get a little too personal with ME. Like the guest who asked me when I was planning on getting married when I told them I have a boyfriend. LOL.

                                    -I work at an upscale place in NYC

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: iamraven

                                      That's what I was thinking. As a server, I was pretty busy. I didn't have a lot of time to chat and it never even occurred to me to tell anyone personal details about my life. I could see how, in times of great stress or recent tragedy/trauma, things will just come out. That's just an emotional response and I would understand and forgive that, but I definitely wouldn't like my server trying to milk me for extra dough by telling me about their financial woes. Or trash-talking another table. It just comes off immature and manipulative.

                                      I think the comment about the prevalence of instant-communication and reality TV was interesting. Perhaps the younger generation is so desensitized to seeing everything that goes on in a stranger's personal life that they don't really know where boundaries lie. I would feel awkward schooling a server about that. But if their parent's aren't going to do it, I guess someone needs to.

                                    2. Like most others here, I don't care for the "Queen For a Day" plaintive wail preambles, even though I could probably top most of them. Hey, we all have challenges.

                                      1. Could this also be a management problem? If they don't care about being professional their staff won't either. Or it could be an oversight in dealing with young/inexperienced servers in assuming that they know what's professional/appropriate etiquette.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: jubilant cerise

                                          Yes, management enables over-sharing.

                                          Yes, the server is at fault.

                                          Yes, management is at fault for indulging their staff and creating a culture that is less than professional.

                                          When it comes to serving being a ho is a good thing.

                                        2. a friend told me that her and her husband were out for dinner this week, when the waitress told them that her bf had dumped her the previous night AFTER going to a movie then out for dinner. Apparently he had it all planned because he didn't want to seem cruel. They thought it was too much information.

                                          1. I work all day with people and their problems. It is the last thing I want to hear when I am out, on leisure time, spending my money for my own entertainment. I would resent it greatly. It rarely happens to me though. I give off an energy that lets them know I am not interested in their life. I don't politely sit there and suffer it.

                                            1. I tagged along to Charlotte NC with my husband last year; he was there in business. We ate dinner at a southern restaurant chain called Mertz. Our server, Paris, sat on a stool and chatted with us while we ate! By the end of our meal I had (jokingly) asked if I could come to her house for her famous BBQ which she told us about. She also told us about her son, her ex-husband, her current husband, and her grand babies. She hugged us and asked another server to take our picture when we left. We both had a ball! I'd never been treated like a relative by a server before.

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: ladooShoppe

                                                I'm the OP, and I'm right outside of Charlotte. Small world. Perhaps it's just a reflection of the culture. I could see the chitchat being novel as a visitor, but if it becomes the norm for an area, then it can become easier to just eat at home with family instead of going out and having to interact like family when looking for a break.

                                                I'm glad you enjoyed your visit here in our area. Some of the locals would, indeed, take you home and feed you. It is part of our heritage. My Grandma had that open door policy, and she cooked for the masses her entire life - family and friends we brought along.

                                                1. re: CyndiA

                                                  an on-going game of "Get the Guest"?

                                                2. re: ladooShoppe

                                                  I do think there is a difference though between happy friendly chat, and dumping your problems onto the people you're serving. I know which I'd rather !!

                                                3. I does kind of sound to me like they were trying to guilt you into a bigger tip. I can see maybe being frazzled at the end of the day and being frustrated with your job, but that's never a reason to complain to your customers. I am understanding if people are having a bad day, but are still trying to keep it professional, but usually the waiters who will tell you their life's problems don't tend to last long or make good tips.

                                                  I waitressed through college at a chain just a few years ago and usually the only personal anecdotes I gave without asking were if I was new, or something short and cheery/peppy. Usually it would be something like if parents came in with little kids and were embarassed but trying to make an attempt to keep the area neat/clean I'd mention how my little cousins used to make such a mess whenever we went out together, or something to put them at ease. The only time I would actually really talk to someone would be if they were sitting alone and it was clear they were someone lonely- and then it would just be as I had a moment or two while taking care of other tables.
                                                  However, my problem always seemed to be the opposite of the OP. Some people would sit down and immediately judge me based solely on the fact that I was working as a waitress- they would assume I had dropped out of high school, already had several children, and had no goals in life- and they would procede to try to "help" me and give me suggestions for how I could "better myself". I had no problem sharing a bit about myself with these people! My favorite was a group of guys who appeared to be in there late 20s/early 30s (I was barely 21 at the time) and one of them decides to play the bigshot to his buddies and help the poor waitress. When he told me if I wanted to, I could probably go get my GED and get a real job, I put on my best waitress smile and told him "Thanks, but I already graduated high school with honors and college credits. I'm actually currently working on my undergraduate senior thesis at a federal research facility this summer so that I can get my bachelor's in biology with a neuroscience minor. Then I'd like to go get my PhD in neuroscience. What do you do?" The guy mumbled something about working as a package driver for FedEx (there's nothing wrong with that, but please don't act like you own the place even if you're Bill Gates) and didn't make eye contact with me for the evening. His buddies are probably still giving him a hard time about that :)

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: ponygirl87

                                                    Oh. That's a shame about the "life tips."

                                                    I teach at the college here, so I know many of the servers are college students, and I love to get my own students, so I can leave extra good tips. I'm always impressed when students both go to school and work (and did so myself).

                                                    But, I appreciate anyone who is working hard in the field and would never even think that I would need to play the "big shot." Wow. A lot of people do not work at all (and often without a choice these days), so it's a blessing to get a good server - no matter the background. He or she is there and providing a wonderful service as it's nice not to have to cook and clean for every meal.

                                                    I bounced this one off some college students this weeks. They also felt that most of these cases were a ploy for larger tips. Many of them have or do work in the local field. The stories do not impact my tip, but I'm less inclined to visit a restaurant where someone feels the need to tell me another table stiffed him or her etc. I do feel bad about it which impacts on my evening, but I can't fix it.

                                                    I would note that I've never had this type of thing happen when I've had a student I teach serving a table, and I would understand a student sharing more personal information. After all, we do have a history. My experience with my own students (when I'm fortunate enough to hit the right shift and time) is that they do a great job which is much appreciated.