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Jan 31, 2011 05:33 PM

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.