Why Are Servers So Pissed Off All the Time?

Working any service-industry gig can suck, but isn’t being nice to customers part of the job?

Whenever I stand waiting to pay for my sweater while the cashier talks to her pal on the phone, or when I am met with the roll of an eye when I have the gall to ask for a glass of water with my cocktail, I think back to my first real job as a restaurant hostess at a country-style steakhouse chain.

It was a restaurant in which people were allowed to throw the shells from the gratis peanuts on the floor (it was my job to sweep the heaping piles every couple hours). It was also a place where customers would play the same putrid Eagles song 47 times in a row on the juke box, where the rare child or drunk would make an indescribably vile mess in the bathrooms (also the hostesses’ jurisdiction) and where the occasional irate customer would verbally abuse all of us 17-year-old hostesses because he was not in the mood to wait any longer for his rack of ribs.

As hostess, however, my number one duty—and this was drilled into us, written in Sharpie on the podium at which we stood—was to be sweet. Friendly. To sweep with a smile, to greet new customers with the warmth of the summer sun, and to coo over the angry customers and get them a nice ice water. The same rule—Be Polite and Obliging to the Customer—basically held true when I graduated to waitress, and even followed me into college, where I worked at a bar and held a brief, nightmarish stint in retail. Everywhere, the rule was the same: Good and pleasant service was paramount.

Ah, those were the days, weren’t they?

In the past month alone: a cabbie grunted that I’d better have cash if I wanted a ride; two bartenders at the empty bar didn’t so much as look my way for 15 minutes while they chatted it up; the dude who charged me $11 for a bowling lane gave me a lazy shrug when I politely pointed out that the pinsetter was malfunctioning. A friend recently told me about the server who dropped off a drink while she was in mid-conversation, then stood, staring, repeating the phrase “Three dollars. Three dollars. Three dollars. Three dollars,” like a broken robot, until she handed over the cash.

If I sound like a jerk, expecting people to sprint to serve me and kiss my hand, I don’t mean to: I know as well as anyone that jobs dealing with customers really suck sometimes (though, whose job doesn’t suck sometimes?), and surely customers’ behavior is often much worse than that of the servers and sales associates who have to deal with them. But if people who are paid to help you act so surly about it, it doesn’t exactly bode well for the rest of our day-to-day interactions, does it? Is the deterioration of good service the last sign of the End of Civilized Behavior as we know it?

Personally, I blame the employers in the service industries, many of whom are evidently no longer writing “SMILE” in Sharpies as a reminder to their staffs. Of course, the more sensible thing to write these days might be the slightly less demanding “MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH CUSTOMER,” as even that most basic human interaction seems like just a little too much to ask. Again, I speak from personal experience, in the form of that dude who was so, so busy on the phone that he couldn’t look up to simply acknowledge that he realized that I, paying customer, was hoping to buy that $4 coffee, and then tip him a couple of bucks for making it. Nobody noticed when I finally gave up and left after about six minutes.

Which, in the end, doesn’t exactly bode well for the businesses dealing with the flagging economy, either. I try to patronize the places (and sure, there are still plenty of them) where that black cloud of disdain for the customer hasn’t yet settled in: I still like to spend my money at places where they smile and say thank you when I hand it over.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ainedoley Aine

    You didn’t get the memo? Customer service is dead.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=623042504 Zachary

    As an unofficial consigliere to the service industry mafia, I think that the issue is caused by a number of factors, but I do believe that in many establishments where the potential for making a lot of money is not that great, then customer service tends to become poor.

    It is easy to see why some establishments fail, and that usually is the front of the house; the servers, the bartenders and the hosts/hostesses. The hardest thing is that there are a number of people that wind up in the service industry because they truly aren’t high or moderate level achievers. This is not to look down on the service industry, because it’s the one place where you can learn a trade and support yourself, but there are some folks that just don’t bring their A, B or even C- game.

    And on the flip side, you have the people that always are polite and show a smile, and either make good money and/or go to the next level in the game. Examples of this are Brendan who owns Memphis Taproom, Local 44 and another spot, and Chris, who owns MisConduct. There are bartenders that I will always remember and that will always remember me (Damon and the crew down at Capitol Grill, Kim over at Kokopelli, anyone at Panorama and the list goes on and on) as well as servers who are exceptional and professional (try visiting Panorama or La Famiglia).

    If you give people consistently good product and a pleasant work environment, then they will shine for you. Unfortunately, when you see the behind the scenes reality in some cases, that explains it all at once.

  • phal0101

    Who the heck would sit in an “empty” bar for 15 minutes waiting for a drink? Follow Zachary’s suggestion and go to better places.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.kiehlkopf Bill

    Please please get me a good service job where I can be rude. After years of fine dining
    jobs and countless customer is king accommodations made for unreasonable requests
    and concerns, handled with aplomb, I sometimes think I struck a bad deal with the devil
    where I don’t get to be king but lose my soul anyway. Dylan sang “Everybody’s got to
    serve somebody” but I don’t think this is what he had in mind. My guess is the jobs are
    demeaning and if they can get away with being rude, they do. Punk still lives!