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.