What Would Happen If We All Complimented Average Service?

Turning the complaining game around.

The other day I took two of my children out to dinner at Panini’s, a teeny BYOB on Market Street. We had used my Groupon Now app and thought it would be a quick place to grab a sandwich before a movie at the Ritz. It turned out to be a lovely little place with a full and tempting menu, and absolutely impeccable service. Toward the end of our meal, I thanked the waitress for how well she had taken care of us, and we all raved about the food. She was so surprised to hear the comments, she kinda transformed—her smile got bigger, her body language relaxed and, of course, she thanked us for thanking her.

Why do we complain but not compliment? I mean, no one calls the manager over to compliment the food or service.

I have a friend who makes a point to compliment people on good service, use the employee’s name when thanking them for help, and … her husband thinks she’s crazy. At least I don’t have that problem; my kids love when I compliment people or “make friends” with sales clerks, but they cringe when I complain.

I would like to teach them the line to walk: Take a stand and do not allow yourself to be taken advantage of, but don’t be a prick. Be nice to employees—I have noticed that even cashiers are kind of taken aback by a simple act of my making actual eye contact and conversation while they’re ringing me up—but don’t be so nice you creep anyone out.

But alas, I’m not sure if I’ve learned all these lines myself. Once, after waiting two hours for an eye doctor appointment, I BELLOWED at my elfin eye doctor, reminding him we could take our business elsewhere. I was so angry, absolutely furious; I think I said something as profound and articulate and meaningful as: “You’re not the only eye doctor in the world, you know. Nanny, nanny, poo poo.”

When I do complain at restaurants, my kids are absolutely mortified, even if my complaints are absolutely justified and they agree. This last Mother’s Day they took me out to dinner (OK, my boyfriend was paying, but there was a collective energy). We had to send three separate wine and water glasses back due to overt stains and smudges. We were seated at a huge round table and they brought us one basket of bread with four tiny rolls in it and one tiny dish of seasoned oil. They brought my son’s entrée about 20 minutes before everyone else’s (and yes, he finished his meal before we received ours—a food runner brought his order and then we saw nary an employee). My dish was shrimp, scallops and calamari over fettuccine in a vodka sauce, but a random closed mussel shell was on my plate as well—not part of the dish’s description.

The kids knew I was aggravated by all this, and I knew they knew I wanted to complain, and that was the conundrum: Dare I exercise my rights to have my way because it was Mother’s Day? Or do I suck it up and not make my kids feel awkward and uncomfortable during our meal out because it was Mother’s Day? I was so aggravated, so truly aggravated, and not speaking was making matters worse. I am sure that if everything was wonderful, and my kids didn’t want me to tell the server how happy we were, it would’ve been much easier to keep silent. I tried. I really did. But when the server made one of her very rare appearances to check on us, I calmly and quietly told her all the problems we were having. She said, “Sorry,” and walked away. I thought about getting her manager myself. I had another glass of wine.

I want to believe in paying it forward; I have to believe that when I am extra nice to the cashier, she is extra nice to the next customer in line. Anger is a waste of energy and only breeds more ugliness—this I know is true.

But what is also sadly true is that aggravation seems to be a stronger emotion, and a more lasting one, than satisfaction: Even as I wrote this, I still wanted to smack my eye doctor on the head and tell the manager on the waitress who merely said, “Sorry.”

But that does me (and them) no good. I’m going to practice positive psychology and make a big deal out of it when service is good, even when service is mediocre. I’ve seen the positivity that comes out of it when I do. Everyone feels better.

My thinking is this: Before too long we’re going to put in our food orders ourselves with a touch pad at our table. We might as well make real contact with a real human being while we still can.