Poorly Served: The Upside-Down World of Dining Out and Shopping in America

It’s not easy being a cultural transplant.

After almost three decades in the US, one thing in particular still makes me gibber and foam at the mouth: the absolutely awful service in stores, and especially restaurants.

Say, what? Let me explain.

I’ll be in a store — a supermarket, say — and deeply focused on my mission. I have a list, either on paper or in memory.  I’m juggling menus and selections in my head. I may be examining tomatoes, considering their ripeness because the recipe I intend to use them in is three days away, and I want them perfect then.

And from behind me, a complete stranger asks me how I’m doing today, not only startling me but also totally disrupting my chain of thought.

Or the restaurant where I’m deep in conversation with my wife or a friend, and every five minutes either the waitperson will interrupt us to ask how everything is, or some poor wretch tries to refill my water glass every time I take a sip. Worst of all is the breathtakingly inconsiderate habit of starting to bus our plates before everyone is finished, on the pretext of “let me get these out of your way, sir.”

You moron! Go away! They’re not in my way, and my wife hasn’t even finished her meal!

Okay, I’ve never called anyone a moron yet, but I have told water-bringers to “go away and never come back.” For real. And, yes, I like to linger with my empty plate, to adjust and tinker with the carefully-positioned utensils laying across it as we chat and refill our wineglasses. It makes me feel I’m not being rushed. What’s the damned hurry?

Why do I get so bothered over this? Because I’m European. I come from a place where a diner’s chief priority isn’t wolfing down their food and getting out of a restaurant in twenty minutes. Where sharing a meal is something to be enjoyed, a chance to be unwind and bond and connect with one another. Where once you sit at a table, it’s yours until you’re ready to go. Where people aren’t coerced into hiding their real feelings behind a corporate mask of bland niceness and fake solicitousness.

I’m sure the waitstaff at restaurants and the people who stock the shelves in the supermarkets are often wonderful people, but I don’t go there to have a social experience with them: I have friends for that. And greeting a shopper when you’re not even in their field of vision isn’t merely annoying, it’s downright creepy! (Trader Joe’s, where all the staff are under substantial pressure to be full of puppy-dog good cheer, has an especially bad problem, as revealed in this NYT piece).

I don’t care what my restaurant waitperson’s name is. I just want them to bring my food while it’s still hot (a particularly challenging item in the US, especially with soup), and leave me to enjoy my meal in peace. Why must they waste our time and confuse us by reciting an endless list of specials in mind-numbing detail which we’ll all forget two seconds after they finish? Surely the restaurant has a computer and printer, and could just slip a sheet of paper listing the specials into the menu like they once used to. Is management must be under the illusion that you’ll find it a bonding experience and like the place better? It’s nuts.

Look, good service isn’t intrusive — it’s discreet and invisible. Waitstaff and store employees should be around and available when you need them and stay out of the way when you don’t. Pestering people, interrupting them, interrogating them…none of this is good service. It’s pretend, flummery, stagecraft. Sadly, these are core American values. (Discuss.)

The same goes for clothing, household, and other stores. I understand acknowledging the customer as they walk in to let them know staff is aware of their presence in case they’re thinking of shoplifting. But if — as happened to me in the lovely Huntington Museum gift shop just a few weeks ago —  four different people come up to me in the course of ten minutes to ask if I need help, I just walk. Usually after telling them why, and sometimes handing them the item I had intended to buy until they shattered the last of my dwindling patience.

Once or twice I’ve sought out the manager in a supermarket and told them that the smiling attempts to catch my eye, the repeated greetings, and the dreaded, “did you find everything okay?” at the checkout are excessive. When pushed, they’ll mumble that they and their staff hate it too, but head office makes them do it. And head office is probably getting that advice from some consultancy firm or guru, for which advice we, of course, are ultimately paying.

Service industry protocols in this country are upside down. It’s like living in a sick mirror universe, and there’s not much one can do about it. When my wife and I go into a restaurant these days, I’ve taken to telling the waitperson, nicely and right up front, that we’re not in a hurry, want the food to come slow, and don’t want to be bussed before we’re ready. They nod and smile and seem to get it. And yet four out of five times the result is no different.

So does anyone actually enjoy all these forced interactions and interruptions? Or am I simply legend?

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Poorly Served: The Upside-Down World of Dining Out and Shopping in America

  1. Curt Jarrell

    I want to be apprised of trouble with the food prep (i.e. it will be late), if I want to order something I will tell you, don’t rush me, and leave me alone. A friend and I were catching a bite before seeing a film and a waiter didn’t let us know there was a problem with the food until almost time for us to leave. The tip was very small, just like his common sense.

  2. I agree with you 100% on every point and I’m American.

    As a high school and then a college student, I worked in restaurants, and I never presumed to talk to customers who didn’t talk to me first. That just seemed so obvious that it didn’t even need to be explained. A bit of a golden rule thing there.

    Ladies and gentlemen who wait on other ladies and gentlemen can be attentive without being intrusive, like Jeeves or Alfred, even though we’ll never achieve that measure of dignity.

    Years later, I was repairing coin-operated copy machines in libraries, and my Argentinian partner was constantly getting in people’s faces like the restaurant staff you described, even though I tried to tell him that we don’t do that in my country. But sadly, I was mistaken. We do. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

  3. Lisa Tang Liu

    LOL. I’m an introvert, Dario, and I hate all the things you mentioned.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Hi Lisa! And thanks for commenting.

      Yes, I’m one also, and I suppose that does make it worse. Not social by nature, not inclined to easy acceptance of mindless and false interactions with needy strangers.

      I’m happy that I’m not alone in these feelings, but, heavens, if all of us in the silent majority could just unite and stand together and roar, we’d shake the foundations of society and change the world. Short of that, I’ll take kind validation that I’m neither alone nor crazy 🙂

      Hugs,
      D

  4. Why do wait staff (don’t get me started on how much I detest that phrase) always rush around, even when no one else is in the restaurant but your table? They slam your menus on the table, reel off the specials so fast I end up with no idea what they’ve said and they return in less than five minutes for our order. We’re still chatting! Why are they hurrying? Infuriating! Another thing I do not like is when people working in a large building have no idea where any other offices in the building are located. Receptionists should have a map by their desk to assist people in locating any office. They should have a rough idea where every department is, as should all employees! Grr. It’s hard enough to be lost in a building, late for an appointment and even the people who work there don’t know where things are!

    • Hi Lori! 🙂 Yes, apologies for the painful “waitstaff” construction, but I didn’t want to have to unapprove a storm of comments from the set that lives to take offense over this nonsense by saying waiter or waitress.

      Lori, the hurrying is maddening and infuriating. I get it when a place is really busy and understaffed, but much of the time I just don’t feel that (as Karen says) they’re very well-trained. The business with the office buildings though I’ve never encountered, at least not since leaving the UK; of course, never having worked in or even interfaced with the corporate world, I’m fortunately sheltered from it. A map, especially in the digital age, seems like a no-brainer here?

      Nice rantlet, btw 😛 Thanks! 🙂

  5. When I returned from a year in Genova and Sardegna, I tried to get the local “alternative” paper to hire me as a restaurant reviewer. This lasted for one review of a high-end restaurant, because I reviewed the “service” provided by a snippy waiter who managed to mispronounced the Italian, French, and German offerings on their menu, had no idea what was in any of the dishes, and treated a party of two women diners like his buddies rather than restaurant patrons. “But what about the food?” the horrified editor asked me when I submitted the review. “I couldn’t even taste it,” I said. “The bad service destroyed the entire experience.” The bottom line is that most American have no training in etiquette, and restaurant owners don’t impose any training on their poorly paid waitstaff. As a result, if I want good service, I go to family-owned and staff cafes.

    • Karen, thanks for commenting, and for sharing, and a funny, sad, and infuriating experience. The mispronunciation and endless misspelling of foreign names food items drives me batshit, especially as I’m a fluent French and Italian speaker. I’ve even seen restaurants, and one very well-known and high-profile winery in the Napa, whose Italian NAMES containing grammatical errors (usually in the definite article, or in one case noun-adjective accord for gender.) It’s stupefying.

      My wife and I have a regular eyeroll when we order bruschetta (correctly pron. “broos-K-etta”) in so-called Italian restaurants here. The waitperson will always say something like, “so you want the broo-SH-etta?”, at which point I set them straight that “ch” in Italian produces a hard sound, like “k” . My wife once sweetly added that “you wouldn’t order “a bottle of SH-ianti, would you?”

  6. Walt Giersbach

    Love your diatribe and agree with much of your invective. But, in Taipei I kvetched, “Where the hell is the waitstaff?! I need a glass of wine.” My host said “They’ve been taught to leave you alone once you’re served.”

    • Hahahaha! Walter. See, we have two extremes. I’m really interested in exploring the vast middle ground here! My ideal is something like Downton Abbey in its heyday, where the staff are all there, and attentive enough that you can catch their eye with the utmost ease, but remain quiet and don’t have this unceasing and false puppy-dog need for attention.

      best,
      Dario

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