Much has been written in recent weeks about the long-term future of tipping in America. The winds of change are swirling and the viability of gratuity as a way of rewarding restaurant staff is under scrutiny. We’ve weighed in on the argument and, though adapting a new business model may be inevitable, we believe that it wont be easy to reform an industry anchored in a culture of exchanging money for pleasure. One reason we support changing the current tip system is that it encourages servers to adopt a “whore’s mentality” toward satisfying the guest. The meal is the sex—our job is to make sure you enjoy it. Like an evening with a hired companion, the ending can be awkward and shameful when it felt like you shared intimacy but everyone knows it was only for the money.
Restaurant service can be described in simple—if not cynical—terms: You pay money to eat food in a comfortable atmosphere attended to by people who pretend to like you no matter how you behave. A restaurant functions like a whorehouse, albeit a far more soft-core version. You come to us to be serviced; we smile and put your needs first, you leave us money on the table when it’s over and we’ll probably never see each other again (or at least we won’t be the one serving you next time). Restaurants are like handsomely lit brothels that serve food. We turn tables, prostitutes turn tricks. Same, same.
But, unlike whoring, people think it’s easy to wait tables. In many ways, the intercourse is just as invasive—at least psychologically—and, as with prostitutes, there is an art to pretending to enjoy it. No amount of training can prepare you to deal with people’s eccentricities. Catering to the needs of insatiable guests requires a herculean amount of flexibility and patience. Why do you think so many waiters get “turned out” and leave their jobs within less than a year? It’s a transient business and the life-span of hospitality professionals is often fleeting. The waiters who stay in the game learn to compartmentalize the abuse and are somehow able to turn what most people perceive as an undesirable vocation—waiting tables is routinely at the top of any survey of worst jobs—into a very lucrative living. When you work in hospitality, you have to train yourself to tune out the noise. Otherwise, you will lose your mind. Some do.
We’re not saying that every good server is faking it. Many restaurant professionals genuinely get a thrill effacing themselves for the edification of others. They gravitate toward hospitality careers because they love making other people happy. In other words, they enjoy the sex. But a vast majority of waiters would rather be doing something else with their life, so, suffice it to say, many are just going through the motions. If service is really good, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. For an experienced server, compliance is the path of least resistance especially when your livelihood depends on it.
Talking back to a guest can have serious consequences, even when they deserve it. Waiters, just like prostitutes, don’t have many tools at their disposal to defend themselves against encroachment and some diners know how to take advantage of the imbalance of power. Many treat the server as though they are on display and find joy in poking and prodding them or by making corny jokes and expecting a reaction. It’s very difficult even for the most demure server to discourage unwanted attention from guests. If servers choose not to play along, it can be at the expense of their relationship with the table and the quality of their tip. Like certain johns, many diners feel they need to really know you. That ‘what’s your real name?’ stripper-dynamic can be exhausting for a server that is just trying earn an honest living. Isn’t that why we chose restaurant work over less savory employment opportunities in the first place?