Saturday, March 19, 2022

Respecting servers in restaurants

My friend Sara is allergic to peppers.  

This means bell peppers, ancho chiles, pepperoncini, banana peppers, piquillos, poblanos, Cuban peppers, Anaheim, pasilla, jalapenos, Fresno, Serrano, cayenne, Habanero, and so on.

When Sara orders at a restaurant, she informs the server of her allergy, and asks if specific items on the menu contain these ingredients.  

The trouble is ... it is never a simple interaction.  

Sara raises her voice, enunciating very precisely, carefully, and loudly, that she is allergic to peppers.  She then elaborates by reciting a list of the types of peppers.  Then she dramatically pauses, and adds "but not black pepper" waving her hands to gesture that black pepper is okay. This goes on for three to five minutes, as some parts of it are repeated.

Sara delivers her speech in a way to suggest that the server does not comprehend spoken English, and/or suffers from a mental defect.

Sometimes the server is knowledgeable about the ingredients of the particular menu item, and sometimes the server has to go away to check.  Once in a while, the server is rattled.  On one occasion, I ordered a salad that was supposed to contain strips of julienne red bell pepper, but the salad arrived pepper-less.  The server possibly thought that Sara's eschewing of peppers included everyone in the party, and not just Sara.  

On all of these occasions, I have felt embarrassed.  To me, this manner of communication insults and humiliates the server.  I believe Sara intends to be clear, not insulting.  I try to leave a larger tip as my way of apologizing for Sara's behavior.  I don't know if that is enough.  Having been a server myself in my early 20's, I know that after serving someone like Sara -- someone who demeaned and humiliated me -- I would have gone home and cried and cried.

So why does Sara communicate in this way? 

Possibly in the past, Sara consumed a restaurant entree containing some type of pepper, suffered a strong allergic reaction, became seriously ill, and was hospitalized.  But if that were the case, Sara could review the restaurant menu online, in advance, see the ingredients, and then phone the restaurant to confirm the ingredient list.  No need to wait until seated at the restaurant to interrogate the server.  Or, Sara could prepare some 3x5 cards with a list of her pepper allergies and hand it to the server, so the server could review it, or take it to the chef to inquire.

Another possibility is that Sara believes all servers are mentally defective.   

However, let's consider that about 40% of servers have bachelor's degrees and another 15% have associate's degrees.(Note 1)  So roughly 55% of servers have advanced degrees.  The probability that your server is reasonably intelligent is likely.  

Having known Sara for a long time, I know that Sara has a rigid value system that is something like this:

  • Purpose of Education:  Obtain a high paying job
  • Best way to get a high paying job:  Degree in computer science
  • Therefore, proof of intelligence:  Degree in computer science
Sara is entitled to her own value system. 
I have a different value system:
  • Purpose of Education:  Knowledge for the sake of knowledge; to be an educated human being
  • Best way to get a high paying job:  Not a priority; not part of the value system
  • Proof of intelligence:  Ability to think and write critically

I believe what happens in these very unpleasant restaurant interactions, is that Sara applies her value system like this:

  • This server earns less money than me, therefore the server must be stupid, because the purpose of work is to earn as much money as possible.  
  • The smartest people in the world earn the most money.  
  • If someone goes to college, they would study the subject that got them the highest paying job.  So even if the server is a college graduate, they were stupid not to study something that would get them a high paying job.  
  • A degree in computer science is more difficult to achieve than a degree in history, religion, economics, biology, chemistry, art, drama, etc.  Therefore, I am more intelligent than anyone who studied the other subjects.  
  • It is not possible that a person wanted to become educated; of course they wanted job training. 
  • It is not possible that a person could have studied computer science, but consciously chose to study something else, even if the other field of study did not offer the same job skills/earning potential.

So what can I do about this conflict with Sara?  

I do not want to dine in a restaurant with someone who mistreats and abuses the server, even if that was not the intention.  I do not want to be complicit in or support this behavior.

I appreciate that each of us has our own values.    I do not like the idea that someone's values serve as a  weapon to abuse others. 

My affinity is with the servers, and I will have to decline restaurant invitations with Sara.


(Note 1)  Research from Zippia (an employment research firm) indicates that in the United States, about 40% of servers have bachelor's degrees.  See:

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