Eleanor Margolis: sapphic cynic at large

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Why I still tip a surly waitress after bad service

Refusal to massage every customer with niceness is, perhaps, a sort of personal strike. Why not support them by still giving a tip?

Peggy Beaty as a maid in the play "The Five O'Clock Girl" in 1929. Photo: Sasha/Getty
Being barely adequate at your job is a kind of personal strike. Why not support it? Photo: Sasha/Getty

“Enjoy your evening,” says the checkout woman, as she slides a sweaty kilo of gummy bears in my direction.

In all her fluorescent-lit glory, she’s almost chirpy enough to convince me that I might. But I’m in America, that place where, famously, service comes with a smile wider than a trucker called Sugartits Thad.

This evening, my server-cum-well-wisher may not know that I’m going to take those gelatinous bad boys home with me and inhale them in front of a Holocaust documentary, while feeling nauseously guilty about how inappropriate I’m being. But she must have figured out that I’m not going to “enjoy” my evening. Not in the traditional sense, at least. I’m a grown woman who just bought a bumper bag of confectionary on a Friday night. The more I analyse it, the more passive aggressive that “enjoy your evening” becomes.

In all honesty, I may be niceness’s biggest fan. But, as a true affability wonk, I know that it should never be born out of orders from management. It’s hardly surprising that the average waiter makes minimum wage. What is surprising, perhaps, is that we require these people to smile at us. It’s not enough that so many in the service industry work hard for wages that barely keep them in white shirts, and are stung by unfair zero hours contracts. No; expect a tip? You’d better reassure me of my pointless existence by asking me how my day is going. And don’t forget to curtsey.

Admittedly, my own experience as a server is limited. There was the burlesque themed cocktail bar where I worked two solid shifts. My uniform was a corset and stockings. There was banter. Christ was there banter. As soon as the management realised that I had the charm and ability to remember orders of a beached sea cucumber, I was sent down to the basement to crush ice. I remember being down there long enough for my pupils to turn to slits in the dark, and to come to resent the Above People. When it turned out I was too damned maladroit to carry out even the most menial of tasks, I was compassionately “let go”. My short string of subsequent bar jobs were all terminated for similar reasons. I smiled throughout, but inside I was pummelling every single customer, with a sack of insufficiently crushed ice.

This is why I appreciate rude service. I don’t actively seek it out, only eating in restaurants with Yelp comments like, “waiter called me a noisome disfigurement on the face of mankind”; but when it comes my way, I’ll still tip.

There’s plenty of room for servers who take pride in their work and whose amiability comes from a genuine and deeply rooted belief that humans are OK. It’s just that, when anyone who makes my coffee wants to let me know that I’m a heinous bourgeois parasite, I’m fine with that. After all, no one likes that turd Ferrari sitting in Starbucks, tweeting a picture of a cup with his name misspelled across it, as if spelling “Zachary” with a K is equivalent to the barista having spunked in his coffee.

As Homer Simpson said, “If you don’t like your job, you don’t strike: you just go in every day and do it really half assed.” Refusal to massage every customer with niceness is, perhaps, a sort of personal strike. So, next time you’re served by a surly waitress, consider supporting strike action and tipping her anyway.

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