Being barely adequate at your job is a kind of personal strike. Why not support it? Photo: Sasha/Getty
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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?

“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.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear