A lesson learned from bad customers

Those who work in a position of servitude are often not treated with respect, something I know from personal experience.

Once upon a time, I was a waitress. I toiled in that job for about five years at a tony Georgetown restaurant in Washington D.C. As anyone who has worked in a position of servitude knows, sometimes customers can be downright mean.

I mention this because my youngest kid came home the other day rather upset. While Makayla doesn’t work in restaurant—she’s a teller at a bank—her complaints mirrored those I dealt with years ago.

“This woman started screaming at me because I wasn’t getting to her quickly enough,” she explained. “The customer I was dealing with spoke limited English and was confused. I was doing the best I could.”

“Sometimes, people just feel the need to demean others,” I explained. “They’re angry at their boss or their spouse, but they don’t feel right yelling at them, so they pick on the next person they see.”

“I’m lucky my manager witnessed the whole thing. She defended me.”

“That’s what a good manager does,” I said.

Makayla’s story reminded me of a family that used to frequent the restaurant where I worked. A mother, father, and two children who looked to be about 12 and 10. They came in every week and sat at the same table for lunch. Their order was complicated to the extreme.

“I want the spinach salad with no croutons and no tomatoes but with thinly sliced onions on top. Did you hear me say thinly sliced?” The father didn’t wait for an answer.  “I want two servings of ranch dressing on the side. I want sliced cucumbers with no skin, but bring them on a separate plate. I want my coffee very hot with a third of the cup filled with cream.” Then he’d stare at me. “Don’t you want to write that down?”

“No sir. I understand what you want.” I’d smile. He’d squint, wondering why I held neither a pad nor pen to write the order down, intimating that I surely wasn’t smart enough to remember what he wanted.

The wife would then order a similarly convoluted lunch.

The father would then address his son. “Give her your order.”

The 12-year-old would rattle off yet another complicated request. Then the little girl would give me her order, though sometimes she struggled. That’s when the father would jump in.

“You have to explain everything!”  he’d yell. “You have to tell these people what you want!”

I turned around. Since no one was behind me, I figured I was “these people.” He spoke to his children as if I wasn’t present. As if—because I was a server— I must be stupid and uneducated. I sometimes wanted to say, “I do have a bachelor’s degree, sir, and my goal is to become a TV sportscaster, and my manager here works around my schedule so that my dream may one day come true.”

But I never did.

After a while, no one in the restaurant would wait on the family. Instead, they’d come to me and say, “Your friends are here.” I took it as a challenge. No matter how offensive they were, I never stopped smiling.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I wanted to tell them what I thought of their obnoxious behavior. I wanted to point out that they were turning their children into jerks. But I could tell they felt superior and would never consider any constructive criticism from someone like me.

I found myself feeling sorry for the kids, wondering how they could possibly grow into descent adults with such a sad little man as a father. One who lacked even a smidgen of compassion or empathy, who assumed he was better than me simply because of the job I did.

I waited on the family for over a year. The weird thing was that despite getting their orders right, they would sometimes send them back for no reason. Maybe it made them feel powerful. I don’t know. But one day, my manager had had enough. He walked to the table grasping their bill. “I will be paying for your lunch today,” he said. “Now, you are no longer welcome here. Leave and don’t come back.”

They were stunned and complained loudly as they left. Once the door shut, we workers whooped with joy.

Did they learn anything from being ejected from the restaurant? I have sometimes wondered about that, as well as what became of those children, and how I managed to hold my temper when I had to serve them. Then, Makayla made the latter clear.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said. “You can’t take it personally when strangers treat you badly. I only get upset when people I care about hurt me.”

Exactly!

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8 thoughts on “A lesson learned from bad customers

  1. annemontgomeryauthor2013 says:

    I think many people understand this, and I sense it’s getting worse. I wonder what happened to basic civility sometimes.

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  2. annemontgomeryauthor2013 says:

    It makes me wonder, Catherine, how I didn’t think of that before Makayla did. Yep, she’s a smart kid. 😉

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  3. Jeffrey Leaf says:

    Did that job prepare to be a good ref or did officiating prepare you for that job? This sounds like something you could write after a game with one of those coaches and teams that emulate him. I’m not sure that basic civility has gone anywhere, only that the minority who have lost it are less afraid to show how far they have sunk.

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    • annemontgomeryauthor2013 says:

      I was in the early years of my officiating career at the time I was a waitress, Jeff. I do think the training I received on the field might have helped me control my tongue. (And probably stopped me from stabbing the guy in the eye with a fork.) I hope you’re right about most people still being civil. If not things are going to get messy.

      Like

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