Psychology at tableside: what waiting tables taught me about people

I read this story years ago, on a website of unknown repute. It might not be true anymore — heck, it might never have been true — but it’s a great anecdote, so here goes:

Urban legend says that when hiring a new managing executive, Wall Street CEOs will take the guy out to a restaurant. A nice restaurant with silverware and busboys. This outing seems like a normal business lunch, but the CEO is actually observing how the manager behaves in this specific environment. Waitstaff are in a service position and therefore of a perceived lower rank, so people often reveal their true colours. If the manager makes nice with the CEO, then turns around and snaps irritably at the waitstaff, that shows that he cares more about title and salary than about treating people equally. Something as simple as asking for a water refill can give great insight on how you’ll handle an employee of lower rank than yourself.

The short version: server-and-customer interactions can teach you a lot about human nature. I’ve found this to be very true! I’ve worked at lots of different food establishments — from a hole-in-the-wall sushi place with 44 seats, to a nightclub-esque restaurant you could fit a whole village into; from a local family pizza joint, to a multi-national seafood chain. No matter the surroundings or the food type, people show their true nature when a waitress walks up and asks what they’d like. That true nature is overlaid with things like low blood sugar crankiness or the general tone of their day — but the person still shows their personality in fundamental ways.

Sometimes I say, "Hi, welcome to--" and the customer snaps, "Bring me a coffee." That doesn't bode well.

Sometimes I say, “Hi, welcome to–” and the customer snaps, “Bring me a coffee.” That rarely bodes well.

Like the CEO fable says, some people are inclined to look down on a waitress, or anyone else of a service-type profession. They think they rank higher than the waitress in all ways, or they simply think that the customer is literally always right. Fortunately, those people aren’t the majority. Most folks come to a restaurant as a treat or a celebration. They’re looking forward to good food and a good time. A friendly server can add to that experience — because this nice person is the one who brings the food and wine, right? Right. I’m fairly sure the decline in home cooking has made a difference, too. More and more people are dependant on processed food because they don’t know how to cook, or they feel they’re too busy to cook. Those folks are easy to please by bringing them a hot meal.

So when I approach a table full of strangers, I need to quickly determine their opinion of me. That’s usually easy enough, based on their body language while I’m greeting them, and whether they say hello back. I explain the night’s meal specials — and abbreviate them if the customers’ eyes are glazing over, or elaborate if they want all the details.


I’m chef-trained, after all. I could explain food for DAYS.

I also ask a few questions — “So, what brings you out tonight? Celebrating something special?” — and see whether the customer volunteers a little (or a lot) of information. By the time I have their drink order, I usually have a pretty good read on the customers’ personalities and mood. It’s taken a few years to refine my technique, but I do like to know whether I’m safe to crack a dorky joke.

Along with quickly reading people, I’ve picked up phrasing tricks that can influence the customer’s response. Choice of words can make all the difference in the world. I call it “server mind tricks” in the same tone I talk about Jedi powers — although, actually, this sort of benevolent trickery is a great skill for everyone to know. Knowing what to say can smooth over a lot of customer service situations.

You know when a server asks if you want cheese and pepper grated onto your pasta? I’ve found that if you ask it as an open-ended question — “Would you like cheese or pepper?” — the customer usually says yes. Because who doesn’t want extra cheese? But at the busy nightclub-esque restaurant, sometimes I had more pressing tasks to look after than standing there grating Parmesan. So I tried asking, “Would you like cheese or pepper, or is it fine the way it is?” The last part of that sentence — fine the way it is — was what stuck in the customer’s mind, and far fewer people asked for extra topping. I was usually free to go. (Honestly, the food at that restaurant was delicious already: it didn’t need extra cheese or pepper indiscriminately dumped on.)

Psychology is even more helpful if the restaurant’s kitchen is struggling to keep up. Most customers are decent folks who sympathize with the only-human staff — as long as you play your cards right. If the food takes 10 minutes too long and the customer is staring while I bring the plates? I don’t say, “Sorry for the inconvenience” — because that emphasizes that something bad and inconvenient has happened. Not an idea I want to reinforce. Instead, I sincerely tell the customer, “Thank you for your patience.” That’s a compliment so subtle that it doesn’t even seem like a compliment. People are inclined to think, “Yes, I was patient in the face of this mild annoyance” and that makes them feel like a good person. The frustrating situation suddenly doesn’t seem that bad.

"Your server is a lovely young lady. You do not want to rip her a new one."

“Your server is a lovely young lady. You do not want to rip her a new one.”

Serving tables might not be the most glamorous profession, but it’s a great way to see personality types in action. And word choice can make an enormous difference in how situations turn out. So, basically, I’ve gained skills that are relevant to many walks of life — including writing. If everyone waited tables as their first job, I think our world would be a much more understanding place.

3 Comments on “Psychology at tableside: what waiting tables taught me about people”

  1. Dane says:

    The best waitresses tend to have a seemingly supernatural ability to read a situation as well as the exact social distance they need to keep with the customer, and what to say in what tone to have the most success in getting customers to do what they want.

    Since I live alone and do office work, I tend to dine out with my office workers for lunch a few times a week. I know the order dance, so to speak: the cues that she’s looking for on whether she can take her time with us or if I really want to be on my way, what her verbal and body language is telling me about how busy she is, and 99% of the time I get good service. I also know that when a waitress is being utterly robotic or tone deaf it is almost always because there’s some idiot micromanaging every interaction that waitresses are performing. Hello managers, this is a human service job, not a programming job where you input the correct script and maximize efficiency and profit.

    My favorite waitress at a place I take Mom out to already knows what I want at this point, but she’s still fantastic at her job. The only time the service is slow is when she’s the only waitress on the floor serving all ~15 tables. When that happens she looks super frazzled and sad that she couldn’t get to us quickly, like she takes it personally. I just want to hug her and tell her it’s OK, she’s doing fine, but that would probably be a bit gushy and almost certainly an inappropriate boundary for a customer to cross!

    • Hey Dane, thanks for stopping by.

      Your waitress sounds like a keeper! All good servers I know do take it personally when their service is bad. Even if there are circumstances beyond anyone’s control (like an unexpectedly large lunch rush), the servers still feel a personal responsibility to provide good service. I guess if you have enough empathy to read social cues well, you also strongly empathize with the customer you’re not serving very well.

      If you want to reassure your waitress without being gushy, I’d just say something like, “It’s okay, we know you’re doing your best.” Speaking from my own experience, that’s a world of relief, just knowing that the customer understands you’re not ignoring them on purpose.

  2. […] 1) She was one of those people who thinks serving staff are inferior human beings. […]

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