Can't Touch This: Servers Who Touch You + The "Buddyfication of Dining"
Jason Kessler, the L.A.-based writer who pens a column for Bon Appetit called The Nitpicker (yes, a whole column dedicated to complaining about dining out), wrote a piece last week titled "The Nitpicker Is Sick of Being Touched by Servers." In it, he details a meal in which the waiter repeatedly touched him, presumably in a casual manner on the back or shoulder, every time the waiter approached the table.
Neil Conway via flickr
Kessler didn't like it. And the column goes on to examine the idea of personal space and how friendly a server should get with a customer. (One touch = OK. Three+ touches = not OK.) But what interested me more than the conversation about touching is Kessler's theory on the "buddyfication" of dining.
There's a power dynamic there whether we like it or not. If the server doesn't bring you something you ask for, you get upset. If they don't bring it fast enough, you get upset. The diner has the lion's share of the control in the situation, and in some very fancy restaurants, that's emphasized. In most other restaurants, however, there's an attempt made to equalize the situation. I like to call it the Buddyfication of Dining.
You've surely been Buddyfied at one point or another. The crouch next to the table. The "Hi, my name is ..." routine. The pat on the back. (A chill just ran down my spine.) It's a safe bet that this buddy-buddy routine isn't because your server felt like you guys were BFF. He was probably doing it to get a better tip.
Now this is a tough one to navigate, because waiting tables is a job, and it's a job paid almost entirely by the tipping system. So yes, the server is there to get a good tip because they didn't come to work just for fun. But I find the idea that someone would be friendly and warm with a customer as a crass attempt to get more money out of them a little cynical.
The best servers are in the profession because they enjoy connecting with people and talking about food and drink. And yes, while they may be serving someone, the human instinct to reach across that divide and make some kind of genuine connection remains strong. "We don't make physical contact with the check-out people at grocery stores. We don't shake hands with bank tellers," Kessler says, but those interactions are minutes long -- in many cases you could get through them without even talking to the person. In a server/customer situation, you're often with that person for hours. Shouldn't it feel genuinely friendly if it's a successful interaction?
I'm not coming down on either side of the fence on the touching issue -- it doesn't bother me, but I can understand how it might bother someone else. And I do think that one of the most important attributes a great server should have is emotional intelligence and the instinct to know when a table wants to be friends or wants to be left alone -- that certainly covers sensing when someone is uncomfortable with being touched. And the "hi my name is" routine bugs me as well, mainly because it's too canned to feel like a true personal interaction.
But I'd hate to go back to the days when servers were basically inanimate objects we bark orders at. A genuine passion for food and drink on the part of servers, and the friendly interaction and conversation that comes along with it, has made dining out better. If that's "buddyfication" then I'm all for it.
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