Friday, December 02, 2005

THE BEST PEOPLE ON EARTH: Results from a groundbreaking waitress study

Originally uploaded by danny_bra.

I'm sure every profession has its secret knowledge. Doctors, for instance, probably learn how to spot a hypochondriac within three minutes of the first whiney hello. And elementary school teachers must assimilate the mysterious art of casting a spell on 20 active little maniacs that's potent enough make them sit in their chairs for the better part of the day. (As a mother, I've always been amazed by that one.)

Well, we waitresses have our spells and secret knowledge, too. When I worked a la carte, my livelihood depended on reading my customers and finding out not only how they wanted their meat cooked, but how they liked their service. Did they want friendly and funny? Or did they prefer efficient and invisible?.

When I got tired of the psycho chefs and the customers who were born disgruntled, I moved into the more physically demanding, but less mentally stressful work of a function server. I worked conventions for five years, and weddings for another five. During the conventions, we sometomes put in eighteen hours a day--from early morning breakfast to late night cocktail party. (I know it sounds illegal, but we were told that tipped employees weren't covered by the usual laws. And damn, those conventions paid good. We didn't question.)

I loved the work, and it left me free to collect unemployment--and WRITE--in the off-season. Function servers don't have to resort to the little jokes or the "right away, sir" attitude that frequently dissolves into "What a jerk!" once they hits the kitchen. Our grats are included in the price so we're free to be as rude or apathetic as service people everywhere. But most of us remain personable and helpful anyway. Mostly, because we just want to to; we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't enjoy--well, serving.

We love it when someone tells it that it's their fiftieth anniversary or their first date, and that in some small way, we helped to make it memorable. (I'm thinking about the time I spilled a glass of Merlot on a girl's white dress, then got so flustered, I sloshed the entire contents of my cocktail tray across their table when I tried to "help". A few months later, the couple came in again, and specifically requested my table. The occasion of my waitressing nightmare had been their first date, and it had been stiff and unpromising--until a spilled glass of red wine broke the ice. I wouldn't recommend it as a way to increase tips, but in this instance, I made two new friends--and collected a nice grat.

But just because function don't work for tips, or possess encyclopoedic knowledge of wines, or the ability to rattle off a list of specials with French names without missing a beat, that doesn't mean we don't have our secret knowledge. In fact, function servers are privy to one of the most closely guarded secrets of the human race: We actually know who the best people on earth are.

Now I see you looking at me skeptically. Excuse me? What about all the psychiatrists who spend their days immersed up to their crossed eyeballs in the human condition? Then there are all those and social scientists, and philosophers who spend sixteen years in college earning doctoral degrees. I think they know a little more about human nature than a lowly old waitress. Well, sorry; you're wrong. While those guys are studying the rest of the world, we're serving them soup--and studying them. And our methods for gathering data are a helluva lot more accurate.

For one thing, we don't see people when they're telling their life story as they wish it to sound. We see how they treat people they'll most likely never see again, people in service uniforms and nametags. We know how they react when things aren't going their way, when someone else gets served coffee first, or we don't have diet Coke.

And I can tell you every group of people has a unique character. As someone who's worked conferences for all kind of professions, women's groups, addiction groups, religious denominations of all stripes, politicians and policemen, I'm here to say that the results of the study on the world's most exemplary human beings is in. The vote among my comrades in bow ties in unanimous: The best people on earth are firefighters.

Now if you're under 18, right about now you're probably saying, Duh. Any job that requires going into burning buildings to save other people's lives is bound to attract some pretty decent people. But like I say, we deal with lots of people from the so-called caring professions. We've served religious groups that tried to convert us over lunch, and then snapped at us when the soup wasn't quite hot enough at dinner. We waited on therapeutic groups who attended workshops on the importance of empathy, and then shooed us away with a dismissive wave of the hand when we asked if they'd like coffee.

The answer to the question of why firefighters as a group are just, well, nicer,than other people is one I don't know. I'll leave that one to the psychiatrists and social scientists. What I'm here to say is that if firefighting ever becomes a religion, I'm joining up immediately. Without the benefit of a weekly homily or a book of wisdom to guide them, these people treat each other like brothers and sisters. They might not be the most well paid group, but they're more charitable and just plain kind than any group I ever served, and they show more class than the those from the loftiest professions.

Their secret? They actually see the people standing in front of them. They'll call you by name, notice that you look tired, or that you've been there all day; they'll ask if you have kids at home; and if they come back the next year, they just might remember. What's more, at the end of their conference, they're the group most likely to pass the basket and take up a collection for the "hardworking waitstaff."

So what does this study mean to you and me? Maybe it means we should look at the people around us, whether it be the chamber maid or the bartender or the cab driver. They might look like nothing more than the uniform they wear or the service they're performing, but these are human beings with tired feet and weary backs and a sense of dignity just like yours. And even if you don't look at them, they're looking at you. Who knows? They might even be going home to write about it.


Matthew said...

as a christian, i have to admit i read this post hesitantly, hoping the answer would be "persons of faith" or something, while knowing such would not be the case. sadly, i think this is more embarassing to me individually as a christian than to the church as a whole, though i believe that no small number of persons of faith are trying to change that.

in any event, i admit, too, that although i did not predict your conclusion, i find it utterly believable.

good stuff, patry. study on.

Jackie Bolen said...

Hmmm...interesting stuff.

Tom.... said...

Very great son-in-law, the one who just found out he and my daughter are having their second child, is a firefighter...and through him, I have met many fine young men, unselfish and heroic (and generally crazy) guys,who do a job most of us can't. (I wrote about folks such as these on the website, look on 'neighborhoods', then click North Side Journal, to 'opinions' and Baby Boomer...)

Patry Francis said...

matt: I'm sure there are countless individuals from all faiths who are kind and compassionate to everyone they meet, including you. (And undoubtedly, many of the firefighters I met at conventions were people of faith.) In their line of work, it just seems that brotherhood and self-sacrifice are not merely concepts; they're daily necessities.

just wandering: thanks for meandering this way. Please come again.

tom: I forgot about the crazy part! Yes, so true. There were some wild parties during those conventions. (Never said those guys were saints, just that they were nice.) Checked out your article in S.L. today. Fine stuff.

Joel said...

When we look to the spotlight, we often miss the people who keep it operating.

Patry Francis said...

well said, Joel.

rdl said...

I'm not surprised at all- police too, remember that from my days in the biz. coincedentally I'm coming out of retirement(for the 2nd time) tonite and tending bar.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is so true. I don't know if I would say "best" people, though, just perhaps most evolved. I have seen people develop within their own lifetimes from the very "worst" to what you have described here as the "best," and almost always through adversity, not workshops or retreats.

Nevertheless, I would also like to offer Matt some comfort. Many of my very kindest -- and I mean genuinely kindest, not fake-kindest -- customers are people of deep faith, Christians, sure, but also Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Taoists...did I leave anybody out? Anybody actually in my local demographic, I mean? On the other hand, just as many say they are, like me, agnostics on a good day, hopeful but not certain. I think the one thing they all have in common is their certain knowledge that they are not the only person on the planet who matters, or under any circumstances the one person who matters most, and that we're all in this together.

These people are also the most pleasant to serve, naturally. I would do almost anything for one of these people, and when they are sad or sick or even slightly annoyed, so am I on their behalf. This is the power and contagion of genuine compassion.


Patry Francis said...

karen: It IS interesting, and has got me wondering why firefighters (as a group, of course) are nicer to those around them than other people. Maybe because they are anonymous people in uniform themselves when they go to work, or maybe because action changes
character more than philosophical belief does. Just speculating. Hey, could be the subject of another "survey."

R: Can't wait to hear about your bartending experience after all this time away. Bet you came away with a couple of great stories.

Scot: You would surely understand this with the work you do. I like the way you turned this around a little. While I focused on how a customer treats service people, you reminded me that it goes both ways.

Sara: What a wonderful, thoughtful comment. I agree that "more evolved" is a much better term than "best." As a matter of fact, "best" implies the kind of judgment that I accuse my least sensitive customers of making.

Robin said...

I have a flip-side, I guess. I know a man who is always courteous and attentive to waitresses, yet treats his wife -- well, in the opposite manner. I asked him once, "Why would you treat someone whom you're not ever going to see again so well, then treat someone you're going to see every day for the rest of your life, so poorly?"

"Hmm," he said. "I never thought of it like that."

Anyhow, I waitressed for a different crowd, but I always thought construction workers/mechanics were the nicest. Or was that the cutest? Both, I guess. :~)

Thanks, Patry. Thought-provoking post, as usual.

Patry Francis said...

Great point, Robin.

Dale said...

Just empirically, I have to agree with you. Firefighters it is.

This reminds me of Thackeray:

But Mr. Joseph Sedley, luckily for his own peace, no more knew what was passing in his domestic’s mind than the respected reader, and I suspect what John or Mary, whose wages we pay, think of ourselves. What our servants think of us!—Did we know what our intimates and dear relations thought of us, we should live in a world that we should be glad to quit, and in a frame of mind and a constant terror, that would be perfectly unbearable.

Anonymous said...

From one server to you.

You. Effing. Rock.
Oh. And you made me smile after a long day of those dang cranky customers. =)

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