When proximity breeds contempt
Readers may remember how often I have expounded on the social benefits of living in this crowded, vibrant, melting (and mingling) pot of a city—where the possibility of conversations with strangers is always right at the tip of your ears, and even if you are too shy to talk to strangers, you can overhear the most interesting things and later serve them up as conversational tidbits to your friends and acquaintances.
But there is, of course, always the other side of the urban “proximity” coin; there are often interactions you really wish you didn’t have to witness, ones you wish you could block out. Loud, boring conversations between salesmen about numbers or statistics. Ugly relationship arguments. Parents being mean to their toddlers. People spouting racist or sexist opinions.
Or, as I experienced recently: rude customers abusing the people who are waiting on them.
In New York restaurants, it’s extremely difficult to ignore your fellow diners. Tables are often so close together you may as well be eating at the same table. It was for this reason that, one night last month, it became extremely hard to ignore the demanding, absolutely pissy diners sitting immediately to my left.
The irony was that, as my friend and I were settling into our seats, we were talking about how wonderful this particular restaurant was, and at almost that exact moment we became aware of a man at the next table berating the waitress.
“Miss, I have to tell you,” said the man, who had a pointy nose and wispy hair that pouffed out on top, “this is not medium-rare, this is medium. Take it away and bring me one that is prepared correctly.” And a little while later: “Waitress, please bring me another set of silverware; these are not clean. Also, I need some more bread, and another drink. And can you tell the bartender to use Tanqueray this time, like I asked? Whatever this was, it wasn’t Tanqueray. Don’t think I can’t tell the difference!”
The other man at this table was also fairly demanding, though at least he was polite. “Sorry, but can I have some more parmesan?” “Excuse me, I seemed to have dropped my napkin, can I have another?” “May I have some extra dressing?” It was something every few minutes.
The poor waitress was running back and forth to their table as if she were running a relay race and she was the whole team. We tried to ignore the unpleasantness. With all my powers of concentration, I looked over at my dinner companion, trying to block out the petty drama beside us, so we could enjoy our dinner (and each other) instead of focusing on the complainers beside us. But once we had become aware of them, it was hard not to listen. (How about a little negative energy with that roast duck?) Our attempts at tuning them out were to no avail.
Gradually, in order to try to compensate for the rude neighbors, we began to over-compliment our waitress.
“Thank you so much,” I found myself gushing to her. “This risotto is the best I’ve ever had.”
“I’m going to come back to this wonderful place all the time,” my friend chirped in.
Of course, we were aware that the rude people next to us could overhear us as easily as we could overhear them. And I believe it made them meaner!
Hence the battle between praise and complaints began, much akin to the proverbial battle of good and evil. We could tell the waitress was grateful to us; we were the heavenly balm to the hellish job she had to endure three feet away from us.
In truth, at a certain point during the meal I really wanted my water glass refilled, but I felt so bad for the waitress that I could not bear to ask for this. Nevertheless we—quietly, subtly—began to get better service than the complainers, only because we were so comparatively nice. And so, this friendly, unspoken relationship with the waitress eventually began to substitute for the communion my friend and I weren’t having with each other. It became a different kind of social night, one where we had adopted a put-upon waitress. We felt that part of the reason we had come to this restaurant was to help her get through the night.
I’ve heard stories about what chefs do in the kitchen to the food of “problem” customers. One thing is for sure: I would not have wanted to eat from the plates of the two persnickety gentlemen sitting beside us.
Jeanne Martinet, aka Miss Mingle, is the author of seven books on social interaction; her latest book is a novel called Etiquette for the End of the World. She can be reached at JeanneMartinet.com
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