Exploring the “quirky, embattled server” trope

As a server, I have so many stories to tell, and as a writer, I can write them.

It sounds corny, but working as a server has opened my eyes to a lot of different societal issues just within my small, mostly vegetarian restaurant. I see a lot of inequity in a lot of different forms, but most of it revolves around people thinking that people who work in restaurants are unworthy of common decency and respect. That’s almost a “duh statement,” as one of my English professors would put it. The struggle between lowly service industry folk and anointed professional people is such a common trope that I don’t think it needs any more attention.

There’s always a certain narrative following a young female server. They’re putting themselves through school, or working to support their kids, and their pluckiness and “daring to dream” makes all their regulars love them and maybe leave them a huge tip. (Or fall in love with them, depending on what movie you’re watching.) In some way, we’re all just trying to put ourselves through, regardless of what job we work, but the same pluckiness doesn’t really apply to retail workers or bankers or writers or virtually another job. There’s almost a glorification of young female servers, but more of the trope, not of the person. There’s always a special interest story in some newspaper about how a girl saving money to go to college receives an exorbitant tip and freaks out because now she can buy books, or a young mother receiving enough cash to fund her baby’s birthday party. But for every feel-good story like that, there are hundreds upon hundreds of people stiffing their servers for some flimsy reason, or snapping their fingers or waving or shouting, or leaving a nasty Yelp review calling a server out by name.

Why this disconnect? Why do customers know that they could change a server’s life with generosity (or even just 20%), yet treat many servers like absolute dirt?

Why did my own mother, who is fully aware that I serve, thrust a bowl of Brunswick stew back at the server and refuse to eat it? Why did she stop her car at the end of the McDonald’s drive-thru, walk back to the window, and shove her Coke in the window because it wasn’t unsweet tea? (I’m mortified to even write that.)

Maybe it’s the aspect of the tip. To some people, it feels less like a pretty customary procedure and more like a bestowal of a gift upon someone who has met every criterion in their mind for excellent service. There’s a story I read once of a woman putting twenty one-dollar bills on her table and removing one every time she felt dissatisfied with her service. The bills left at the end were the server’s tip. I think everyone wants to be that customer who is both generous enough and pleased with their service enough to tip their server a lot of money, but something prevents them from doing so. Their server wasn’t fast enough with the waters. The music was too loud. Their food was blander than expected. They don’t have enough money to be nice.

Or, maybe, their server didn’t fit this trope they always see.

In the comments section of those feel-good big-tip stories, there’s always a doubter. “Get a real job!” they cry. “Maybe if you had an education you could get a better job and not have to rely on other people to give you money!”

(A relevant aside: don’t we all rely on other people to give us money? Even if you’re paying yourself, you’re writing the check, not creating the money. As Homer Simpson knows, money can be exchanged for goods and services.)

I don’t think people feel comfortable giving tips to people who they don’t think are cute, peppy, plucky, and smart. I think this trope of “young female server trying to make it in the world” determines a lot of people’s behavior towards their server, and I think the biggest factor is that last adjective: smart.

There’s always the inherent assumption that servers are stupid because they can only be trusted to write things down, carry food and make change. When a server gets to the table, they can either prove or disprove that assumption. They can present themselves as capable, or they can not do that. And at the end of a long shift, or a long week, it gets harder to prove yourself capable. People mumble and you don’t know what they’re saying. You have a brain fart. (Once I asked a man if he wanted a straw for his beer.) External forces also affect your capability. The host doesn’t tell you that you got a table, so you don’t get there until after ten minutes, and by that point they hate you already. The kitchen puts unwanted onions on the salad and you have to take it back and try to prove you really did ring in that modification.

Even if you think you’re at the top of your game, something else will affect your capability. And that’s just one piece of the required puzzle. Are you also pretty? Are you happy and upbeat? Do you have that oft-sought pluck? No? Hello, ten percent.

Of course, there are people who remain unpleased, and even if you do everything right and do everything in your power to improve their dining experience, they will stiff you. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter how happy you pretend to be or how many big words you throw their way to impress them (I’m guilty of this). Sometimes it just does not matter how hard you’re trying, regardless of how you fit the trope.

Let’s all try to be a little kinder to our servers. Remember that they have forces beyond themselves affecting their productivity and that they are doing the best they can. Also, let’s remember that servers get paid $2.13 an hour and sometimes don’t even receive a paycheck, so the difference between $1 on $20 and $5 on $20 means a lot.

Finally, if your server just doesn’t seem to fit your liking, take an honest moment and ask yourself if she’s doing her best or if you’re just holding her to a standard set by movies with servers in them and those special interest stories.

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