Fairfax, VA. The restaurant offers a modern illustration of the inherent value of virtue.
Working as a server, I’ve learned to spot those ruled by their appetites. When they arrive, they have to sit at this table, not that table. They order steaks “just under medium well but not medium,” lemonade with just one ice cube. They arrive ready to be dissatisfied, and often, their wish is granted.
When managers bend over backwards to recook food or offer free desserts, this doesn’t bring them to gratitude but merely back to baseline. They journey between hunger and hunger’s cessation, but they’re always driven by desire for something more, something new.
There is another sort of guest, who starts off grateful and thanks you profusely. I’ve had a guest thank me for “working tonight,” which I’m doing for profit, not pro bono. Another thanked me for waiting on her as a table just for 1. These thanks set the tone for all subsequent interactions. I strive to match their generosity of spirit with loving attention. They receive both the inward satisfaction (I assume) of a generous spirit, the reputation of kindness, and the reward of my best service.
Eating out offers a little taste of tyranny, a chance to choose virtue or utility. A cunning man would never tip, would always complain about food (in hopes of getting free food or gift cards), and would harangue the server to ensure utmost attention. This would maximize the rewards of his visit. Depending on who he eats with, no one in his personal life would see his greed. His reputation would remain unharmed.
Yet, most of us choose virtue when we go out. We tip at restaurants we will never return to. We patiently endure slow service or orders that aren’t quite right without distress. We sense that there’s more at stake in a restaurant visit than simply gustatorial or financial gain. Eating out, as Plato might have observed, is a chance to reinforce or undermine the rule of the rational over the appetitive soul.
The early Christian desert fathers sought to master bodily pleasures for the soul’s health. St. Anthony of Egypt slept on a rush mat and ate only bread, salt, and water to make sound “the fiber of the soul.” Food shapes us—spiritually and literally!—and Anthony saw the ascetic life as something that must be pursued “daily as though ever commencing,” to avoid the path of Judas, who in one night destroyed all his previous labor.
When a couple from my church came to the restaurant, their order was put in late, and a manager had to stop by. I asked them about it the next day, and they smiled: “It was great! We got free drinks and appetizers because they forgot to put our order in!”
Waiters have similar struggles. Some do their best to serve tables well but still receive angry criticism. They cannot rebut these accusations; their only recourse is confidence in their good intentions. Internal harmony eases reputational anxiety.
Those who succeed and rise in the ranks are in many ways the most virtuous. They can weather the inconsistency of guests, from poor tips to little digs, and they create cooperation that springs from generosity. They thank you for any favor you do for them, even for doing your assigned work. Their kindness and self-governance are so deep and genuine that the effect is magnetic. While resistance is possible, there’s a nearly physical pull toward them when they need a hand or seem flustered. Their internal harmony naturally leads to a good reputation and engenders a desire to aid.
This reality is easy to ignore when so much of our economy focuses on output. Irascible geniuses are suffered in business, politics, athletics, and beyond because their production is worth the cost of their company. By contrast, a great server—from grace with a guest to enlisting co-workers— requires not only virtue’s appearance but its possession. Character and product cannot be separated.
When I punch in every day, the computer replies, “Check your face!!!!!” Smiling is drilled into service professionals because it creates a personal connection before the business begins, humanity before ego and appetite. When faced with demanding, upset guests, controlling your expression can be difficult. It’s tempting to scowl in self-pity and anger, “It’s not my fault they said Rib-eye but meant Prime Rib!”
However, the smile that begins as an obsequious mask becomes internalized virtue over time. Each new table truly requires patience, humility, and empathy “daily as though ever commencing.” It’s fun when a table is kind and generous, but it’s satisfying when a table chews me up and spits me out because the napkins are the wrong color and the wine came with a chiller by request only, but they end up telling my manager that I was great about it all. With those tables, enduring a little suffering without complaint is the real payment. The tip is just gravy.
Great article. More people should develop this kind of attitude. After all, it is called a “service occupation” and you need to diminish your ego to be competent. I also wish more “civil servants” would remember the second word in their occupation, though some have gone out of their way to help me even if only via email exchange.
It’s an interesting point to recognize that rude consumers are actually destined to be unfulfilled. Our rudeness is the proof of our unmet desire. Buddhism talks about “hungry ghosts” that eat and eat and are never filled. Saint Paul makes a similar observation in Philippians when he writes, “Their end is their destruction, their god is their bellies…” In some sense, then, it is the rude customer who most needs an invitation to gratitude; although they may be the least likely to accept such an invitation. And yet, wouldn’t our Lord go after one lost sheep?
“They journey between hunger and hunger’s cessation, but they’re always driven by desire for something more, something new.“
Wonderfully said. The writer, like the server, can provide a nourishment that food can’t offer. But the reader, like the diner, has to be willing to enjoy it. Looking at it that way, I identify more deeply with the tyrannical diner than I’d prefer.
As I read this essay I commended myself, “I’ve never been mean to a waiter even once. I tip. I even sometimes remember my server’s name at the end of the meal, which is like an hour after they first say it!”
It’s relatively (though not trivially) easy to choose virtue when you’re being served by a real, living waiter who could maybe spit in your food. It’s much more difficult to be generous, gracious, and satisfied as a reader or a social media follower, or even as a real-life listener. And that’s not to say that you should be undiscerning in those domains—much as you should let your waiter know if you receive a wrong order, you can and should engage in critical public discourse.
But when I err on the side of criticism rather than support, anger and outrage rather than joy—and I do, time and again—I find I’m never satisfied. There’s always a next flaw in someone’s thinking, a new injustice, another sign that the kids aren’t alright. There will be no end to the fault you can take with the world if you mean to—but what self-inflicted misery! Wouldn’t it be ridiculous to seek out a bad waiter just so you have a chance to complain?
All that’s to say: this is a satisfying essay, and that’s truly a service.
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