Thursday, December 22, 2011

"I'd like a baked potato, hold the negativity!"

I went out with my wife and a good friend--who I will call Amy--for dinner earlier this evening at a local sit-down chain restaurant. I will do my best to describe what I experienced, but let me start by saying this: A positive attitude always wins. Yeah, it's hard. Our jobs sometimes suck. Our lives sometimes suck. The economy is bad. Congress does nothing. Kim Jong-Il is dead. We have bills to pay and not enough money to pay them. We're tired, sick, unloved, or as my sister used to say, "friendless, neglected and dressed funny." But there are times and places to vent negativity.

With that said, I believe that there is (almost) never a reason to vent to your customers, and find the practice unprofessional at best and downright damaging to business success at its worst. I don't start tarot readings or astrology consultations with, "Well, my life sucks. My scale seems to be stuck, my hands are cracking open because of the cold, and I don't think I'll ever get over knowing that wrestling is fake." There is a powerful mind-body connection; while bad things happen to us, we choose how we react to them. There are times when we are feeling low, and we should express those feelings, but to those we trust, and in private settings.

The three of us meet once a week for dinner, and we enjoy each other's company tremendously. This time, "Negative Nancy"--and her name has been changed to Nancy for the purpose of this blog--was our server. She came and took our drink orders and then came back for our food order. So far, everything was going to plan. So we start engaging in conversation over the events of the past week.

Nancy returns with the salads, and this is where the problem begins. My salad is correct, but Jen's isn't. So Nancy places the other two salads down, complaining that because of her diabetes she just had eye surgery yesterday and that she can't even read her own handwriting. So she returns to the kitchen to get Jen's salad, and now Amy finds out that her salad is wrong. Amy plows ahead eating her salad, only to find a bug in it. When Nancy comes back with Jen's salad, Amy informs her of the problem, so she removes Amy's, joking about the "extra protein" that Amy missed out on.

Nancy departs. At this point, I'm giggling because I don't want to get angry with Nancy; the "protein" comment should never have been made, and I'm thinking this is one of the worst experiences I've ever had at a chain restaurant. Not all of it was Nancy's fault, but she certainly wasn't making things better for us.

When Nancy returns, she directs her question to me. Apparently she is "going crazy" because she can't read her own handwriting, so she confirms my order, which wasn't exactly what I said earlier. It was pretty close, so not wanting to take chances, I confirm the incorrect choice, which I'm prepared to eat without a problem.

During one of her passes by our table, Nancy stops and starts to chat with us. In many restaurants, they encourage the servers to be friendly and joke around with the customers. Personally, it's a nice touch and kind of makes the customer feel at home. This was unfortunately NOT the case for Nancy. During the five-minute monologue, during which all of us nodded our heads and agreed because we didn't want to tell her to leave us alone, Nancy told us the following:
  • She is from the Caribbean and has no money because she spent it on plane tickets back home to see her brother get married last month. Nancy has no idea why anyone would want to marry her brother, but the tickets are non-refundable so she's stuck;
  • She lives with her sister, her brother-in-law, and her three nieces and nephews. Her brother-in-law likes to "sit on his fat butt, drink beer and watch football" on Sundays. Nancy bought her nephew an easel to draw on, but the little boy prefers drawing on the walls. Nancy spent a lot of time with her Mr. Clean Eraser to undo the damage, but while her brother-in-law watches football the little boy writes on the walls with dad just sitting there, doing nothing.
  • She provides a list of Christmas presents that she has bought or has chosen not to buy this year for her nieces and nephews, either for economic or personal reasons, which she was kind enough to relay to us.
While we're trying to at least be polite--and granted, we could have told her to leave us alone, but it would have been rude any way we'd have tried--Nancy's manager is watching us from across the room. I see the manager walk past our table and say, "Nancy" to get our server's attention. Nancy keeps right on talking until about 20 seconds later, the manager calls out to her again: "Nancy, table 3 needs you." With a huge roll of her eyes and a muttered remark--I didn't catch it exactly, but I strongly suspect it was not professional in nature as it started with "She's such a"--Nancy excuses herself and heads off. I got the strong sense that Nancy's boss was not happy with her performance. 

Through the course of the rest of the meal, during which Nancy refilled some drinks but not others, brought out at least one incorrect side item, and generally made a nuisance of herself, we learned that she used to work at Wendy's--she was a 14-year veteran over there--but can't eat their food anymore. She has no idea why they started using sea salt on the fries, either, because in Nancy's mind it makes no difference at all. And did you know that "[aloo]" is the way they say "potato" in Hindi? I found this out when no baked potato came out for me and Nancy remedied that deficiency in my cultural literacy. 

Not to worry; we didn't let Nancy ruin our enjoyment of the meal. We speculated that perhaps her remarks may have been tailored to get a larger tip--"feel bad for me because I'm broke" kind of thing--but in the end, we really weren't sure.

I was stunned that someone would just vomit all of that negativity onto whoever was around--in this case, paying customers. I also left the restaurant with the strong impression that this was not the first time that Nancy's boss told her to stop blabbing and get back to work; I suspect that other private conversations between the two of them were much more pointed.

You know, I'm trying hard for compassion here, folks. It's something I work on every day. Nancy is working, despite being post-surgery and all of her personal and economic challenges. And being a server in a restaurant is a hard job; I have tremendous respect for them because they have to be nice, take poor treatment from customers, and work very hard for very little money. But there are some things you just don't do, and you shouldn't use paying customers as a dumping ground for your personal problems. The bottom line is I DON'T CARE about your personal issues. Go to work and do your best to put your problems aside. That's sometimes hard, but we all have to do it to earn a living.

I know you're wondering how all of this turned out in the end. I gave Nancy around 15%, even though I've been tipping around 20% these days with the bad economy. My Christmas gift to Nancy was not telling her boss about her incredibly poor attitude and performance.

So, Merry Christmas, Nancy! I hope you can find a way to be happy despite your problems. I will make you one promise, though: I play Old Saint Nick only once a year, and this is a restaurant I go to fairly regularly. If I draw you again and you behave similarly, your manager and I will have a pointed conversation of our own, and at that point you may have more to worry about than your lazy brother-in-law and Mr. Clean erasers. But even if this restaurant doesn't pan out, Wendy's would likely take you back. At least there your customers wouldn't be under your care for so long.

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