10 Things Being a Waiter Taught Me about Being a Better Man

Waiting tables can be an opportunity to develop skills from humility to leadership.

I wasn’t a waiter until I was 26 years old. And yet, somehow, it taught me lessons I wished I’d learned years earlier. Ones that have paid dividends in the 3 careers I’ve had since then. Mostly because no job I’ve ever had was nearly as difficult. There’s no shortage of challenging and humbling moments when you’re a waiter, and they can be great training for life beyond the “floor.” Some of these lessons are as follows:

1. Smile.

Saw what you will about how a man needs to be “tough,” but a simple smile can accomplish a lot more. Every social interaction in your life can go differently if started with a smile. If you greet your table with a frown, or vacant stare, they get nervous and don’t know what to make of you. If, on the other hand, you radiate positive energy from the start, your table will relax, they’ll be less difficult and trust your advice more. So even if you feel like absolute shit when you start your shift and approach your table, fake it ‘till you make it.

2. Take charge.

A table needs to sense confidence. Unless they’re regulars, chances are there’s always some insecurity in the midst. Either it’s a date and both are nervous, or it’s a family and the husband & wife are fighting or the crying kids are stressing them out, or it’s a work dinner, and everyone’s walking on eggshells. If you can be their guide, stay two steps ahead and make decisions as simple as possible, you’ll change their entire night. Even if they don’t realize it.

3. Seek to please.

Anything you need? More bread? More water? More wine? Everyone happy with their meal? Anything else I can do to make your evening better? You don’t want to just leave your table not angry. You want to leave them ecstatic. Praising your name on the way home. Men talk a lot about wanting power. But you know what real power is? The ability to please. To start a chain reaction of positivity. And it’s easier to achieve by serving than by bossing people around.

4. Accept chaos.

Things will get out of control. You will get weeded and all of your tables will need you at once. Another waiter will grab your table’s meal thinking it was his. A senile grandma will insists she ordered the chicken when you know she ordered the shrimp. Deal with it as diplomatically as possible. Know that there will be fights ahead and damage to control. And don’t ever think life will ever be without it.

5. You’re on your own.

Everyone will screw you. Though usually just by accident. The bartender will forget to make your drinks. The chef will turn your medium-rare into well-done. The hostess will forget to tell you about the table she assigned you 15 minutes ago. None of it will be your fault, yet, to the customer, it will all be “your” fault. Assume this will happen every night, and think ahead.

6. Do unto fellow waiters as you’d have them do unto you.

When a waiter is slammed and you’re slow, deliver his meal for him. Water his table. Get them more bread. And don’t be shy in letting him know you hooked him up. So he’ll remember to do the same for you. No one gets ahead alone. Help others out, and often—though not always—it comes back around to you.

7. Remember that your boss, no matter how incompetent, is still in control of your life.

It’s not fair that your manager is a drunk. It’s not fair that he couldn’t function at half your level. It’s not fair that he’s sleeping with a co-worker and giving her the better tables than you. But you’ve got to deal with it for now. Appease his insecurities, anticipate his shortsightedness and take steps that make you his ally. Until you’re running the show. And just bite your tongue. And accept that, for now, you’re not in charge, and it’s an unfair world. But there are still advantages to playing the game. Just know that some day, you’ll be running the show somewhere, and he’ll be divorced, broke and in need of a liver transplant.

8. Even people in the lowliest positions in life can be geniuses in disguise.

Some of the most successful people in the world were waiters at some point: Sandra Bullock, Kelsey Grammer, Jennifer Anniston, Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Megan Fox. And that’s just the actors. Who knows how many Ph. D.s were waiters, too, but declined to put it on their resumes. The point is: even though you might “only be a waiter” now doesn’t mean you don’t have a grander future ahead of you. And conversely, the person who’s waiting on you now might be Mark Zuckerberg eight years from now. Treat him or her accordingly.

9. It’s good to get shit on a bit.

Being a waiter means getting blamed by everyone. Everything about the meal that went wrong is your fault. Even if it’s not your fault in any actual way, shape or form. If the couple had a breakup fight while you were their waiter, guess what: you’ll be stiffed on the tip. But, it keeps you humble. And not many careers keep your humility in check. Right now, there’s a lawyer making $500k a year and getting made partner who thinks his shit doesn’t stink, but his kids hate him and his wife’s about to divorce him. Just be glad something’s keeping your ego in check. The time you go without excess adulation will actually make you more worthy of it in the end.

10. This, too, will pass.

You won’t be a waiter forever. Aside from the devoted pros who make waiting their careers here in New York and who are world-class server “savants,” most of us will simply do this for a few years, and then be on to the thing you really want to be doing with your life. Acting. Teaching. Med school. A full-time writer. A dancer. A choreographer. Whatever your future destination, know that it is coming. And you simply need to hang in there, and accept that, hey: this is just a means to an end. Being a waiter involves innumerable injustices, from bad tips to bad co-workers, to brutal hours and frustration that your fellow waiter who won’t sleep with you. But it’ll all be over soon. And yet somehow, years later, you’ll miss it with all your heart.

 

Read more in Advice & Confessions.

Image credit: ralph and jenny/Flickr

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About Mark Radcliffe

Mark Radcliffe is a writer living in New York City. He has a weakness for bourbon, jazz and girls who can drive stick. You can read more of his essays here: www.theradcliffescrolls.tumblr.com and http://markradcliffe.com.

Comments

  1. Love this post. I still think my low-end retail and food service jobs spurred a work ethic that will be with me forever. Those positions helped develop people skills and character and I wouldn’t be the same without them. I never thought I’d be able to say that since I would’ve done anything to get out of going to work at the time, but I owe almost everything I admire about myself to those experiences.

  2. Outstanding piece! I was in the food industry too many years to count. I started young in a cafe my parents owned. I took immeasurable pride in doing my job well. It wasn’t a job I held just to “get by”. I truly adored serving my guests. I always thought of it as an art form — juggling everything with a gracious smile, making my guests feel like the 90 minutes they spent with me was the highlight of their day. I deeply value the lessons I learned while bussing/ hosting/ prep-cooking/ waiting tables and bartending. Cheers for spelling it out so beautifully.

    (And Mark? It’s such a small small world – we met in 2008 on the 3-Hour Tour. Hello again!)

  3. These are so true…! Humility and courtesy will go a long way!

  4. “And conversely, the person who’s waiting on you now might be Mark Zuckerberg eight years from now. Treat him or her accordingly.”

    Sooo, if they aren’t a genius? If they aren’t ambitious? If they’ll never succeed in another career?
    Then, is it ok to treat them badly?

  5. I will continue to saw what I will.

    Over 24 hours and the typo remains.
    #arethereanyeditorsindahouse

  6. 7.”and it’s an unfair world. But there are still advantages to playing the game. Just know that some day, you’ll be running the show somewhere, and he’ll be divorced, broke and in need of a liver transplant.”

    10.”You won’t be a waiter forever. Aside from the devoted pros who make waiting their careers here in New York and who are world-class server “savants,” most of us will simply do this for a few years, and then be on to the thing you really want to be doing with your life. Acting. Teaching. Med school. A full-time writer. A dancer. A choreographer. Whatever your future destination, know that it is coming.”

    In the first instance you tell people to just sit back and wait for the world to give them what they deserve, and in the second instance you tell people to just stick to day-dreaming instead of hard work.

    • Peter von Maidenberg says:

      Contradictory, maybe even hurtful in some cases, but it has its productive side.

      One of the best ways to develop ambition is to learn first how to be pushed around, put in your place regularly, and have absolutely no right to do anything about it. Before long you’ll be chomping at the bit for autonomy and self-empowerment, in which case you’ve got a solid foundation of character to go on and succeed. Or else you’ll be eaten alive with bitterness and rage, in which case your life is worthless except as an example to others.

      As for daydreaming, there’s a sort of bland everyday sense where it takes some of the edge off things, but then there’s the kind of serious self-deluded obsessiveness it takes to really achieve – anything – in a world that’s got a lot less use for people who want to achieve than those who already have.

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