Next week we review the biopic of an amateur server critic entitled, "Why did you shove that fork in my eye?"

As you are reading this, I am most likely sitting in a courthouse awaiting a trial.  Not my trial or anything of that nature.  I was summoned for jury duty.  If this is the last post for a while, you will know I was sequestered for the crime of the century.  In anticipation of my potential selection, I have spent some time thinking about my recent guest post and a comment it included.  The idea of critiquing a server was brought up in the post and confirmed by some comments posted afterwards.

I have never been a lawyer, but I was on the mock trial team at North Kansas City High School.  I love Law and Order.  I have several friends who are lawyers and even know a couple judges.  People tell me all the time that I should have been a lawyer.  All of this makes me fully qualified to tell the lawyers what they could do better next time.  Right?

Any lawyer reading this is raging at the last paragraph.  I didn’t go to law school.  I don’t know what evidence was excluded.  I have seen lawyers in action and some have told me about things that annoy them, but it doesn’t exactly make me qualified to evaluate how they did their job.  While I feel pretty confident that I know what the job entails, I am probably just informed enough to be annoying.

This is why I will not critique the lawyers in the case.  Yet those same lawyers would feel comfortable providing tips for improvement to me.  It is an odd double standard, which was confirmed in the comments to the aforementioned post.  Otherwise polite and kind people with the best of intentions feel it is appropriate to tell a server how to do their job better.  In some cases it is done to provide compliments with a good tip.  In other cases it is to justify a poor tip.

Tipping seems to be the cause of it.  I believe that since guests are entitled to judge service to determine their tips, they feel comfortable doing it vocally as well.  It is a position of power that one would not have dealing with the DMV or a car salesman.  You cannot monetarily punish the receptionist at the doctor’s office, so you tolerate far lesser service than you would in a restaurant.  Even without the potential to take away their pay, the threshold for critiquing them in person or to their boss is much higher than for a server.  A server, who would by all accounts be the friendliest person at the post office, will be punished monetarily, complained to, and complained about to management, far quicker than people doing poorly in most other jobs.

There are three very important and interesting factors in play that makes people feel more comfortable critiquing theie server than a surly bank teller.  The first is that people have higher expectations of their server than they do of most people sitting behind a desk.  The second is, in spite of these higher expectations, the server is still viewed in a subservient manner because you get to determine their worth by tipping.  The third is that unlike all of those other people, who’s salaries you also pay, you are not aware of exactly how much you are paying for their services.  These factors contradict each other in interesting ways.

Most of the other occupations I have listed to elicit emotions are people who hold power over you.  The DMV worker or receptionist is providing you with something you need and cannot get elsewhere.  This puts them in a position of power and forces you to tolerate such behavior.  Likewise even the slightest bit of kindness from them will deserve rave reviews.  The last mediocre server you had would be considered the best employee ever if they put the same sort of effort into shipping a package for you that they did serving your meal.  The surliest person I work with would still be the friendliest person at the tax collector’s office.  Yet I am certain as a server they receive far more complaints on top of having their wages reduced.

This is why I find it so puzzling that people feel comfortable critiquing their server.  Having dined out a great deal or working at a pizza place in college, does not inherently qualify to know how the server could improve.  There are a myriad of factors that can influence the service you receive.  Just as my hours of watching Law and Order does not qualify me to fully understand a lawyer’s job, you may not be qualified to know how backed up the kitchen was or that your server’s cat died right before work.  Even after being critiqued, the server cannot reply or explain for risk of being fired.

Too often this is used as a mild form of bullying.  Some people do truly believe that they are saying these things to the server as constructive criticism.  They do not view it as demeaning to the server.  I have developed a litmus test for these people.  If you do not respect the server enough to invite them to your job to critique you, then maybe your criticism is talking down to them.  If it is truly a suggestion to an equal, their opinion of your job should be valued as well.  They won’t keep part of you wage for poor performance, so you already have far less to lose.

The first response I am expecting to this post is that I am an exception.  Some of you are even reading this thinking, “but you are a professional who is passionate about what you do, not some kid at the neighborhood bar and gill.”  While this is true, and I do get far less criticism than I did when I a teenager starting out, it again points out the idea of subservience.  When I was a baby-faced server without a spec of grey hair, I received these critiques often.  While I have grown to love the industry more than I did back then, I cared just as much about my job and took criticism to heart much more.  It’s been a couple years since I sat in my car after work crying because I didn’t feel like I did a good enough job that night.  Never doubt how much your server cares or how much they are affected by criticism.  I am a professional who is passionate about his job.  I was fifteen years ago too.  Now I have developed a demeanor that discourages criticism and a confidece that thickens the skin.  Before that, I simply acted like I didn’t care about the criticism until I got to the car.  It was easier that way.

I am not saying that it is rude to pass suggestions along to your server in every instance.  Just take the time to fully analyze your motivations and preconceptions in advance.  I have been at this for fifteen years and feel confident in my abilities to diagnose ways that servers can improve.  I have trained well over a hundred servers.  Even with all of that experience, I choose not to criticize.  I can neither know the root of the problem, nor how it will affect the server.

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