5 Lessons in Applied Theology Learned from Waiting Tables

Working as a server can be demanding. I’m approaching my two-year mark at my current restaurant job and have experienced a lot. Servers really do work in high-stress environments. They have to multitask well while consolidating as many steps as they possibly can. They have to deal with grumpy people, angry people, apathetic people, and people that are just plain mean. They have to work with a kitchen of men and women who sometimes care more about being able to leave early than your 20 minute salad. They have to bend over backwards for customers, suck up to rude complainers, and betray a sense of justice in offering free food to the squeakiest cogs.

"Yes, that $25 steak I just finished eating? I actually wanted fish. Take it off my bill." Photo Credit: tallkev

“Yes, that $25 steak I just finished eating? I actually wanted fish. Take it off my bill.” Photo Credit: tallkev

For me, working in a high stress, highly demanding environment has revealed problems that I didn’t know I had and has refined me and molded me into a better person. While I know I’m not exactly where I want to be, over the past two years I have taken the theology that I had learned about in the church and learned how to apply God’s grace to situations that at times seem graceless.

Here is a list of a few of the lessons I picked up while waiting tables.

5. Attitude Matters

I used to think I was a pretty optimistic person…I mean…right? I would at least not be super pessimistic about life. I wasn’t one of those the-sky-is-always-dark-and-gray types of people… I smile a lot? Doesn’t that mean that I’m optimistic and happy? Aren’t smiling people always optimistic?

This guy is just super happy! Photo Credit: JoeBenjamin

This guy is just super happy! Photo Credit: JoeBenjamin

Fortunately, once I hung around some truly optimistic people, I understood how pessimistic I really was, and now, I can change that.

The people we hang around on a daily basis affect us in some profound and interesting ways. This is why you find yourself doing things you never thought you’d do when you’re hanging out with certain friends. Or why parents claim friends might be bad or good influences on you. We tend to reflect the attitudes of those around us which is why coming into work with a positive attitude is such an important thing.

I used to work with a guy who when he was scheduled for an early shift would come into work with a sour attitude. “They know that I hate working mornings! I’m going to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day to show them how much I hate this.” At some point in the day, his rantings and ravings would cause the rest of us to fall into that same sour mood. Once we were in a bad mood, our customers received less than excellent service and just carried that with them the rest of the day.

As Christians, we’re told to keep a positive outlook, to keep our eyes on the good things of God. When we allow dissent and negativity to enter our minds, we cease to be effective and bring down our coworkers and customers. It’s up to us to keep our attitudes in check, remember the good things in our lives, and not harp on the bad stuff.

4. Expecting a Return isn’t Altruism

I used to do this thing when I was serving that all servers are do at some point. We bend over backwards for our customers in some way (i.e. getting them a cheesecake on the house, using a coupon for them, discounting something for them, etc.) We usually tell them what we did and how we’re not really supposed to or give them a they don’t really like me to do this but…  We are quick, then, to emphasize how much we bent over backward to help them out and play up our own altruism. Then the table gets really happy, thanks us for our excellent service (a little pat to the ego there), tells us that they’ll request us next time, and leaves greatly satisfied.

When we hurriedly rush over to the table to see how much they left us as a tip, we’re quickly disappointed. Either they left us a standard tip on an already discounted meal, or they left us a less than satisfactory tip. We then seethe in anger. How dare they not repay my act of kindness properly! How could they just leave a regular tip when I did all that work for them! I did that completely out of the kindness of my heart!

What we’re quick to forget is that expecting a return for a good act isn’t really altruism. In fact, it’s the opposite. One cannot do something merely out of the goodness of her heart and then get angry when her good deed isn’t reciprocated. It doesn’t work like that. Yes, it’s somewhat disappointing when customer’s don’t monetarily appreciate your effort, but it shouldn’t be a constant struggle for us when deciding to do that extra bit of hospitality.

3. Discrimination is Real

I’ve spoken on this blog a little about privilege and intercultural relations. By far, I have not even begun to speak about how deep racial lines are drawn and how extensively race affects our everyday lives. Race affects every aspect about our lives, even restaurants. If not careful, servers can themselves perpetuate racial stereotypes and continue to categorize people by the color of their skin. Even though every attempt has been made by restaurants such as mine to limit racial discrimination, it still persists in the service people receive.

Without getting too technical, there are certain out-group biases that we hold when people walk into in our stores and restaurants and look different and act different than we do. Oh, you can tell they won’t tip. Just look at them. or Oh no, not again! I need to make some money tonight and can’t do it with all of these tables. Whether the tables are old, non-white, poorly dressed, etc., as servers, we size up our tables within the first seconds of meeting them and think we can decide how much money they’ll give us.

The fact of the matter is there are plenty of people that look just like me, white, young and dressed nicely, that tip horribly. The difference is that I don’t judge all white, young, well-dressed men by one person. Unfortunately, when it comes to race, gender, socio-economic class, etc., I often wrongly judge entire groups by one instance or person. It’s something to be aware of and to work against.

2. People Give What They Can

There’s a saying in the restaurant world: if you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to go out to eat. It’s typically shouted angrily by servers in the kitchen who deal with frugal customers who nickle and dime the restaurant to death and then leave a bad tip. It’s often spoken out of frustration because we, as servers, put in the effort but ultimately leave without making any money from you. But is that true? Sure, tipping has moved from a nice gesture to an expectation but do guests really have to tip just to be able to go out and eat?

Um...yes..ma'am...you do have to fork over $50 dollars before we'll even seat you Photo Credit: *katz</a

Yes, ma’am, you do have to fork over $50 dollars before we’ll even seat you
Photo Credit: *katz

It’s easy to look at the numbers on our checks every day ($55 here, $75 there, etc.) and not think twice about our restaurant’s prices or how much we’re charging people to eat there. I personally wouldn’t eat at my restaurant nearly as much if I couldn’t get discounted food. It’s easy to act as though everyone who walks into our restaurant has tons of money and is just all too eager to burn it up at our stores. But there’s a problem there.

I once had a family of four walk in and sit in my section. They were so nice. They had just been out that morning as a family and were coming in for lunch. Each of them got a burger/sandwich on our menu which runs for about $8 each (one of the less expensive items). I dropped off their bill, and they gave me their debit card. As I was running their card, the mother approaches me, expresses her gratitude for my service, and hands me a five dollar bill. With their drinks and food, their check was $50. $5 on a $50 check is considered a bad tip typically; however, from their humble attitude and food order, I understood that this was one of the few times they could leave their house and actually eat as a family. Sometimes servers need to step away from the numbers and realize that tables are real people with real money issues.

1. Love People Despite their Attitude

I’m very naive. I like to believe that all people have some redemptive element about them. That no one is really 100% down to the core awful. I believe that people are just mean sometimes, but for the most part, they’re honest and good. Yes, you can argue with me on this from a variety of evidence (Ring of Gyges anyone?) but I’ll pretty much stay the same.

Even though I write this, I do find people really hard to love sometimes. From the guy who’s screaming at me telling me that I should be ashamed of the bad food my restaurant has to the woman who won’t stop treating me like her personal slave, I’ve had my share of unlovables.  It’s easy to become disillusioned and believe that all people are just nasty and out to get away with as much as they can.

I'm on to you... Photo Credit: skeggy

I’m on to you…
Photo Credit: skeggy

But, honestly, if Christ taught us anything, it’s that we need to love everyone including our enemies (or in this case, rude customers.) WHY?! You shout. THEY DON’T DESERVE TO BE TREATED NICELY! Exactly. They don’t deserve it, and that’s precisely why we do it. I could give you some spiel about how people have bad days, and we don’t always see their good side, but ultimately, you don’t get to decide who is deserving of kindness and love. You just do it. We just do it.

Overall, serving and the service industry has given me much pain in my two years, but it has also led me to understand myself in new, profound ways. I look forward to one more year as a server to see what God wants to teach me next.

Banner Credit: christian.senger

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