It was nearly 20 years ago and I still remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was one of my first days working as a server at a quaint, little Tibetan restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana. I was a college student at Indiana University, trying to earn some spending money. More than likely for coffee and alcohol. (Don’t judge – it was college, people.)
I had a large table of guests, and was precariously bringing their drinks on one of those oversized round serving trays. I had both hands placed perfectly on the bottom, to keep the tray steady. I made it to the table without a hitch, but the second I removed my hand to pick up a wine glass, the tray went wibble wobble and then crash! right into the lap of the person whose wine I was attempting to hand over.
He was drenched. I was mortified.
And also confident that this gentleman, who now looked like he had decided to go for a swim with all of his clothes on, was going to go off on me. Even worse – what if I lost my job? I needed the money. Remember? Coffee. Alcohol. College priorities.
I looked down at him, trying to hold back the tears.
“I am so very, very sorry,” I said.
His response? Kindness. Pure kindness. He did not appear upset in the slightest. He kept telling me it was okay and that accidents happen. He and his family began to help me clean the mess. And to top it off – after his meal, he left me the biggest tip I have ever received as a server.
I learned a valuable lesson from this man and the kindness he and his family showed me. There are a number of ways that scene could have played out, and most of them are not in my favor. He could have made a scene. He could have gone off on me and stormed out of the restaurant. He could have complained to the manager, threatened to never come back and most definitely would have been justified in not leaving me a tip. He did none of the above. Instead he told me it was okay, helped me clean up and then gave me way more money than I deserved.
On that day, I learned what it is like to be in the service industry and make a mistake. I also learned how I want to respond, as a customer, to those in the service industry – especially in light of mistakes.
It wasn’t easy being a server. I wish I could say the kindness this man showed me was the norm, but it wasn’t always.
It’s amazing the things I would get blamed for and the things people would dock my tip for – like the food taking a long time, or not being prepared properly. I always thought that was silly. It’s not like I was back there cooking up the steak between taking orders and grabbing refills.
It’s been a long time since I have worked as a server, or in retail and since then a lot has changed. I often wonder what it’s like to work those jobs now in the age of cell phones? I wonder what it feels like when people won’t make eye-contact with you? Or even acknowledge you? What is it like to try to help someone, take their order, ring up their items while they are talking to someone, or texting, on the phone?
I wonder if you are treated like this for hours and days on end – if you start to feel invisible?
I am grateful for the time I worked in these jobs because they have given me empathy for the hostess, the cashier, the server, the person asking, “May I help you?” when you walk in the door. These jobs are not easy. Especially this time of year. The stores and restaurants are often slammed, which can make service more slow and people are in a hurry – which can quickly lead to frustration. Who often becomes the target of the frustration? All of the people I listed above – the hostess, cashier, server, etc.
Here are some of the things I have learned during my time in the service industry. Things that are especially important during this time of year when the season of hustle and bustle, shopping and more shopping is upon us:
- If you find yourself waiting in a long line at a store, wishing it would move faster and getting increasingly frustrated because you need to purchase the gift before you head to the company Christmas party that starts in five minutes – take some deep breaths and realize it isn’t the person working the cash register who put you in this bind.
- If you order your meal and it isn’t cooked properly, remember your server isn’t the chef – he or she is just the middle man.
- If you are in need of a fitting room and they are all taken, the person working that part of the store has just as much control over the situation as you do.
- If you find yourself at a restaurant covered in drinks, remember – you have an opportunity to put yourself in this person’s shoes and realize they made a mistake and they are incredibly sorry – and you can show them the grace you wish someone would show to you. My guess is that person will remember that moment for years to come, just like I have.
- If a restaurant is packed, and short-staffed, and your service is just so-so, remember how little your server makes hourly and that he or she is busting their tale to get the 4th ranch dressing the table next to you has requested while also making sure everyone’s glasses are refilled on time, and that may not be as easy as it looks. Maybe instead of stiffing them, you might consider overtipping? Kindness begets kindness. Your server may be encouraged to pay it forward one day.
- And number one, please oh please put down the cell phone. When you go through a drive thru window, walk up to a cash register, are greeted by a greeter – put down the phone and look them in the eye and engage. So often these people are ignored. See what happens when you look someone in the eye and ask them how they are doing? It’s amazing how much people light up just from being acknowledged. I would imagine it has to get lonely seeing people day in and out, but having few people actually see you. Let them know you see them. And that you are grateful for their help. And in doing so – you just may make their day.
It’s the most wonderful time of year, and many would argue the craziest. In all of the hustle and bustle, let’s remember to be kind to one another and to treat the people who are helping us with the respect they deserve.
Kindness is a wonderful, free gift you can give this holiday season. A gift that will go a long way. A gift that will keep on giving. And a gift that will be remembered for years to come.