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Waiters and bad faith - click opera
February 2010
 
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Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 10:26 am
Waiters and bad faith

It's been fun having Lik, Ron and Shazna in town. Here we are (all but Lik) sitting outside Sasaya, trying to look as sad as possible in order to convince the waitresses to find us a table (it worked).



And it's of waiters and waitresses that I want to speak today. In Cafe Jacques on Maybachufer last night we got into a big debate about our relations with them. I told the "Americans" (Shazna and Ron live in New York) that I feel very uncomfortable relating to waitstaff. I feel horribly patronizing tipping them, I don't quite know how or whether to converse with them, I'm not sure whether I want them to wear a mask or tell me how they're really feeling.

This might be essentially "European" of me, because I notice Asians don't have this discomfort -- Lik and Hisae were quite happy to call the waitress by waving a hand vehemently in the air. Or is it something introverts feel and extraverts don't? Or something socialists feel, a gap between a concept of ideal equality and contextual inequality (as long as we're in the restaurant, I'm supposed to "command" the waitstaff). Or have I misunderstood entirely? Am I, like a passenger on a plane, entirely strapped in and at the mercy of the waitstaff, the same way a baby is at the mercy of his mother?

Here are some napkin notes outlining my argument about waitstaff. First, I notice that waitstaff often deal with the status difference between themselves and their customers by making it into a tempo difference -- they develop what I call "the machismo of competence" and try to cram as many events as they can into each second. By acting impatient, they keep the upper hand. So I try to order as quickly as possible, to allow the waiter to get on to the next thing. I squirm in embarrassment when my friends linger indecisively over the menu.

Secondly, it's even worse when there's a racial difference between the customers and the waiters. I deal with ethnic difference in my personal relationships fine, but it makes me uncomfortable -- it's just too "imperialistic" feeling -- when I'm issuing orders and instructions to someone of a different race.

Thirdly, I feel this awkwardness to the extent that I generally prefer service industries to be automated. I prefer self-service restaurants to waitstaffed ones (they allow me to skip the one, two, three, four, five moments when I have to call the waiter over), ATMs to bank tellers, touch tone automated enquiry systems to live human operatives. I'd be happy to live in a society in which services were all dealt with by robots. We're in an odd moment now, though -- British people are useless at efficient service industries, for instance, but, increasingly, that's the only kind of job left in Britain.

Sartre, in "Being and Nothingness", uses a waiter as an example of his concept of "bad faith". He's interested in the slippage between mask and man. "His voice oozes with an eagerness to please," paraphrases Wikipedia in its Bad Faith entry, "he carries food rigidly and ostentatiously. His exaggerated behaviour illustrates that he is play-acting as a waiter, as an object in the world: an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. But that he is obviously acting belies that he is aware that he is not (merely) a waiter, but is rather consciously deceiving himself."

Thinking of Sartre reminds me of something I read recently about how he and De Beauvoir spent much of their time living in hotels and eating in cafes. They did this in order to let "servants" look after their material needs while they got on with writing, thinking, speaking. It was also, no doubt, a way to evade some issues of gender politics -- the division of domestic labour between men and women. But it's interesting to think of waitstaff as "temporary, contextual servants". Sure, it isn't a feudal situation where someone is born a servant and stays one forever. The moment you leave the restaurant, you're no longer a waiter. But while you're there, there's a hierarchical relationship between you and the customers, and you accept their tips with humble thanks.

I told Shaz and Ron I thought American society was much more comfortable with this kind of relationship than European society. There's a strong sense there that everyone has some commercial interest. You expect people to be relating to you via money, whether it's someone you meet at a party who immediately starts self-promoting and networking, or the kind of chats you have with your doorman or an intern in your self-created company.

In Berlin, things are very different. Here we like to think that money doesn't dictate relationships, that there's some kind of solidarity that goes beyond that. But it isn't always the case. What happens when you befriend someone you've met through a commercial relationship? Shazna thought a line was crossed when you invite someone to your home, or get invited to theirs. And yes, Hisae and I have been to, for instance, Yumi from Smart Deli's house. She looks after our rabbit sometimes. So we feel like we're friends with her. On Saturday night we went to a party at her store, the four-year anniversary of Smart Deli. Yumi was greeting everyone, chatting away, passing out takoyaki octopus balls. But we were still paying for them, paying for the beer we were drinking. And sometimes we go to Smart Deli with friends, and Yumi just hovers in the kitchen and we don't talk to her at all, just stay within our own social group, then pay at the end, smile, and go.

I remember disagreeing with American friends in London years ago about this. They'd say some shopkeeper had treated them very rudely. I'd say I'd rather someone tell me what kind of day they'd been having than give me some sunny mask, a chirpy "Have a nice day!" which was just a lie based on money. When all our relationships become commercial relationships, I argued, there's a radical impoverishment of the quality of life.

Anyway, the conversation got very heated, with the Asians and extraverts and Americans and former waitresses around the table much less troubled by these relationships than I am. I sort of admire their ease, their mastery, their ability to patronize without shame. I think the waiters prefer it to my sort of awkward hyper-sensitivity too. Nobody likes having their "bad faith" pointed out, after all. But what does it mean when more and more of our human relationships are determined by the financial relationship we have with someone?

A related question, "How do we relate to interviewers interviewing us with self-deprecating courtesy?", might be answered by a couple of recent interviews I've done. Radio Correct broadcasts an interview with me about the Field Recordings Festival I participated in last week this evening at 9pm Berlin time, repeated on Wednesday morning at 8am. (For the relationship between Berlin time and other timezones, check here.) You can listen to the show, in which I play my favourite field recordings and talk about the ideas behind them, here.

I'm also on the inside back cover of the new edition of Map, Scotland's best -- nay only, I believe -- art magazine.

Oh, and Is It Because I'm A Pirate? is a relevant song for today's theme; here equality is restored between the waitress and customer when the pirate asks the waitress out on a date -- and, outside the restaurant context, it's she who makes him wait. Isn't that one of the better definitions of power: the ability of one party to make the other wait?

Anyway, must fly. Garcon! L'addition!

78CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 10:07 am (UTC)
synchronicity or sneaky recycling?

When I saw the subject line it reminded me of the post you made exactly one year ago:
http://imomus.livejournal.com/2006/02/20/


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 10:14 am (UTC)
Re: synchronicity or sneaky recycling?

Ah, that's interesting! I did think of that entry when writing this one, without realizing it went up exactly one year ago! I might expand this subject into my next Wired column, like I did the "dining alone" theme. This time it would be angled around the idea of robots taking over service industries, though, and whether that would erase the kind of "bad faith" I'm talking about here.


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brettday
brettday
The Jew Who Ate Pork
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 10:56 am (UTC)

I work at a restaurant, and I never have a problem with people placing orders, asking for drinks and such-- I knew what I was expected to do when I signed on the job, and in that way the customers asking for things are no worse than any other boss at any other job. I (and I think most service industry folk) see them as another sort of co-worker, albeit a temporary one.

After all, the relationship in the restaurant is one of me having to fulfill their wishes, but there are predefined boundries that all parties know and accept (anything they ask for outside of food and food related things I'm free to refuse). And if they're rude to the point of unmanagebility, I can always refuse to serve them anyway; just go get the manager, tell him what's up and let him deal with it. And, of course, if the job ever gets to be too much, I can always leave. The knowledge that I'm there voluntarily, and only as long as I chose to be is very comforting on rough nights.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 11:09 am (UTC)

Would you rather have customers talk to you

1. in a firm, authoritative, even patronizing way, or

2. with a sort of nervous collusive smile, as if they were delicately negotiating an ambivalent hinterland between being your friend/equal and being your customer/master?

Does the amount of tip someone leaves change how you really feel about them, or just how you act you do? Or neither?


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand


(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 11:19 am (UTC)

It's that alienated work thing, isn't it.

I'm sure a lot of the time the waiter thinks of the customer as being as much of a big nothing as as the customer thinks of the waiter as being a big nothing.

Attempts to re-dress the balance are frequently hilarious..

I popped into Tesco in Clerkenwell yeaterday to buy some fruit and milk, as she was ringing up my items the 'asian' girl on the check-out said "Good morning, sir. How are you?", I replied : "Good, thanks", or similar.

After I'd left Tesco I went over to Terronis by Leather Lane, to buy my coffee. On the way back from there I realised I'd forgotten to buy some porridge so I popped into Tesco again. I got the same girl on the checkout;

Girl: "Good morning, Sir. How are you?"

Same as I was 15 minutes ago.


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jimineuropa
jimineuropa
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 11:23 am (UTC)

I LOATHE being called 'sir' in shops in England, it just makes my toes curl. Perhaps the word's lost its older connotations of master/servant hierarchy, and people just say it with the same insoucicance as they seem to say 'f__k', but for me it sounds simultaneously both nauseatingly crawly and contemptuously dismissive ('Sir? You? Don't make me laugh.') Brian Eno feels similarly, or he did in his legendary 1995 diary. So I know I'm not alone in this respect. :)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 11:30 am (UTC)

I'm fascinated / horrified by the range of more-or-less passive aggressive behaviors people engage in to get even when they feel slighted by subservient jobs. They'll act impatient, or go outside for a smoke. Yesterday I linked to a Wiki article about the Blarney Stone that said that people who work at the castle rampart where it's located actually pee against it, just to mock the tourists they're earning their living from.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 11:43 am (UTC)

Yes, it's like reciprocal alienation.

In a sense alienation is like a currency that people pass around between each other.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 11:58 am (UTC)

Interesting idea!


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 12:14 pm (UTC)
It's all in one's head

I take classes with a yoga instructor who also works in a coffee shop.
She told us a story about an earlier teacher in her lineage thought it
was great karma to work in a coffee shop, because one was working on
learning to serve people - ie, learning to listen and be caring about something than your own small egotistical self. Of course,
it is a radical act to develop such nurturing, feminine traits in the US.



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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 01:53 pm (UTC)
Re: It's all in one's head

Not really.


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barkis
barkis
Michael Harren
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 12:39 pm (UTC)

Hey! wanted to ask if any of your work is fair game for my podcast. You enthusiastically approved my playing of your forbidden colors remix, but I just wanted to double check. I would like to play this one too.

Also, I completely relate to what you are saying here. I think I overly thank and acknowledge servers when I eat out, but then, I don't feel I am that too over the top with it. I think it is impoortant to see everyone first as a fellow human. It sounds like you are hyper-aware of status, even though your point is to avoid doing so. I think I followed that correctly, anyway.

There were times when I was a waiter, tho, that I liked to secretly punish annoying customers by ignoring them for certain amounts of time. I liked to maintain my dominance in whatever way I could. :-)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 04:31 pm (UTC)

You can put this in your podcast as long as you credit the source!

And yeah, status-aware to a fault!


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 12:42 pm (UTC)

Mmm, yeah.

To mish-mash various ideas a little...

If you're not aware of other people as being living kicking sentient beings, then the Tao has a habit of reflecting that non-being-ness back at you.

If you work in a coffee shop, or a menial job of one sort or another, the best way to deal with it is to be present to where you are, who you're with and what you're doing, so you're not living in what the Situationists used to call 'dead time.' This is a fundamental of what Gurdjieff called 'self-remembering.'

You can't legislate for this kind of thing and say, "Oh we should all just love each other", or whatever, because all that does is create alienated love. "We are the world!" etc.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 04:32 pm (UTC)

NO MORE DEAD TIME! Yes indeed, good points all.


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nato_dakke
nate
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 01:06 pm (UTC)

am I missing something? I thought you had been writing for so long about the ecstasy of losing yourself in a role, and accepting the lies Japanese TV tells you, because we all know it's a lie... to the point that it doesn't even matter that it is.
What difference is there between you playing along as the disposable "patron" and us getting excited about sumo in spite of the rampant yaocho?

While I'm at it, if it's your socialism that gets between you and the wait staff, maybe you should let it get between you and the anonymous automat stocker.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 04:40 pm (UTC)

You put your finger on a central bit of ambivalence. The bit of Sartre I'm referencing (from Being And Nothingness) goes like this:

"Take this café waiter. His gestures are lively and balanced, a bit too precise, a bit too quick. He approaches his customers with a step that's a little too sharp, he inclines slightly too eagerly. His voice, his eyes, express an interest just a little too full of solicitude for the customer's order. He returns, attempting to imitate in his manner the inflexible rigor of some kind of automaton, carrying his tray with the daring of a tightrope walker, its balance perpetually threatened and perpetually restored by a light movement of the hand and arm. His behavior strikes us as a sort of game. He concentrates on connecting his movements as if they were mechanisms, each commanding the next. He mimics the deftness, the pitiless rapidity of things. He plays, he has fun with it. But what exactly is he playing at? You don't have to watch him long to realize: he's playing at being a café waiter."

Sartre goes on to call this theatre a kind of limitation, an inauthenticity, "bad faith". But he's being rather rockist, in fact. He's following Plato and religion in locating freedom outside society and social roles rather than, precisely, inside it and within them. The thing I've discovered in Japan is that there's freedom in total social theatre, total inauthenticity. Mutual capitulation, strict etiquette, superlegitimacy. So I feel liberated from these feelings when I'm in Japan. That's one reason I feel so relaxed there. Language gaps and this utterly masked, high-etiquette environment make bad faith smalltalk impossible.

I also like how Japan is going fast into a robot services world, an automat world. But I do accept that this is at odds with all sorts of liberal ideas -- immigration, for instance, or trade unionism. Hence pieces like Racist Robots.


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kuroy
kuroy
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 01:32 pm (UTC)
Passive-agressive behaviours of wait staff

Very resonant post.
Interestingly, being waited on in Japan is a much less uncomfortable experience, probably because the waitstaff are decently shielded in tatemae, and you know that, and they know you know. They are not really themselves, so they don't have to feel demeaned. We poor Westerners feel obliged to be our real selves at all times: it's exhausting. Maybe we should regard public life as a stylised gavotte, and just learn the steps. How much more comfortable our public lives would be, and how much sexier our private lives.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 04:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Passive-agressive behaviours of wait staff

Exactly! I wrote my last comment before reading yours, but we're saying the same thing.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 01:38 pm (UTC)

More pointless nonsense from the pointless and the nonsense. Get it here with more humour
http://nonsense.sourceforge.net/


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eli_l
eli_l
eli
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 02:16 pm (UTC)
Different, but close

I work as a receptionist and get some pretty arogant visitors. I prefer those, to visitors who try to "get to know me" or try to act like my pal. They are dealing with me solely because they need something and I am obligated to deal with them because it is my job. I feel that the transgression of that exchange of services is humiliating, since it forces me to be friendly. I'm obligated to fake an emotion, something I wouldn't have to do if the person simply aknowledged that our short relationship is one of business, not pleasure.
Of course, this doesn't apply to my coworkers.


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cantstoptharock
cantstoptharock
cantstoptharock
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 02:49 pm (UTC)

Perhaps in America - where there is a tipping wage, there is more comfort, because right off the start, the waiters/waitresses are presumably getting paid even less than the standard minimum wage - they are working a sometimes thankless job that without YOUR tips brings home very little. In America, waiters and waitresses sometimes depend on the tips in order to bring home a living wage, and people know this, and so they tip, and feel better about themselves for helping the poor lady/woman/single mom/drop out/immigrant person.

And while this may not always be the case, especially if you consider that wait staff in many extravagantly high end restaruants make considerably more than minimum wage and have to be considered extremely classy in order to get hired, we still tip, and we still feel comforatable with the idea of the waiter/waitress in the role of one who is lesser - even when we know this to be false. It's just one of those roles that we've grown to be comfortable with - even in circumstances where we are aware that the role no longer exists.

I know my boyfriend is English and coming over to Canada (where although the waitstaff get paid at least min wage and there is not 'serving wages', their tipping habits have become ours), he has a very difficult time dealing with the "etiquette" around tipping - in his eyes, waitress seem to get hired based almost entirely on appearance, and tipping seems to happen in a direct relation to that - and the whole concept of that makes him feel incredibly uncomfortable - even in situations where blatantly it is not the case - when it comes time to tip, he feels weird about it. I think he doesn't fully understand what a tip is for, having not been part of the customs and the culture of consistant tipping across the board. I don't think so much that he feels it is undeserved, but perhaps, like you mentioned, it may feel a bit patronizing.

So maybe it is a European thing...


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 02:50 pm (UTC)

i think the american mega-monetization cuts both ways such that lately i feel almost as comfortable in a store as i do as a guest in a person's home. not paying for food just makes me realize the food is being paid for by someone else who may or may not be stretching their wallets to accomodate my hungry-ass stomach. the "networking" thing is a big big question. bring a bottle of wine?

I try to be super-friendly to waitpeople and often ask for recommendations or other questions because I know that they are experts at what they are doing (obviously this also gives them an opportunity to try to upsell me / earn tips with friendliness). I truly believe that if robots ever get advanced enough to fully work the service industry, they will demand to be polite and friendly to everyone.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 04:09 pm (UTC)

I don't know - Existential ideas on consciousness have been completely disproven by science (yes, our brains are physical things). It's kind-of like Freud I guess - fun to talk about, but in reality we're just entertaining ourselves with it.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Feb. 20th, 2007 04:49 pm (UTC)

Science and Existential philosophy can neither prove nor disprove each other, their claims are of completely different kinds.


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