February 20th, 2007


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!