Hi Salty, I just starting working at a small restaurant that’s open for lunch and dinner. It’s not uncommon for me to be the only server on during lunch service, so I have to handle all the tables. The past two weeks, there’s this older couple who came in at the same time, both Fridays, and they ask questions like they know me: “How old are you? Do you go to college here? You’re handsome, you must have a girlfriend.” (Actually, I’m gay, but regardless, my personal life isn’t something that I feel like discussing right off the bat with these strangers.) I’m nervous about bringing this up to my manager since I’m so new and I get the sense they’re longtime regulars. What are my options for avoiding their questions?
Stressed Out Server
I’m always tempted, when tables ask me overly personal questions, to give them overly personal answers just to see the look on their faces. “Oh, am I planning on having kids? No actually, I had a hysterectomy a few years ago—what a saga, let me tell you about my rehab in a second—because of these ovarian cysts I was having, and—oh sorry, did you want that burger medium-well?”
The scary thing is, this might not even work on everyone. Some people are just that damned starved for gossip. (They should really try Facebook.)
Honestly, I feel for you—playing 20 Questions probably isn’t in your job description. What I hope for you is that either these people learns to take a hint or someone else miraculously swoops in to take that table. But, in the event the Front Of House Fairy Godmother doesn’t grant those wishes, I’m going to give you a few suggestions, and you feel out which will work for you:
- Shut it down politely, then turn the attention on them. “I tend to be a pretty private person when I’m at work. I’m happy to hear about your family and friends, though.”
- Make yourself too busy to talk. If you’re the only server on lunch service, it’s reasonable for you to be too busy for lots of chit-chat. Are there small tasks—folding napkins, polishing silverware, refilling salt shakers—that you could “save” until this table walks in? Don’t ignore the table, but that could be your excuse not to linger too long.
- Fib a little. Could you shift the blame a bit? Don’t stick it on current management, but what about something like: “I was told in previous jobs I should keep my personal life personal, not air all my laundry out. Thanks for getting it.”
- Get them talking first. Sometimes people ask questions because they want to be asked questions. Have some ideas prepared for simple conversations starters—weather, sports, traffic—that might stall their inquisition. Word to the wise, though, that this could just breed more familiarity, so tread lightly.
Best of luck, Stressed, because there’s no magic bullet here. If it really becomes too difficult of a situation for you to handle, you don’t have much of a choice but to bring it to the higher ups or shut it down with a gentler version of “Mind your own beeswax.”
Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org