Dear Salty: I have a friend—an old-school entitled Republican reprobate—who insists on bringing his morning junk mail to lunch at a diner or restaurant and then asking our wait person to throw out the garbage when he’s done looking through it.
What do wait staff make of this habit? Does it piss them off, or are they okay with it?
Embarrassed Fellow Diner
Congratulations, this may be the strangest questions I’ve received since I started penning this column. Based on that alone, I must answer it.
What’s at the heart of this question is actually more universal: Where does the role of a server begin and end? Are we here to just take your order and bring your food? Or are we something more? How far are we supposed to do in the name of hospitality?
Let’s start with your friend’s junk-mail request. Yes, it’s weird. Yes, his attitude seems fairly entitled. It’s probably not physically difficult for his server to throw a few pieces of paper in the garbage or recycling bin, but it’s his attitude that’s off-putting. “Here, sweetie, I’m done with this trash—you throw it away for me.”
I don’t think it’s the mail that’s the problem, but the male. There’s a way of asking for a favor that’s apologetic: “So sorry, but is there a trash can where I could throw these away?” is so much more polite than asking “Hey, mind throwing my trash away?” Maybe this situation would feel different if your friend is a regular at a certain restaurant, where he’s buddy-buddy with the staff and leaves a fat tip. From your letter, though, it sounds like he’s just asking this favor at random restaurants, which is a bit much. I’m sure the staff always says yes, but they might give him an eye-roll behind his back. Generally, I would advise against bringing junk into a restaurant that the staff will have to clean up later. If you want to bring a newspaper, for example, then throw it in the trash yourself or take it out with you.
I think in a situation like this, people should ask themselves: Am I treating someone like a server or a servant? Is this task I’m asking them to do related to my meal, or do I just enjoy giving orders? Am I taking advantage of the fact that the staff is working for tips and is unlikely to say “no” to me? And hey, basic human decency alert: Would I want to be treated like this?
If you can answer those questions and not feel slimy about what you’re asking, then your request is reasonable. But people who take advantage of “hospitality” to be creepy to servers, boss them around, or ask them to do demeaning stuff aren’t asking for hospitality, they’re abusing the relationship. Remember, hospitality also implies that a customer should act like a “guest.” Sometimes, guests make requests of their hosts, but they should always be made kindly and with respect.
Lastly—and not that you asked but this is my column—but I’d say your friend’s mail-opening shenanigans are rude to you, too. (“What, was he raised in a barn?” my grandma Mabel would say. I don’t know what she had against barns.) I’m assuming it’s not high on your list of favorite activities to sit there and watch him sift through coupons for carpet cleaning or the sales circular from Sears. Maybe that’s the tactic you could take with him? “Hey George, as much as I love seeing the latest flyer for gutter cleaning, mind doing the mail sorting another time?” If he continues to be an old codger, maybe it’s time to find a new lunch buddy.
Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or are you a server/bartender with a horror story the world needs to hear? Email us: email@example.com.