Hello Salty Waitress, I’m wondering how to deal with this: During my first business trip to the USA, I was generally surprised (and somewhat bothered) by the amount of times a waiter/waitress would pass by and ask how it all was. I believe this is customary and expected by Americans, but in Europe we generally don’t expect to see the waiter/waitress beyond the assignment of table, taking of orders, or when you flag them if you need anything. This is perfectly fine, as I don’t want to bond with that person per se—I just want to talk to my colleagues or just enjoy my food.
How can I politely let the waiter/waitress know that I really just want to be left in peace, until the time some interaction is required?
Sometimes it takes a little getting used to another culture’s norms—except for how some European women don’t shave their legs. I could get on board with that in a heartbeat.
Restaurant etiquette is especially tricky. Humans have created rituals around eating probably since the day we speared our first mastodon. Sometimes it reflects cultural values, and sometimes it’s just the way people have done things for a long time. No country’s system is automatically better than another—they’re just different. And in some cases, you have to learn to adapt to the place you’re visiting.
You’re right, American restaurant service is more attentive than some European service. Americans expect the sometimes over-the-top friendliness and actually tend to get pretty pissed when servers “leave them in peace.” We’re expected refill their water glasses, check in to see how the food tastes, and generally be there to field questions and requests without the customer having to flag us down like an airport ground crew. It was a rude awakening for me to visit Paris, where my servers barely said a word to me. (Not that I could have understood them anyway.)
Why the friendliness gap? Part of it’s cultural norms, and part of it’s the money. Servers in Europe don’t depend on tips the way American servers do, which skews everything. European servers mostly make a salary, and tips just supplement that. American servers’ salaries, on the other hand, are made up of the tips themselves—hence the dog and pony show. We’re trying to earn our tips any way we can, literally singing for our supper sometimes. Because most customers want to be waited on hand and foot, that’s what we do.
You can use this to your advantage, though. Because American servers are trying to please the customer, you can try to make it clear that you prefer a hands-off attitude. Getting one-word answers to my questions generally tells me a table doesn’t want much attention. So don’t be rude, but being short with your answers and not making additional requests should get the point across. You can even say something like “I think we should be all set until it’s time for the check.” (Just don’t get miffed when your water doesn’t get refilled later.) It doesn’t mean you’ll never get a how’s-everything-tasting-over-here follow-up, but a good server will pick up on your cues and largely keep the questions to the bare minimum.
If servers can adapt their attitude, though, you can too. Instead of letting the attentive service bother you, consider it part of the novelty of being abroad. We’re just trying to be friendly, pumpkin.
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