Most people think waiting tables isn’t an actual job.
It’s mostly understood as the “go-to” job for people who just can’t get their sh*t together.
Sometimes servers over age 30 are treated with scorn — “At that age, and still waiting tables?”— but there’s a lot more to waiting tables than people think. It’s not just taking orders and bringing food.
It’s navigating total chaos with a rapidly-lengthening list of tasks while keeping a smile and a cheerful voice.
It’s cleaning bathrooms, picking up other people’s dirty messes and listening to customers whine about things you can’t control anyway.
“Oh, you didn’t like that salad? I’m sorry, but you ordered it, and then you ate it. How exactly am I supposed to fix that?” “Oh, you think this is overpriced? You should definitely tell me, because I’m a part-time server at a corporate restaurant. Obviously I have immense power and have total control over everything.”
Be it good or the bad, waiting tables is a learning experience. It teaches you about life, work and human interaction like no other job can. Here’s why:
1. You learn more about humanity than you would’ve thought. People who work in the service industries know a lot about human nature.
Having this unique glimpse into humanity affords you a greater understanding of the people who surround you.
It helps you understand how to read people, how to read faces and body language and what people are like when they think no one is watching. You’ll see both the good and the ugly of human nature.
And, you’ll learn how true it is that the measure of a man is how he treats his employees and inferiors.
More than anything else, you realize just how much you can learn about people just by how they treat you.
You learn if someone finds you inferior. You learn if someone doesn’t. You learn if someone is a good tipper or a bad tipper, which says a lot about what kind of person he or she is.
I learned that a smile is much more effective than impeccable service.
It’s not about the service you offer; it’s how you make people feel, which teaches you that people might not remember your name or age, but will always remember the way you make them feel.
Make an effort to make them feel good, and they’ll remember you warmly.
2. You learn what it’s like to be invisible and/or openly despised.
You are not supposed to matter. You are supposed to perform your job and leave the customers to their own business.
They catch little glimpses of you — a smile here, a drink there — but you don’t intrude. You are supposed to be invisible, but always present. Silent, but communicative, only appearing when you’re needed.
Sometimes this gets depressing. To some customers, you are literally just a vehicle for food. It’s depressing, but it teaches you how to operate backstage.
You’re not the star of this chapter, you just help out and it’s thankless but necessary because you realize how many people in this world operate backstage.
No one is a star all the time.
Suddenly you realize that girl who makes your coffee every morning. She’s just like you.
That man who drives your bus? Just like you. The woman behind the counter at the grocery store? Just like you.
3. You learn how great it can feel to be appreciated.
Which brings me to number three: When you operate backstage and you know what it’s like to feel invisible, you also learn how gratifying it can be when someone finally notices you.
And when you experience that wave of gratitude for genuine kindness, you realize how wonderful it is to spread it.
Someone made you feel warm because he or she asked you your name or helped you clean up a mess or left you a generous tip with a handwritten note, and you can make someone else feel that way, too.
4. You meet amazing people.
Most people who wait tables are more than servers. Actually, most of them don’t label themselves as servers. Wait staff includes people from all walks of life.
Many are actors, writers, college or graduate students, recently-divorced single mothers, recent college graduates, recovering addicts, wealthy stay-at-home spouses “just looking to get out of the house,” etc.
Whatever else they do, they’re probably just waiting tables to make ends meet while other aspects of their lives develop.
Maybe they’re waiting for their big break in whatever Nick Sparks movie is casting soon.
Maybe they’re paying their own rent for the first time. Maybe they’re saving up so they can send their kids to college.
Whatever it is, don’t judge because they’re working hard to make it happen.
And sometimes, they are extraordinarily talented. Russell Crowe, Julianne Moore, Sandra Bullock, Renee Zellweger and Jennifer Aniston all started out as servers before hitting it big, and now look at them.
5. You learn how to multitask in high-pressure situations and how to keep smiling, even when everything is crumbling.
This is one of life’s best skills because it is immensely difficult to learn.
Learning to manage chaos is one thing; doing it cheerfully is one of life’s hardest tasks.
Working in restaurants is hard work and managing to maintain composure, dignity, peppiness, energy and graciousness amidst the whirlwind of tasks takes a particular breed of emotional strength and resilience.
And that emotional muscle — the “endurance for cheerfulness” muscle — needs to be exercised before it grows.
If you can cultivate that muscle in a restaurant, you can apply the skill to some of life’s slightly bigger problems.
You can keep exercising that muscle until you can use it on a macro level, so that eventually, you’ll be able to effectively navigate the pressures of your private and professional life, and all with an elegant smile and a sparkle in your eye.
6. You learn that the difference between 15 percent and 20 percent is actually significant
Many people think, “Oh, it’s just a dollar. It doesn’t matter anyway.” Yes, it does. That dollar matters.
Those few percentages aren’t about the money.
It’s about the gesture, and whether or not you respect your server and want to communicate that he or she did a fair job.
The best way of saying “thank you” is 20 percent, not because of the money, but because of the gesture.