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Archive for March, 2011

I suspect that waiters and waitresses have been given detailed instruction on behavior modification for diners. Diners like me, so eager to please, can be directed towards particular behavior through a simple set of phrases. It won’t work on everyone, but it works on me.

I went into a restaurant for dinner a couple of weeks ago. I sat down and the waitress came up to the table. “Good evening, she said. “Can I start you off with something to drink?”

You will no doubt recognize this phrase. I don’t know if it’s included in the training, but it is spoken by every waiter or waitress I’ve encountered in the last twenty years They, of course, are eager to sell a drink, preferably something alcoholic, since that is where the restaurant makes money, and how they increase the size of the tips. I understand that.

“Give me a minute,” I said.

“No problem,” she said and walked away. “No problem” is an interesting response. It seems to mean that I have given her a little bit of trouble, but she can get over it. I really kind of hope I am no problem, since serving me is, in fact, the point of her job. Still, I couldn’t feel I had been a little bit of a problem, and, weenie that I am, I felt bad about that.

She eventually returned. Eventually. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Perfect,” she said.

I wouldn’t have looked on my response as “Perfect”, but maybe it was the exact answer she wanted, and therefore, perfect. At least to her. And I felt a little bit better about our new relationship. I realized she was going to let me know when I got the answer right.

“I’d like a bottle of wine.”

“Perfect,” she said, and smiled. “Let me recommend…” (And here she suggests a bottle that is, in fact, about the most expensive wine on the list.)

I am personally suspect of any twenty-two year old who professes to know something about expensive bottles of wine, but I didn’t want to judge. We were spending the night together and I wanted to get along. I hoped she would understand.

“I was thinking about this Malbec,” I said, pointing at the wine list. It was noticeably cheaper. Like $60 cheaper.

“No problem,” she said.

I looked at her – her face was neutral, but I could just kind of tell I had made a little bit of a mistake. I was letting her down.

She brought the wine. I tasted it. I approved.

“Perfect,” she said. “Ready to order?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Perfect,” she said. “Would you like the special?”

“Yes,” I said. It was pricey, but it sounded good. It would make up for the rotgut wine I ordered.

“Perfect,” she said. “With the sautéed mushrooms?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Perfect,” she said. “Do you want to start with an appetizer?”

“No thanks,” I said.

“No problem,” she said.

“But I’d like a salad,” I offered, knowing I’d let her down.

“Fine,” she said.

Well, here was a new word, and I wasn’t sure what it meant. She didn’t say it sarcastically, so I figured there was some honesty in the response. Maybe it really was fine. But it wasn’t a “Perfect”. I think it was somewhere between “No problem” and “Perfect”, indicating there was room for improvement, but she had hopes for me. I knew I could do better.

“Blue cheese crumbles?” she asked. They were another $2, but that seemed a small price to pay for her approval.

“Yes,” I said, hopefully.

“Perfect,” she said. She smiled at me as she took the menus, letting me know I was behaving. And then I blew it.

“Could I have a little more water?”

Why did I say that?

“No problem,” she said. “No problem at all.”

“Whenever you get a chance,” I offered in apology.

“Perfect,” she said.

This pretty much set the stage for the rest of the meal. I found I could anticipate almost all of her desires, and was rewarded with a continuing flow of “Perfects”. It was like a little bell rang every time I answered correctly. We were developing a deep relationship. Pavlov had nothing on my waitress, as I tried to anticipate how she expected me to respond. I wanted those “Perfects”.

The meal was good, but not great. Especially for the price. But I had my priorities.

“How’s the meal?” she asked.

“Great,” I said.

“Perfect. Anything else you want right now?”

“No.”

“Perfect.”

I made a mistake towards the end of the main course, when she asked the increasingly common and confusing question, “Are you still working on that?”

I was flummoxed a little because I didn’t know I was working on anything. I was under the mistaken impression I was having a nice dinner. It gave me this image of me attacking whatever I had on the plate with a crosscut saw and power drill. I would think that she wanted me to be “still enjoying that”, or “still eating”. I hadn’t looked on eating as work, although I did feel my attempts to please her bordered on a vocation.

“Almost finished,” I said, showing I was really trying.

“No problem.”

I knew I was a problem. I finished as quickly as I could. I cleaned my plate. I stacked them, too.

“Room for dessert?” she asked.

I could see now this relationship wasn’t going to work. The spirit willing, the flesh stuffed.

“I think I’m too full,” I confessed.

“No problem,” she said. “Just the check?”

“Perfect,” I said.

It was inadvertent. I wasn’t thinking. The word was running through my mind, and it just slipped out.

She stopped in her tracks and looked at me. I had crossed a line in my behavior and I knew it.

“Whenever you’re ready,” I apologized.

“No problem,” she answered.

“Perfect,” I countered.

“No problem at all.”

“Fine,” I said.

“Perfect.”

“Perfect.”

“No problem.”

“No problem.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

I knew I could still salvage what was left of the evening. When the bill came, I left a little over twenty percent. A generous tip, but we had an understanding. I wanted her to know I cared. She picked up the tab and glanced at it.

“Perfect,” she said. “Thanks for coming in.”

“Thanks for having me,” I said, hoping to please her one more time.

“Whatever,” she said.

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