The Case of the Clueless Waitress

A group of us meet for breakfast nearly every Saturday after an early-morning meeting. There aren’t a lot of choices in that part of town when it comes to breakfast restaurants. We’ve chosen to meet at a place that is convenient, with food that’s okay and service that’s mediocre on a good day. We’ve been meeting there for a couple of years now. We’ve been complaining about it for almost as long.

The problem is the regular waitress. She’s disorganized and inefficient. After all this time, she has to be reminded that we want tea instead of coffee. Between the time she takes our orders and brings them to the table, she’s forgotten who ordered what—even though most of us order the same thing every week. Let’s face it, this woman is one cup of coffee short of a full pot.

Her concept of customer service is somewhat vague, as well. Such as the morning when, without asking, she brought green tea instead of black. A couple of us asked for our usual black tea. She brought new teabags—but then charged us each for two orders of tea. Last week she capped a morning of especially bad service by getting my order (the same order I place every week) completely wrong. Then she insisted it was my mistake. Instead of apologizing, she argued with me. She pulled out her pad. "But that’s what I wrote down. Number seven with sausage. It’s right here."

It didn’t seem to occur to her that having written it down didn’t automatically mean I had said it. I knew what I had ordered, and it wasn’t sausage. That word had not passed my lips. A different s-word nearly did, but fortunately I managed to stop it in time.

Why, you may be wondering by now, haven’t we complained to the management? That’s part of the problem. She is the management. She seems unhappy in her work, unwilling to be there, and unsuited for it—and she’s running the place.

Last week may have been the last straw. We started talking seriously about other places we could go for breakfast. Even high-fat fast food would be better than continuing to put up with this.

We talked about how this woman just didn’t seem to get it, about the glaring and recurring mistakes she made, about how angry she always seemed. Then someone said maybe she was dyslexic or something. Maybe she had learning disabilities, or problems with short-term memory. Maybe her home life was awful. Maybe this job was the only work she knew how to do, even though she wasn’t good at it.

By the time we got that far, I was beginning to feel sorry for the woman. This made her even more exasperating. I didn’t want to have any compassion for her situation. I didn’t want to think of her with sympathy or kindness. I wanted to hang onto my justifiable indignation. I wanted to march out of there in self-righteous search of a kinder, gentler restaurant with a waitress who could remember the difference between coffee and tea.

But once my anger became tainted by compassion, I couldn’t hang onto it any more, no matter how much I wanted to. It was so annoying to have my satisfying fit of righteous indignation wiped out by some empathy that sneaked in when I wasn’t looking.

Okay, then. Since my perfectly good snit was in ruins, the next step was to decide what to do. Ignore her poor service and her irritability? Keep showing up at this restaurant? Overlook her incompetence because I felt sorry for her? Would those be the way to put my reluctant compassion into action?

Not really. Continuing to put up with her bad service certainly wouldn’t foster any additional compassion on my part or any additional skill on hers. Nor is it really a kindness to help someone stay in a job she so clearly dislikes.

My solution? I can go ahead and feel compassionate, kind, and understanding—all the way to a different restaurant.

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