The look on her face was unmistakable as soon as we shuffled into the restaurant. It wasn’t excessively late, no where near closing time, yet it was clear that the waitress was annoyed at our arrival. I’m used to that whenever I go out to eat with a group of eight or so of us; servers usually assume that we will be demanding or rude, and then leave a cheap tip. We are written off as “rowdy college kids.” A handful of us have been on the other side of this, and know the feeling of dread when you’re on the clock and a large group of young people walk in. You know, the type to just order a drink and then feast on free chips and salsa, take up a table, ask for complicated split bills, and leave some change underneath a mess of napkins after hours of loitering. Because many of us have been servers or hostesses ourselves, we do our best to defy these odds.
No matter how polite we were, she remained standoffish and short. I recognized her expression and body language, each practically screaming that we were being burdensome. She took our orders with a sense of aggravation, and then was inattentive for most of our time there. Our smiles were returned by a blank expression, and responses to any of our questions or comments were borderline snippy. I felt taken aback by the unfriendliness. It wasn’t just a busy worker that didn’t have time for our requests. It was like we had barged in, or done something intentional. Every time she scuffed away from the table, we stole sideways glances from each other. To be honest, it was awkward. It was so blatantly obvious that she had something personal against us. The thing that bothered me most was that it was one of our friends' birthday. A night that was supposed to be fun was instead made uncomfortable. What was her issue, anyway? Were we really that awful as guests?
Despite the less than pleasant interaction, we each left a generous tip. Like I said, many of us know what it’s like to be skimped on the check. I watched many of my friends even clean up their area and stack their plates, a sort of “pre-bus” ritual I’ve noticed people in the restaurant industry take to when they dine out. Regardless, there was a feeling of tension as we left. I felt mutually irritated, like we hadn’t been given the benefit of the doubt. She had judged us for whatever reason, and it was completely unfair.
The next day, I had class with someone who had been working in the restaurant’s kitchen the previous night. After some small talk, I felt like getting it off my chest. I hadn’t been able to let the service go. When I spitefully told my classmate how the waitress had acted, she responded with a look of confusion. She then explained that it had been the girl’s first shift in a while. Her friend had recently passed away, and the stress of work was too much when she was coping with the grief. We were her last table of the night.
Whoa. That kind of changes things, doesn’t it?
Our damage was that my friends and I had failed to see, or even consider, that she was dealing with something much bigger than us. In fact, it had absolutely nothing to do with us at all. Of course, there’s no way we could have known what was going on in her personal life. Isn’t that how it always goes, though? We hadn’t given her the benefit of the doubt either. It’s so easy to get caught up in what is going on with your own world, and so easy to forget that everyone else is living in their own, too.
Think about the last time you remarked, “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” or asked somebody what their problem was. Think about the last time a stranger offended you because they didn’t act how you wanted them to. What about a friend? Partner? We have all heard the aphorism, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about,” yet it’s easier said than done when it comes to being kind no matter what the circumstance. Often, we are insulted when someone is less than perfect in their interaction with us. We dwell on it and take it personally. It may be impossible to have insight into every situation, but instead of making assumptions or accusations, we need to instead focus on letting things go and on the simple act of allowing people to be human.