by Katherine Perry, 89.7 WGBH
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
"The restaurant is the great unacknowledged, breeding ground of cultural enmity."
There is nothing like waiting tables to make you believe that the human spirit is, at its core, a mean and sorry bit of matter. And while the quality of humanity's soul is a complicated business, I'm ready to offer a simple balm for the server's chronic despair. A remedy that I am willing to say could go further- could kill at least one source of xenophobia at its root. Overstated as it may sound, mandatory tipping, I believe, is a stepping stone to international harmony.
The restaurant is the great unacknowledged, breeding ground of cultural enmity. And conflicts about tipping are the sparks that fire many of the serving class's geographical grudges. Some international tourists who visit the U.S. aren't accustomed to our tipping customs, though some are. And when a server feels she has been unjustly denied her due enough times, cultural differences fade into the background, while ugly stereotypes begin to form. It's money- the fear of not getting it, and the resentment at being dependent on someone else for it- which is the catalyst that turns a healthy curiosity of the unfamiliar into a deep-rooted disdain of the foreign. And a hostility, however petty, harbored by a population as large as the one that runs the nation's restaurants and bars, is bound to cast its pall on wider opinion.
Harvard Square, where I work, is a whirlwind of international tourists. And when you first begin to wait tables they’re simply people with intriguing dining customs you are eager admire. Water without ice? Beer mixed with sprite? These are remarkable eccentricities, a rich mixture of gastronomy and history! Even strangeness of manners- the paucity of expected American niceties- can be appreciated by a disinterested mind. A lack of please and thank you, the occasional snapping of fingers are easy to digest. But when it comes to dollars and cents- intellectual curiosity recoils and resentment springs up fullblown.
So, I think it's time to take dollars and cents out of the equation. A modest 18 percent added to a diner’s bill, would be more than paid back in international good will. It would give the American serving class the chance to look up and meet their guests with less rapacious, more innocent, eyes. A chance to close our demanding outstretched hands and reopen our minds.