I work as a waitress most weekends, and as a server, you’re expected to act very amicably toward your customers, otherwise, you risk the loss of a tip. Ohio’s minimum wage for tipped workers is a whopping $4.15 an hour, so this is not a risk most servers can afford to take. Almost anyone working in public service often has to put up a certain level of emotion and caring toward their customers. People expect a lot when they are being served in any aspect, and because they know you are being paid to do so, they often feel they have the right to be blatantly condescending.
This is amplified in the relationship between customers and tipped servers. Because servers rely so much on tips, they have no choice but to handle customers politely—no matter how difficult it sometimes may be. Customers know they can choose how much money they leave on the table when they leave and this sets up a certain power dynamic. I often have the issue of someone becoming angry when I don’t immediately bring something they never requested, but because I am relying on them to leave a tip, I don’t correct them and instead get whatever they are now asking for as quickly as possible.
The issue goes further than the customer feeling superior enough to belittle or patronize; some men often feel their waitresses are obligated to respond to their antics. Many establishments have a dynamic set up to cater to these men, specifically many that serve alcohol, where the female servers must learn to interact with these men or dress in a more casual way that makes them feel it is not inappropriate to flirt with or heckle their waitress. Some waitresses feel they can adjust to this well enough because these men often tip more if they feel they’ve been catered to with both food and specific attention. The dynamics in these establishments are problematic in themselves and for this reason, many of these waitresses have suffered far more harassment and strange interactions than I have myself, but none of these reasons are because of the waitress herself. It is not about how the server presents herself or behaves that motivates lewd behavior from some customers, but the simple power dynamic that tipped work establishes.
I know this because of my experience working in a very family oriented restaurant in which I wear a shirt buttoned all the way up paired with black slacks. Essentially only my face and hands are exposed, but despite this men still feel they can say inappropriate things to me and some of my other female coworkers. Some of these men are my age, making sexual comments or asking if I have a boyfriend. Many of them are older men who come in regularly that the waitresses dread the arrival of every day. They expect friendly service despite how uncomfortable they make us in exchange for the three dollar tip we know they’ll leave (because that’s what they leave every day). We have no choice but to serve these men because we can’t risk losing tips for every table that makes us uncomfortable or angry.
There are men I have insisted someone else serve because the last time I served them they thought it was okay to touch my leg or rub my shoulders. Even this results in guilt because some men treat all waitresses the same and inevitably will make them just as uncomfortable, not to mention the fact that in giving away their table to be served by someone else, I am giving away the cash that came with it. Just last week I intentionally greeted a customer as he came in to make sure he wasn’t in the section I had to serve because of how uncomfortable he had made me the last time I was his waitress. Despite my efforts, this man followed close behind me around the whole restaurant before insisting on me being his server and making sure to tickle my neck with my tip before he left. Essentially you have no choice but to serve customers like this because someone has to, you need the money, and as long as the harassment of these men remains subtle there’s nothing management or anyone else can do. The most you can hope for as a server is that they left enough money to make up for the deprecating way you’re treated.
Not all aspects of being a server are bad. I can’t complain about the instant gratification of cash at the end of each night, or the bond with some of my coworkers, if only through mutual suffering. Sure, you might not need an education to be a server, but that doesn’t mean we’re all uneducated. Even if we were, that doesn’t make us any less deserving of respect. A lot of people say if you complain about your job you should just find a better job, but for so many servers that’s really not an option. Someone has to do this job and the same power dynamic plays a role in any restaurant you’re hired at. I don’t dislike my job, but the blatant disrespect servers face on a day to day basis is something worth noting. Just because someone is expected to serve you doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated with dignity, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have any right to touch them.