Last Friday, I had a meal in an Oak Park restaurant that was so bad, it depressed me for a day, a full 24 hours. It’s not that it was rotten food; it was just terribly bland, ineptly prepared, boring…and expensive.
Still, when the server came by to ask “How’s everything,” I robotically replied “Fine.”
It’s been a long time since I sat in a linguistics class, but this kind of verbal exchange, initiated in this instance by a seemingly concerned host/server and completed by the customer (usually with mouth half-full), is what’s called “phatic communication,” essentially empty language uttered to maintain or acknowledge a social relationship rather than actually communicate information.
Hardly ever do many of us break the unspoken social contract by answering such ritualistic questions honestly.
I almost never tell the restaurant official what’s actually on my mind, unless it’s overwhelmingly positive, such as “The bread is excellent” or “These shrimp are fabulous.”
Negative perceptions – as in “You call this bread?” or “Five dinky shrimp for $25.00, what the @#*&” – I usually keep them to myself.
This may not be the right approach, but I feel that it can radically alter the mood to answer the question “How’s everything?” with any degree of honesty or accuracy – particularly if the answer involves anything other than praise. Maybe the host/server really seeks input, but my guess is that they basically just want us to know they care (nothing wrong with that, of course).
As I get older, crankier and harder to please, my impatience with poorly prepared/priced food becomes more difficult to restrain. However, I’m sometimes uncertain towards whom I should direct my well-meaning critiques of a restaurant’s food. Surely, the server is the obvious person to speak with about an unsatisfactory dish, but in most cases, s/he will be at loss for words, or may merely deflect with, “I’ll tell Chef” (who is usually inaccessible).
Eating out is almost always, for me, a celebration (even if it happens four or more times a week) – critical comments, however well intentioned, seem to break the fourth wall, bring down the energy, and violate the atmosphere of good cheer.
Do you ever tell the truth to servers? If the food is really bad, how do you communicate that to the server…or do you?
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