“Each time I enter a customer’s table space, there is a good chance that I will be stepping up to the edge of a conversation.”
One of the intriguing aspects of being a server in a restaurant is working around the edges of conversations. I have confessed before that when I am dining alone in a restaurant or sitting alone in any public space, I am an unrepentant eavesdropper. Some of my best sermon illustrations, poems and editorial starters have come to me via this habit.
But this is different. My interaction with a customer has one primary goal, and that is to determine what they want to order. How else will I know if they want their eggs scrambled, over easy or sunny side up unless I talk to them?
I’ve been doing this job for a little over a year now. I’ve observed that there are customers who like to chat with their server, there are those who need a bit of time to warm up to you, and there are some who prefer their server to simply serve. Being a recovering preacher and rather gregarious by nature, I’ve had to learn to gauge where each customer falls in that spectrum of interaction and conduct business accordingly.
Ours is not a large restaurant: thirty seats plus four stools at the bar. So it’s difficult not to hear the talk around the tables. Good service requires me to return to a table for a variety of reasons. Once the order has been taken, I return to bring cutlery, deliver the food when it comes up in the kitchen, refill coffee cups and water glasses, “quality” the table to make sure the customer is enjoying their meal, clear plates and, finally, to ask if they are ready for the bill. Each time I enter a customer’s table space, there is a good chance that I will be stepping up to the edge of a conversation. I try my best not to pay attention to what people are talking about as they dine. But it is hard to ignore it altogether. I think my tongue now has permanent teeth marks.
Two regular customers were in having breakfast the other day. As I came to the table with more coffee, they were discussing a building they owned that needed repairs. “The whole roof needs to be replaced. It’s like this,” the one man said, using his hands to illustrate the sagging profile of the roof.
“But the roof is not the problem,” his friend replied. Then he turned and looked at me, inviting me into the conversation. “The real issue,” he explained, “is that the house is built right on the ground. There’s no foundation. We can’t just replace the roof because, with no foundation, it’s the whole house that is sagging.”
So I accepted his invitation and stepped into the conversation. “Everything depends on a good foundation, doesn’t it?” I said. And I saw a knowing look on my customer’s face.
“Yes, it does,” he said with a smile. “Yes, it does.”
My wife and I enjoy the fact that many of our kids’ friends have become our friends too. An added bonus is that our kids don’t think there is anything weird about that. In fact, they think it is great. That’s why Colleen and I felt quite at home in Craig and Amanda’s living room the other night, munching on nachos and guacamole and listening to a room full of generation Xers converse about life as they know it.
At one point, talk turned to the topic of influence. They talked about the media and technology and their influence upon societies around the world in both positive and negative ways. They identified specific people who they believed were influencers on the global stage. Some of the names I recognized; others I did not. They were speaking from their perspective about their world, and I felt privileged just to be there listening in on their conversation.
Then their talk shifted from the global stage to the individual level, from talking about the people whose words circle the globe within seconds of being uttered, to wondering about what impact their own lives could have. Was it possible for each of them to influence people in small yet positive ways? And then it happened. “What do you think, Steve?”
So I accepted the invitation into the conversation. I told them that the people who have influenced my life at the deepest levels are people they’ve probably never heard of. Some might even be surprised to learn that they have influenced my life. I told them that I thought influence had little to do with how many followers you have on social media; that it’s really about acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with your God. All of us, I suggested, can do that if we choose to. And I believe I was heard.
An invitation into a conversation is a gracious gesture. To wait for the invitation is always worth the pain of biting your tongue.