Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bad diction in restaurants

In a previous post, I described how waiters often use bad diction to hustle change from their guests. This is one of several annoying uses of bad diction by waiters today. Almost invariably, the offenders are American. Waiters from Bangladesh, Belarus, Bulgaria and other foreign lands seem to have no trouble speaking good English.

A few years ago, out of frustration, I printed a small information sheet and began carrying a copy with me. If a waiter uses annoyingly bad diction, I leave the sheet for him, with violations checked off, as on a parking ticket.

Below in blue is the text of the sheet.

The Five Most Common Mistakes in Table Service
And How to Avoid Making Them

You probably don’t even notice when you make one of these common mistakes. But many of your guests do notice. Any one of these five mistakes can offend your guests, make you seem unprofessional, and limit the size of your tips. If you follow the simple advice given here, your guests will be friendlier and more generous.

1. Don’t say “you guys.” It’s childish and trashy. In adult English, the plural of the pronoun you is you. In other words, you don’t need to say “you guys” or “you folks” or “you kids.” Just say “you.”

2. When guests have studied their menus and appear to be ready to order, don’t ask, “All set?” It makes you sound indolent and uncouth. And especially do not ask, “Have we decided?” The smarmy use of we in place of you irritates many guests because it reminds them of condescending medical doctors who talk this way. The traditional and polite question is, “May I take your order?”

3. When you are checking to see if guests are enjoying their meals, don’t ask, “How are you doing?” This wording implies that the guests are somehow responsible for the quality of the meals. The traditional, polite and logical question is “How is everything?” It keeps the responsibility where it belongs: on the chef.

4. When a guest appears to have finished eating, don’t ask, “All set?” And especially do not ask, “Are you still working on this?” The guest is a human being enjoying a nice meal, not a beaver gnawing through a tree trunk. The traditional and polite question is, “May I take this?” or “May I clear your place?”

5. When a guest has paid his check in cash, don’t ask, “Do you need change?” or “All set?” Hustling tips in this way is presumptuous and offensive. The traditional and polite response is, “I’ll bring you your change.” It’s up to the guest to say, “No, please keep the change,” or to quietly leave the tip from the change that you bring back to him.

This sheet is not copyrighted. You are welcome to duplicate it and use it.

The Takeaway: If you enjoy dining in fine restaurants, I’m sure you’ve noticed that a waiter’s bad diction can ruin the experience. Next time it happens, leave the waiter a copy of the above list. Unless he has become hopelessly uncouth, it may help him improve his diction.


  1. Great post! The quality of service is so bad in restaurants that I have pretty much stopped dining out.

  2. This sword has two edges. Next time you are in a restaurant or coffee shop, listen to the people placing their orders. Compare the number who declare their wishes to those who (for some inexplicable reason) ask whether their desired purchase is available.

    I am tired of hearing people say, "Can I get a vanilla latte?" instead of "I would like a vanilla latte." This is the buyers' version of the nine words at Dunkin Donuts. And the proper response from the server might well be "Of course, you can. Would you like one?"