Thursday, August 4, 2011

A waiter who speaks English

In northern New England, where I live, it is rare to encounter a waiter who speaks English. Most waiters can speak English but prefer to affect a combination of Valspeak, Likish and Ebonics.

For example: In English, waiters traditionally ask, “Are you ready to order?” or, “May I take your order?” But most waiters today ask, “You guys all set?”* It is sometimes pronounced “Y’githe ahh thet?” with deliberate slurs and a self-inflicted lisp.

It is unsettling, especially while you are eating, to hear someone degrade himself in this way. So, my wife and I watch for new restaurants, hoping the waiters will speak English.

Recently we lunched at XO on Elm (pictured), a new restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire. What a delight; we had a waiter who speaks English and speaks it well.

Our waiter, Jusuf, asked, “May I take your order?” instead of, “Y’githe ahh thet?”

Later he asked, “How is everything?” (in other words, “How well did our chef prepare your food?”) instead of, “How are you doing?” (in other words, “How skillfully are you eating?”)

Later he asked, “May I take this?” instead of, “Are you still working on this?” or, “Still pickin’?”

And, unlike most Americans, Jusuf knows that the plural of the personal pronoun you is you, not you guys.

The reason he speaks American English better than most Americans is that he grew up in Bosnia.

The Takeaway: The next time ugly diction and manners detract from your enjoyment, leave a copy of this guide on the table. And hand a copy, or email a copy, to the restaurant manager (two managers told me they had immediately incorporated the guide into their training programs). I have put the guide into the public domain; make and distribute copies as you see fit.

See disclaimer.

*Note that they can’t even be bothered to include a verb.


  1. Perhaps you should eat out less if you cannot afford to dine in a restaurant with waiters up to your standards. Just a thought.

  2. Apparently, wishing people to express themselves in standard dialect is terribly offensive. Linguist Steven Pinker has explained that language is used as a means to convey status. The paradigm nowadays is not to show you're educated or that you have good manners but that you are "cool". So people sometimes overact, which can be annoying –you do not need to impress everybody.

  3. I had to laugh at the first comment to this post. Crappy English is endemic - at all levels of restaurants, in my experience, at least here in the States. In most cases, the poor English is intentional and intended to send a message: "I may be here serving you, but I disdain you, even though you are paying my salary." My husband and I used to splurge several times a year at a wonderful local chef-run restaurant that offered authentic country French cooking and ambiance ($100+/head without wine or drinks) - very similar to what we experienced in France. We stopped going when they replaced the knowledgable waiters with Val-Speakers. Pay $300+ to be insulted? Not me, thanks. Our short list of English-speaking restaurants has since been narrowed to the local diner and one other local bistro-type place.

  4. For Anon2: I am so glad you found a place where you feel you are getting your money's worth in service. I hope you are more comfortable and feel better respected.

    Anon1: I never really thought about whether or not waiters were speaking in standard dialect. I just always wanted good service and to feel comfortable. Oh, and to love the food!