December 6th, 2013
12:45 PM ET
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Dr. David Solot is the Director of Client Services at Caliper, an international human resources consulting company. He has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from Walden University, and a Masters in clinical psychology from UNCG. Solot has previously written for Eatocracy on the topics of food aversion and maximizing brain power.

A few days ago, Eatocracy reported on Elan Gale’s exchange with “Diane in 7A” – a woman who was supposedly being extremely rude to flight attendants on her flight to Phoenix. Even though Gale has since admitted that he made the entire incident up, the internet is still smoldering from conversations about who was right and who was wrong. Whatever your opinion, as the article stated, “It is never, ever, ever cool to be rude to someone working in a service position.”

But if that’s the case, then why does it happen so often? What causes people to treat service personnel as though they were subhuman, and casually dismiss their feelings?

One possible explanation is a quirk of the way we think about other people, called the fundamental attribution error. As human beings, we are constantly trying to understand why other people act the way they do – it’s just in our nature. As a rule, when we see somebody else behave, we make the assumption that their behavior is due to lasting, permanent parts of their personality. In other words, the way they act is because of who they are.

The fundamental attribution error occurs on the frequent occasions when we’re wrong, and someone’s actions are due to circumstances, not due to who they are.

Here’s an example. You’re out to eat with family, and you get stuck with what feels like the slowest waiter in the world. He vanishes from the table for long stretches at a time. It takes forever to get your drinks. Your entrees are cold and you send them back. Your sister wants sour cream for her potato, and the waiter is nowhere to be found.

While everyone is looking around for the waiter, your brother comments, “I can’t believe what a jerk this guy is! I bet he’s in the back right now, taking a break. Lazy bum!”

When the check finally comes, your brother insists that you stiff him on the tip. “Teach that jerk a lesson!”

Got that image in mind? Good. Now let me tell you the rest of the story. Your waiter isn’t a jerk, and he isn’t lazy. He’s actually a kind, hardworking man who takes pride in his job. He’d never dream of taking a break while customers were waiting.

But tonight, on the other side of the dining room, out of your sight, is a party of 16 rowdy people who are monopolizing his time. Every time he gets away from them, they call him back with more demands. He’s been trying to get back to all his other tables as much as he can, and feels terrible that his customers are suffering. But, he can’t ignore the large party either, or his manager will get upset.

How do you feel towards your “lazy” waiter now?

That’s the fundamental attribution error in action. Your brother assumed that the poor service was due to something about the waiter – he’s lazy or he just doesn’t care. But the truth is that the poor service was due to circumstances out of your waiter’s control.

This kind of thing happens all the time. That slow driver holding up traffic? Maybe he’s not a “thoughtless idiot who needs to learn how to drive.” Maybe he just got a call that his mother is dying, and he’s trying to keep it together long enough to get home.

Your coworker who was late for the big meeting? She’s not lazy. There’s new construction on her route to work. The customer service rep who won’t make an exception for you? She’s not rude. She just got told by her boss that if she authorizes more out-of-warranty returns she’ll be fired.

The problem is that if we believe that a service person is a jerk or is being disrespectful to us, we’re more likely to act like a jerk in return. We stiff the waiter on the tip. We flip the bird at the slow driver. We yell at the customer service rep. And in doing so, we’re often rude to people are just victims of circumstance – just like us.

Eatocracy suggested several good ways to deal with a family member who is rude to service people. But what if you’re the one who’s being rude? How can you resist the urge to blame the service person?

In this case, the old catch phrase from G.I. Joe is correct: knowing is half the battle. Just knowing that we’re hardwired to blame the person and not the circumstance gives you the opportunity to try something different. The next time you feel yourself about to make a judgment about service person, try asking yourself what else could explain their behavior. See what other explanations you can come up with.

A great question to ask yourself is: “What else could be going on?” Can you picture that this is a good person who’s just in a bad circumstance? If you can, you’re much more likely to be polite in response.

So if you’re the one who thinks the waiter is slow, lazy, or just doesn’t care, try this before you get angry with him. Say to yourself, “Well, he could be lazy, that’s one explanation. But what if he’s not? What else could be going on here?”

At the very least, you’ll be taking the time to think about the feelings of someone who may be just as frustrated as you are.

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Filed under: Restaurants • Service

soundoff (194 Responses)
  1. Mark Lopez

    I've been in the restaurant business as a waiter for over ten years, and I can say with absolute certainty that the behavior of a guest is by and large a direct reflection of my attitude and the environment that I create with the table. Rude guests are few and far between, and I can almost always turn them around. Far more common than a hostile guest are shitty servers. My profession is largely treated as in between employment, something people do while they wait to start their "real career". That kind of attitude carries over to the table, creating negative experiences.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  2. JennyG

    I get what he's saying but in the instance with the server having the large group that's really a management issue. I absolutely hate sharing a waiter/waitress with a large party. This has happened on several occasions and you always get terrible service because the large party is monopolizing the wait staff. If you have a party that large don't assign that waiter any more tables & redistribute the tables he had before the large party showed up. Then he can concentrate on that party who probably has a mandatory gratuity charge & the rest of us can get some prompt service.

    December 18, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  3. Philo99

    I find it quite funny that Batali doesn't think he get's bad service anywhere.

    Maybe because the waiters are being nice to his face while they spit in his food in the kitchen. The guys is the poster child for greedy business owners stealing from their own employees. He probably eats more spit than any man in America.

    December 9, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • Marshadarsha

      I have been in the industry on and off for 30+ years. I and no one else I have worked with has EVER spit in someone's food. This is an urban legend that MUST be put to rest.
      Speaking ill of rude diners in the kitchen, however, is universal.

      December 10, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  4. MikeBarbre

    I must say I disagree.

    You don't EVER piss off the help.

    It's been embedded in my DNA to never complain about the quality of food I receive. I chose to eat at that restaurant, and it's cringe-worthy to hear people who actually have a constitution that says it's okay to bitch and moan to an embarrassing degree about their food or a service they were provided. I can't understand it. I won't say they deserve anything in retaliation that they get, but hey, what happens, happens.

    December 8, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  5. The waiter is a REPRESENTATIVE of the restaurant

    "a rare profession where you are paid directly by the customer"

    No. The waiter is PAID by the restaurant. My tip is not and should not be their salary.

    If I ever owned a restaurant, I'd pay my people a decent salary, and would charge accordingly for the food. It might take customers awhile to understand that their usual $20 plate of food is now $25, but gee, they end up paying the same, the waiter gets the same, so what's the difference? THE HARD FEELINGS – THAT'S WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE.

    December 8, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • JGN

      You are either twelve years old or still in denial about the fact that you KNOW there is a contract between you and the service person when you eat at a restaurant. You KNOW they are being paid crap by the restaurant and you KNOW your tip for their hard work is an agreed upon expectation. Eat. At. Home.

      December 8, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
      • VladT

        "You must either be 12 years old...."

        ....says the commenter whose initial response is solely a childish insult

        December 10, 2013 at 9:07 am |
    • Marshadarsha

      I'm so sorry, but if you live in the US, the tip IS our salary. Want to change things? Start by voting for people who want to give servers a living wage. If you do not, I would beg you to please be quiet and tip accordingly.

      December 10, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
      • Dave Barnes

        Who on earth are you to tell me or anyone to"tip accordingly". I know of several servers in a pizza and beer restaurant who
        work 6 to 7 hours a day and bring in $300 to $400 in tips which they gleefully say they pay little or no income tax on. What
        in your opinion is a living wage? $12 per hour,$15 per hour for delivering food to a table and running outside to smoke a
        cigarette every 15 minutes. If you don't like what you do then go do something else but don't attempt sarcasm with me
        about how much I or anyone else should tip you.

        December 12, 2013 at 12:02 am |
  6. The waiter is a REPRESENTATIVE of the restaurant

    "But tonight, on the other side of the dining room, out of your sight, is a party of 16 rowdy people who are monopolizing his time. Every time he gets away from them, they call him back with more demands."

    I'm sorry – that's his JOB. Just like when MY job demands ME to have to do two, high-priority things with unreasonable deadlines. Does that mean I get to ignore one person and only do the project that the LOUDEST person/group makes? NO. Does that mean I get to do part of my job sub-standardly? NO. And if being in that impossible position gets to the point where it's ALWAYS that way, then I bring my concerns to management, and if that doesn't work, then I find a new job.

    The "I'm only following orders" has been proven to be a LAME god damned excuse, so no – I'm NOT going to accept that LAME god damned excuse from someone who carries a plate of food for a living.

    December 8, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • JGN

      And you are in such an exalted position in life that you can make a crack about someone who 'carries a plate of food for a living'? It's YOUR plate of food, nimrod.

      December 8, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
    • Mark L

      Bulls**t. If you have a huge project that needs most of your attention then your other smaller projects suffer. Thats just the way it is. Its the same in every job.

      December 9, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • Marshadarsha

      It is patently obvious that you have never held a job in the service industry. Before you continue to make such unbelievably ignorant comments, I suggest you try it.

      December 10, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  7. goatsandgreens

    I tend to assume if things are bad in a restaurant, they're shortstaffed, unless something is truly out of the ordinary. The one time I left ZERO tip it was around 2 am in a diner and there were only two tables being served. Our wait-critter spent her time complaining about trivialities to another waitstaff, and hitting up the short order cook. If this had been the era of prevalent cell phones, I'm sure she would have been on hers. I figure if food isn't what I wanted, it's a fault back in the kitchen, and there's no need to take it out on staff. Mind you, I have had a couple times needed to remind staff about stuff, but unless it was like that particular night, where it was pretty blatant she didn't give a fig, I tend to assume I don't know all that's going on behind the scenes.

    December 7, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  8. ted

    For the most part, I have had good service at restaurants. Treat people the way you want to be treated. However, one bad experience with a waitress stands out and that was in Bangor ME at Dysarts 7-8 years ago. It was recommended we go there for breakfast and so we did. We got seated right away, took a bit longer than normal to get menus. But the very long delay was getting the order put in. The waitress was gabbing and gabbing with two other tables. I finally went over and asked her if she wouldn't mind taking our order and she gave me a real snotty look, but after a while came over and told us how busy she was. Bullshit. Had we known of another restaurant nearby for breakfast (we are not from there) we would have left. Her tip was pretty much near zero. Never been back, no plans to do so.

    December 7, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
  9. MLegendre

    A silly, space wasting article.

    December 7, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • jez

      I couldn't agree with you more. How on earth isit that people get paid to write such drivel?

      December 7, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
      • Bina

        Indeed it is drivel.

        December 7, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
        • JGN

          Well, you're all agreed, good. So why did you take the time to not only read it but reply to it?

          December 8, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
        • VladT

          Just to annoy people as JGN, who in his eyes wait staff can do no wrong

          December 10, 2013 at 9:09 am |
  10. theorycraft

    lol, I'd still stiff him on a tip... give him 10% instead of 15%.... the hope is that since he was so engrossed in the rowdy party of 16, they gave him a great tip. I don't care how great the xbox is, if I get one that's defective, I'm going to want my money back even though its circumstantial and has nothing to do with how a normal xbox functions. I'm not paying the guy because he's nice in general and just really busy with other customers. I'm paying for my experience at the restaurant, which, from a management perspective should be consistently above a certain standard.

    If you treat 80% of your customers like gods and 20% you just ignore, should the 20% be happy because you're usually a good guy?

    December 7, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
  11. nick cee

    Comment from a service professional: This is a ridiculous, one-sided article. David Salot gives us a back story of bad service and how the waiter is real nice but busy. You want to stiff him on his tip. After the sappy backstory, Salot asks us, "How do you feel towards your “lazy” waiter now?" How do I feel towards the lazy waiter now? I feel he is lazy and not a good waiter. He could have done many, many things to correct this other than give me bad service. Here are just a few: He could have given my table to another waiter. After all, he is busy with his 16 top and they're not getting bad service, are they? He could have explained the situation to me and given me free dessert or food. This is always good. He could have asked for assistance with his 16 top. Oh, he doesn't want to give up some of the tip? So now he's lazy AND greedy! He could have stopped spending so much time with his 16 top and suffered the repercussions. After all, I'm also a customer and he has to give me good service also, right? Bad article, bad example and bad waiter. Bad service equals $0.00 tip and my full scorn. Who am I? I'm a professional NYC waiter and have been for 42 years!

    December 7, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Ryan Texan

      I agree with what you are saying.
      I try to explain to people that you are in a rare profession where you are paid directly by the customer, after the job is done, with no agreement to standards beforehand and all that in a situation you can't always control by yourself.
      The boss is the customer, but unlike most jobs where you have one boss (or a boss plus managers) – you have lots of different bosses every night.
      Some bosses are more demanding, some are tough but fair, and some just a little mean.
      A table might not go well, but the one right after it goes perfectly.
      You might get a small tip from the first, and a large one from the second.
      So you have to look at the big picture.
      Being a professional means being able to handle the good and the bad.
      Since many servers are very young, we can't forget that some of people's bad experiences are not always from lazy or incompetent people, but inexperienced ones.
      It takes time to learn to read people. It takes time to be able to know how to diffuse a situation.
      I respect anyone who tries to seek excellence at whatever they do.
      I hate the way they presented this article.
      They make out like no server can do wrong and people are hardwired to be rude to them. Absolute BS.
      Some waiters are not good at it. Rudeness isn't the solution, but neither is blindly accepting it as a patron – especially since you are the boss when you are paying them.
      Hey people – don't be afraid to talk to the manager if service isn't up to par. I prefer that to going the no tip route. Often the manager can solve the problem, and actually help the server learn what not to do – instead of them just getting no tip and thinking you were the problem.

      December 7, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
      • JGN

        But really it's best if you say that some waiters aren't good at it, there are people who just aren't good at being waited upon as well. I have seen too many people who take the little tiny bit of power they have over another person, such as withholding tip, and they just can't resist abusing it. The contract is thus; you eat out, you are provided adequately with your food and drink in a reasonable time, you leave a tip. Service does NOT need to be absolutely stellar every time you eat out; you just need your food and drink given to you, that's pretty much it. Anything else is extra.

        December 8, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
        • VladT

          Get over it already....sorry one time you were scorned with no tip, or you believe big business is robbing all of your waiter friends of a decent living, or whatever, but accept the possibility....

          Some waiters are just terrible. It happens. Deal with it. We have....why can't you?

          December 10, 2013 at 9:12 am |
        • sally

          I waited tables for 10 years and agree that service doesn't have to be "stellar" every time I eat out. But attitude does. The only reason I will ever stiff a waiter is for indifferent or rude behavior. So if that harried waiter didn't at least apologize profusely for the shoddy service I would leave a lessor tip. As a waiter you have to at least pretend to care.

          December 12, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  12. abbydelabbey

    No, people are either raised to have manners or not. How stupid to assume we are "hardwired" to be lacking in human decency.

    December 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  13. sparky

    If you've ever worked in the service industry, you would know better than to give your waiter, cashier, etc. a hard time.

    I've worked jobs where it was my job to bus tables, keep the ice cream buckets filled, soda fountains running, dishes washed, and at the end of the night, be the last guy to clean up the shop and take out the trash. I've worked jobs where the customers treated you like trash.

    And my guess is that my experience isn't that bad compared to others.

    I didn't like being on the receiving end of it, and I never want to be on the giving end.

    December 7, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  14. AlfredoG

    My wife is a flight attendant, whose primary purpose is to execute emergency procedures to get people off airplanes if such a need occurs. While the intent of the article seems pointed in the right direction, the reality is that on an airplane, everyone can clearly see what flight attendants are doing when they are pushing a 250 pound cart up and down the aisle to provide food or beverages to passengers. For this reason, the fundamental attribution error does not apply to flight attendants. The bottom line is that some people are just rude and many have expectations that include thinking they are the only ones on the airplane and that all service should be pointed at them. As a frequent business flyer, I see it all too often. Keep in mind these people only get paid when the plane pushes away from the gate until it connects to the gate on the other end. They get no compensation for pre- and post flight amenities and efforts to make passengers happy. And, yes, they could get another job, but if you have been flying for 20 years or more, it is not that easy (they start flying because of the travel perks), and the changes in passenger attitudes have made it worse.

    December 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  15. James

    I am always nice to anyone who serves me. They have a hard job and they don't need you to make it any harder.

    December 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • abbydelabbey

      I have a granddaughter who waits tables - she really appreciates folks like you.

      December 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
      • JGN

        I could not agree more!!

        December 8, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
  16. Been there done that

    For those who are touting mandatory gratuities for larger groups of patrons, those are merely “POLICIES” and are not enforceable by any law. Judges nationwide routinely throw out those legal complaints alleging failure to pay because the gratuity was removed from the bill by the upset customer. Resulting in successful lawsuits against both the restaurant and Policing agencies involved. Judges have ruled that no other person(s) can judge the quality of the service of any given restaraunt than the paying customer(s). There is reason that gratuity is not enforceable; the customer has the right to refuse gratuity for reasons only the customer can decide. If your waiting staff is not getting their 15%, then perhaps your customers are not simply tightwads or ungrateful, maybe your waitresses need more supervision or even replaced.

    Definition “GRATUITY”: a reward for goods or services judged exemplary.

    December 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • Ryan Texan

      Service charges are enforceable.
      Gratuity or mandatory tip isn't.
      Tips are by definition optional.
      So all they have to do is call it a service charge. You can't get out of paying for charges.
      But I still see so many places that try to call it gratuity. I guess they don't want to call it a fee or a charge. They lose legal leverage when they imply it's not.
      Usually the best thing to do is to go to the manager. You can usually resolve your problems. Often they might put a second server on your table if the service is poor.
      Consider if they didn't bring you all your food. Would you still have to pay for all of it? Same goes for when you don't get all the service you are paying for.

      December 7, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • JGN

      Enforcable by law. Eh. See what I mean about a tiny bit of power abused?

      December 8, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
      • VladT

        Did an angry restaurant patron touch you as a kid, or something?

        December 10, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  17. tessie may

    Sorry. I forgot that in the last instance, I handed the busboy $20. I expect he was the only worker in the place except the cook.

    December 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • d

      should've handed it to the cook

      December 7, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  18. tessie may

    To managers: please cease and desist with requiring your servers to ask more than once, shortly after the meal has been served, how things are! Some guy in Dallas was complaining about a French waiter, saying he wasn't "friendly" enough because he didn't have a chat. I'm through with a mini history of my server. "My name is Polly, I enjoy long walks on the beach, I am having the worse day ever". As a customer, I should not really need to hear about how your BF left a week ago. Tips are for servers who are prompt, cheerful (or at least not frowning), always visually checking to see if you may need them (and not pointedly looking away of they walk by). In 3 separate restaurants (I travel a lot for work), I had to track down my server! Twice, I could hear them, laughing in the kitchen. The last time, she disappeared for 15 minutes. In a hotel, she was the only server. I finally got up and poured my own water. I had a waiter in Indy who disappeared after my order was taken. Never saw him again-nor did the table next to me. Food came by busboy. I wrote on the back of my check "My server was playing the disappearing man act-didn't make a mistake-he deserved no tip".

    December 7, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • Joe

      In Indiana they consider it good service if they don't spit in your food and throw it at you. Indiana has no concept of service or even being nice. Everywhere you go in this state waiters waitresses and cashiers and basically anyone dealing with the public are rude and hate their job and want to make sure you know it by treating you as bad as possible. They do not take pride in their work and consider the customer as a nuisance. I have been to several other states and lived in other states and I can tell you this is the worst rudest place on earth and if you go to a restaurant pray you have a foreigner or at least some one that was from another state because if not your in for a nasty experience. I have left a 70 dollar tip before so it isn't like I am cheap and don't tip but I expect good friendly service and if someone is nice I am more than willing to open my wallet but if someone is rude and has no concept of service or hospitality then it will be reflected in the gratuity.

      December 7, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • JGN

      EAT. At. Home.

      December 8, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
      • Carn E. Vore Get over yourself, man.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  19. Chris

    We aren't hardwired to be rude to them. We are hardwired to scold those not doing right. Whether it be a law breaker or a bad driver. We are social animals and when someone in the machine isn't doing their part we get onto them about it. Why do you think road rage is so wide spread. It's natural to get angry because someone is putting your life or limb at's 100% natural. That said I'm really nice to waiter, but have gotten a few that would have deserved it if I did rip into them. It's really bad when you're eating with friends that used to work in the industry and they have to give the server a pep talk.

    December 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Living without frivilous rules

      I thought we were hard wired to knock the guy who promotes himself to the boss of us all on their arse.

      December 7, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  20. Paul

    Hardwired? This is the reasoning? It's actually a lot simpler than that. Many people are assholes. The End.

    December 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • SMW

      Thanks Paul. After reading some of these comments I thought the same. I hate cooking so we eat out a lot and it's been a rare instance of poor service and the few that did happen was mostly because the manager had the server waiting too many tables at once.

      December 7, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • KHS

      I agree. We are not "hardwired" but some people think they are so superior to a lowly waiter that they treat him like a slave. And there are losers who want to "win" at least once.

      December 7, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • John

      You can say asshole on here? Yay!

      December 7, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • abbydelabbey

      well put.

      December 7, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
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