Topic: Society

The Case of the Grieving Waiter: "Miss Manners" Gets It Wrong

Judith Martin, a.k.a. “Miss Manners,” uses her long-running newspaper column to advance the cause of ethical conduct through civility, gentility and, of course, manners. This she does with wit, skill, common sense, and well-honed ethical instincts. Every now and then, however, she allows manners to get an upper hand on ethics, as in her recent advice to a restaurant patron who encountered a grieving waiter.

While handing out the menus, the waiter wished the patron and his party good health, adding that the wish was inspired by the recent death of his father from cancer.

Bon Appetit!

“We expressed our regret at his loss and turned to our menus. Should we have done more?” the diners asked Miss M. Martin opined that their response was a correct one, and that they should not have reported the exchange to the waiter’s superiors or pointed out to him that his comment was inappropriate, not to mention unappetizing (and awkward: the man’s dining partner is a cancer patient!) It was sufficient, said “Miss Manners,” that he “let [the waiter] know that you were not going to be his confidante.” “Perhaps,” she added, “that will be enough to remind him not to serve his sorrows with the meals.”

And then again, perhaps not. Perhaps the waiter had been doing this all night, or all week. In deciding what was the right thing to do, Miss Manners made the mistake of looking at the situation as a closed system consisting of the waiter and two diners. But the welfare of the waiter’s employers, the restaurant itself, its other employees and future diners were also involved in the matter, and when their interests are considered, it is obvious that the diners’ response to the waiter’s comment was not only inadequate, but unfair to all concerned…perhaps even to the offending waiter himself.

Though thoroughly understandable, the response of the diners was in fact unethical. It represented a choice of convenience and avoidance of confrontation over taking affirmative action to prevent harm to others. Once again, a misplaced application of the Golden Rule provided a handy rationalization for their abdication of duty: “this is how we would want to be treated if we were the Grieving Waiter.”

To begin with, the diners had no duty to the waiter other than to treat him with respect, but he had a duty to them, and he breached it. His job is to make their dining experience a pleasant one, and bringing tales of death and dread disease to the table directly violates that, as would…

  • Announcing that he was in an especially good mood because his white blood cell count was up, indicating that his AIDS drugs were working,
  • Handing them delivery room pictures of his wife severing their new-born daughter’s umbilical cord with her teeth,
  • Asking them to sign a petition opposing the clubbing of baby seals,
  • Taking off his new artificial leg to show them how fancy it is,
  • Showing them a trailer of an independent porno film he had directed,

…and any number of other equally inappropriate things. Such conduct, unchecked, is likely to be repeated; the diners cannot know whether this is the first or even the most egregious instance of it. The diners before them might have been given even more vivid appetite-suppressing information, as in, “I wish you good health because a galloping skin cancer ate my fathers face while he screamed in horrible agony!” A patron who has encountered employee conduct that annoys the customer and reasonably could annoy others while injuring the business itself has a duty to speak up and complain to the management after pointing out the conduct to the employee. Yes: there is a kind and ethical way to do this: the diner can tell the employer that he hopes that the waiter can be simply warned, that he obviously meant no harm. But there is much the diner cannot know. Perhaps the waiter has been reprimanded for this before. Perhaps he habitually shares his misfortunes with customers. Perhaps this is a ploy he has perfected to get sympathy tips, or to excuse poor service; perhaps his father is even alive, full-faced and well.

If every customer who gets the cancer story from this waiter behaves as Miss Manners recommends, the restaurant’s patrons can be subjected to ongoing mistreatment without the establishment ever having an opportunity to address it. What might result? Many diners, rather than only two, may have their evenings ruined. They may tell their friends, costing the restaurant future business and income. The accumulated bad word of mouth might even contribute to the restaurant’s demise, putting employees out of work who didn’t put cancer on the menu.

Manners can be an excuse for cowardice and the unwillingness to take necessary action when it is unpleasant or stressful. And Miss Manners take note: if this was the first time the waiter decided to share his family health history, alerting management immediately might prevent him from taking his clinical revelations to the next level. An early warning might actually save his job.

The diners’ genteel conduct benefited no one but themselves, while risking the welfare of everyone else involved. That wasn’t “enough,” to answer the original query, and it wasn’t ethical.

Manners aren’t everything.

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