16 Polite Habits Restaurant Staffers Secretly Dislike
Sometimes our restaurant manners can miss the mark when we’re trying to do the right thing. Here’s what to avoid.
The dos and don’ts of dining out
Angry, demanding, dismissive and nitpicky. Most of us know what rude diners look like, but what does a considerate diner look like? We may think we know the proper etiquette rules in restaurants and even try to go out of our way to be extra helpful or kind to service workers. While that’s a great thing, unfortunately not all that “help” is helpful. In fact, some of those habits might even be making restaurant workers’ jobs harder, says etiquette expert Valerie Sokolosky, author of Do It Right.
Servers understand that you’re just trying to be nice, so they usually won’t say anything, but one of the things restaurant owners and waiters wish you knew is how many “polite” gestures from customers can cause problems. So we talked to restaurant servers, hosts, chefs and bussers to get the lowdown about dining etiquette, table etiquette and the things they wish you’d stop doing. While you’re at it, learn the correct tipping etiquette as well—for every type of tipping situation.
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Holding up your glass for a refill
When your waiter is carrying a heavy pitcher or is all the way on the other side of the table, it’s only natural to want to make things easier by holding up your glass. Not so fast! It’s easier to fill a glass when it’s on a table instead of wobbling in your hand. When you hold up your glass, it becomes unstable, so it’s easy for the server to accidentally spill the drink on you, says Susie L., a server at a fine-dining restaurant in Atlanta. Translation: You’re actually adding a hefty dose of stress to the situation!
Do this instead: Simply leave your glass on the table, or if you’re seated in a hard-to-reach spot, pick it up and hand it to your server. This is true at the best restaurants in the country as well as your favorite chain restaurants.
Going to the server station
Waitstaff have stations around the restaurant stocked with what they need for their job, but it isn’t meant to be used or even really seen by customers. (Having very visible and messy stations is one of the red flags of a bad restaurant.) “I’ve had people come up to me at the server station to ‘save me a trip’ walking back to their table, but that just gets in our way and ultimately makes it take longer,” says Anica G., a server in a bar and restaurant in Shakopee, Minnesota.
Do this instead: Signal to your server that you need assistance, and wait for them to come to you.
Splitting the check at the end
“It’s a pet peeve when I ask, ‘How we are splitting the check?’ and they say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that—we’ll figure it out at the end,” says Anica. “I want to say, ‘No, I’m asking now because it’s 100% easier to split it before rather than after.” It’s much more complicated to figure it out after your meal, especially if you’re not splitting the check equally, and then awkward for the waiter to wait while you discuss it.
Do this instead: Decide at the beginning of the meal who is paying for what and how many checks you’ll need, then let your waiter know.
Putting trash in glasses
Sometimes customers will throw napkins and trash into their drinking glasses to help clean up the table, but it ends up creating an even bigger mess. “Then I have to dig all of it out before we can put them in the wash, and most of the time it’s stuck on and gross,” Anica says. It’s much easier to rinse out a glass that only had liquid in it than to have to scrape food, straw wrappers and other gunk out before putting it in the dishwasher. Baristas have the same problem, which is one of the things you might learn from Starbucks employees.
Do this instead: Keep trash contained to a spot or two on the table, and place napkins next to your plate.
Using terms of endearment for waitstaff
Sweetheart, honey, missy, darling, handsome and cutie are just a few of the nicknames the servers we talked to say they’ve been called. While you may think these sound nice or even complimentary, they can come across as patronizing at best and harassing at worst. “We wear name tags for a reason,” says Maddie C., a hostess and busser at an upscale restaurant in Seattle. She adds that staff also don’t appreciate it when you ask for their last name or “real” name, especially if they are a person of color. “I’ve had customers ask my full name to try to find me on social media, and it’s creepy and gross,” she says. “Don’t do that.”
Do this instead: Call your server by the name on their name tag. The same goes for flight attendants, by the way.
Ordering for everyone
There are some very specific circumstances where one person might be in charge of ordering for the whole table, but those are relatively rare, and doing so makes your server’s job harder, says Lizzy V., who worked at a diner in Archer, Idaho. “This prevents us from being able to ask preference questions and increases errors,” she explains, “and it’s so annoying not knowing who to hand what to when the order is ready.”
Do this instead: Have each person tell the server their order. Even children can do this—and practice their manners while they’re at it. Plus, they tend to love doing it because it makes them feel grown up.
Giving cooking instructions when ordering
If you have a special request for the kitchen, that is something you absolutely should tell your server. But you should avoid giving a long list of complicated or detailed instructions. “Sometimes we get customers who want to be the chef and tell everyone how certain dishes ‘should be’ cooked,” says Maddie. “They often say it like they’re trying to teach me something, so I just nod and smile.” Restaurant staffers have the best intel on the food, including things servers won’t eat at their restaurants, so trust them to do their job and steer you in the right direction.
Do this instead: Stick to personal requests, like how rare or well done you’d like your meat, or if you have any allergies.
Giving physical compliments
“I’ve had customers tell me I have a ‘nice [butt]’ while I’m serving, and they don’t think it’s harassment because I’m a man,” says Alexander D., a server in Washington, D.C. But this is inappropriate in any restaurant, retail or other professional situation. Refrain from commenting on someone’s body in this way, and steer clear of physical appearance in general, says Sokolosky.
Do this instead: Compliment their serving skills—and be sure to tell their manager as well, so they can be recognized for their hard work. These are the best compliments you can give in this situation.
Lots of customers think they are being kind and helpful by stacking dirty plates, glasses and utensils. But this is one of the rude restaurant habits you need to stop ASAP. Most restaurant staff have a preferred method of clearing tables, or even a protocol they need to follow—like bar glasses needing to be returned to the bar area rather than the kitchen—and your “help” slows them down. Plus, says Susie, customers often just make things into really tall, unstable towers that are impossible to pick up or carry.
Do this instead: While it’s fine to stack a few dishes to get them out of the way (like appetizer plates), leave the bussing to the busser, says Sokolosky.
Putting your napkin on top of a dirty plate
Many people were taught that the way to signal to your server that you’re finished with your meal is to place your napkin over your plate. This is false—and messy, says Sokolosky. “Think of all the things on your plate that are now on the napkin and will get on whomever picks it up, or that will stain,” she says. This is one of the etiquette rules that have changed in the past decade.
Do this instead: When you’re done eating, place your napkin on the table, next to your plate.
“I work in a dining hall with multiple seating areas, and sometimes people will just walk in and seat themselves, even though we have signs that say ‘Wait to be seated,'” says Grace T., a hostess in Houston. “When I ask them to move, they usually say they were just trying to help because I looked busy.” Unfortunately, that is the opposite of helpful, as restaurants with hosted seating have a system to make sure customers are arranged evenly between servers.
Do this instead: Proper dining etiquette states that you wait to be seated. Also, don’t change tables without talking to a host or server first.
Ordering from another server
Your waiter looks swamped, so why not ask a different server for dessert or another appetizer? Because it can make things super confusing when they’re trying to put together your bill, says Sokolosky. Also, that’s not their job, and they have their own hefty workload to deal with.
Do this instead: Politely ask another server to flag down your server.
Explaining normal things to waitstaff
“I’m a waitress to pay for my PhD at a renowned university, yet the number of customers who think I’m a waitress because I’m ‘too dumb’ to get another job is pretty mind blowing,” says Katie P., a server at a chain restaurant in Berkeley, California. She says customers have “nicely” done basic math calculations for her, explained to her why meat turns brown when it cooks and even tried to explain her own cultural heritage to her. “The funny part is how often they’re actually wrong,” she adds.
Do this instead: Don’t make assumptions about people based solely on their job, and stay away from these topics you should never discuss at the dinner table.
Lifting things off the tray
When your server comes to the table with a tray full of drinks or food, it can look like quite the balancing act. While it’s tempting to want to relieve your server of some of the weight, please don’t! Servers are pros at balancing even the most precarious load, and if you try to “help” by grabbing that bread basket or glass, or trying to hold up the tray, you can throw everything off balance and even end up causing your server to drop it, says Alexander. Fast-food workers encounter this problem too.
Do this instead: Move items out of the way so there’s room for the server to place your food on the table.
Not speaking up if there’s a problem
Complaining too much is an obvious breach of etiquette, but staying silent when something is very wrong with your meal is also a problem. “I’ve had customers endure eating food they didn’t order, wasn’t cooked or had an allergen just because they didn’t want to look rude or like a ‘Karen,'” says Katie. “Making sure your meal is just right is why we’re here, but we can’t provide excellent service if you don’t tell us when something is wrong.”
Do this instead: Don’t be afraid to speak up if there’s a problem. Just make sure to do so politely.
Cleaning up after an accident
Oops—you knocked a glass of wine off the table and you want to minimize the trouble for the staff. While this is understandable, the last thing the staff wants is for you to pick up bits of glass. They’re the ones with the mop and vacuum and will be able to clean it up much more thoroughly and efficiently.
Do this instead: An apology is enough, then let them take care of it, says Sokolosky. Aside from an appropriately timed and sincere “I’m sorry,” find out the other things polite people always say.
- Valerie Sokolosky, etiquette expert and author of Do It Right