My wife and I recently went to a local diner for dinner. It was just a normal evening without any particular agenda or demands. Honestly, neither of us felt like cooking. As I casually glanced through the menu I became aware of some tension in the booth behind my wife, who was sitting across from me. I could only see the back of the woman’s head but I could hear her demeaning, cruel words to the server. “This is NOT what I ordered. It didn’t come out right. The menu said it would have this item and it doesn’t.” Her dinner partner, who I assumed was her husband, spoke in hushed tones, trying to de-escalate his wife. The server said, “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. I’ll take this back to the kitchen and we’ll fix it.” “It’s too late,” the woman snapped. “My dinner is ruined. I don’t know how you stay in business.” The server quickly turned and left, visibly devastated by the harsh words of the patron.
I continued to listen to the conversation between the couple. The woman began to describe how difficult her year had been, especially following her father’s suicide. She added that the recent change her doctor had made in her medication for her bi-polar disorder had made it even more difficult. Her husband continued to speak in soft, assuring tones, trying to compassionately understand her struggle.
A few moments later, the server returned with the corrected order and apologized profusely. She told the couple that the manager had agreed to make the meal complimentary and offered a gift card for yet another meal so they would give the diner another chance. The woman simply looked away while her husband thanked the server profusely. The server turned and walked away, never knowing what was really going on.
I considered going to the server privately and explaining the situation, but I didn’t. I thought to myself that the insights I had overheard would take a bit of the sting out of the verbal assault that blindsided her. I regret not speaking up. As I reflected on that event, I came to the realization that we all encounter people from time to time who, on the surface appear cruel, insensitive and rude concerning what many would consider minor mistakes. Like the server, our first response may be to take it personally, as though we are actually that inept. But I’d like to offer that sometimes people treat us as less than human because of some hidden difficulty going on it their life. It has nothing to do with us or our simple mistakes. While it may sting or leave us frustrated, most of the time the old saying is true: “Hurting people hurt people.” And those of us who are strong enough can see those moments as opportunities to serve.