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Why can’t waiters speak properly? By Matthew Norman

Blog | By Matthew Norman | Jul 09, 2024

Wine service, Jeff Kubina, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

At the door of an Edinburgh restaurant, my son stayed me with an arm and gave the pep talk. ‘I know you’re the most irascible person on earth,’ it began, ‘and never more so than in restaurants.’

That may be true. For the twenty years during which I reviewed them, professional etiquette mandated an appreciative grin whenever a waiter offered to ‘explain the menu’, or delivered a keynote address about the beach from which chef foraged the pebbles moonlighting as butter dishes. A return to civilian ranks has slightly loosened the shackles.

‘And I also know you’re tired after a very long drive,’ he went on. ‘But I like this place, and want to come back, so do you think we could get through dinner without an incident?’

It had been a long drive from London to collect him and his gear from his vacated student flat. But despite the sequence of losing battles with ostentatiously unmanned M6 roadworks, I assured him the mood was good.

He nodded sardonically at that, asking if he should activate the iPhone stopwatch to time the first eruption. The average, he claims, is four minutes and 27 seconds.

‘Not necessary,’ I said. ‘I’m, like, totally chilled.’ He shot me a piercing glance, but eschewed the stopwatch.

In the event, this was a mistake. It might have recorded a new personal best, or worst, though without official timing that cannot be ratified.

What broke me wasn’t the young waiter’s ‘Can I bring you some menus for yourselves this evening?’ The years of reviewing inured me to reflexive pronouns. As for that equally superfluous ‘this evening’, although it struck me as clear entrapment – a temptation to reply, ‘I’m tired after a long drive – so I’m going to sleep now. If you could bring us the menus for ourselves tomorrow morning...’ – I resisted and said that menus would be a delight.

The reprieve proved short- lived. ‘No bother,’ said the waiter.

‘I’m trying,’ I hissed across the table, ‘I really am, but what is it with “no bother”? It’s always that, or no problem, or no worries. Why do they say it?’

Shushing me with practised ease, he promised to explain later.

We ordered from the vaguely pan- Indo-Chinese menu. In every regard but one, my papaya salad (crisp, shredded vegetables, good glass noodles and fresh herbs in a good sesame oil dressing) was a triumph.

The solitary flaw, being pernickety, was the lack of papaya. We rooted around the bowl with chopsticks, after the style of Basil Fawlty searching the trifle for hidden duck. Not a molecule.

I received grudging permission to alert the waiter. ‘Forgive me if this seems pedantic,’ I told him, ‘but there is literally no papaya in this papaya salad.’

‘Ah,’ he said, plainly unbothered. ‘Would you like more papaya?’

‘You’re very kind, but I wouldn’t like more papaya. What I would like is papaya.’

‘No bother,’ he said, ‘I’ll talk to the chef.’

After reviewing close to a thousand of them, I assumed I’d encountered every imaginable restaurant eccentricity. In a way, the novelty of a dish bereft of its solitary advertised ingredient was refreshing. We discussed the matter, my son and I, over hot water boldly masquerading as tea.

‘It’s an intriguing ontological question,’ said this philosophy undergrad. ‘Can a papaya salad truly be said to be a papaya salad if it contains no papaya?’ I thought the answer fairly simple. But, as ever when I try to engage him in philosophical debate, it was incalculably more complex than I could appreciate or begin to understand.

‘Chef says he’s had to be a bit sparing with the papaya,’ reported the waiter on his return, ‘because those people waiting for a takeaway ordered the salad as well.’

The ontological symposium having developed not necessarily to my advantage, it was a relief to move on to the semantical. ‘It’s not so much that he’s been a bit sparing,’ I posited, ‘and more that he hasn’t spared any.’

‘Well, he’s sorry for being a bit sparing with the papaya. Can I bring some beef for yourself for the salad instead?’ I said that he could. ‘No bother.’

We finished and paid up. When I thanked the waiter for knocking the £8.50 off the bill, he revealed that this, for him, had been no bother.

‘Jesus wept, why do you millennials use the phrase like broken parrots?’ I spluttered on the walk to my son’s flat. ‘Isn’t being bothered an integral part of the job? Of any job?’

The point, he explained, is that young people in service industries want to put us at our ease. The one thing that bothers them is the customer being made to feel awkward by the power imbalance implicit in the relationship. ‘No bother’ consoles us that they aren’t feeling dangerously oppressed.

I flashed back something witty. ‘Cobblers’, if I recall correctly.

‘Everything annoys you, old man, doesn’t it? Every tiny, trivial, minuscule thing,’ he observed. ‘You’re a snowflake.’

I thought he had a point. ‘Now is there any chance that we can finish packing up the flat without any outbursts about the filth or the flimsiness of the bin bags?’ The power balance implicit in this relationship had been duly reasserted.

‘No bother,’ I said. No bother at all.