The Curse of the Touchy-Feely Server

Dear Helena,
The other night, the waiter put his hand on my shoulder when he was placing the check on the table. This isn't the first time this has happened. I am in my late 50s, so maybe I'm being a fuddy-duddy, but I feel that such physical contact is inappropriate, and unnecessary. Am I right?
—Respect My Space

Dear Respect My Space,
Several studies have found that touching customers increases tips, which may be why your waiter did it. For instance, in this 1998 study, touching the customer on the shoulder when presenting the check increased tips from an average of 11.5 percent to nearly 15 percent. So, although touching the customer is discouraged at fine-dining establishments, more casual restaurants sometimes explicitly train their servers to do it. David Hayden, who has worked as a server for 15 years, says that he was coached to do so when he worked at a branch of Tony Roma's, the barbecue chain.

Why do many customers reward servers for an arm-clasp or shoulder-pat? It's not because they think they're being flirted with, says Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration who studies tipping; research has shown that the gender of the server makes no difference. Lynn explains: "Touch communicates confidence, and also that the server likes the customer. We tip confident, assertive people who believe in themselves, and we tip people who like us." In other words, deep down we're all so desperate to be liked, we'll throw money at anyone who shows us a sign of affection.

Touching diners may be more acceptable in some parts of the country than in others. I've seen the server actually hug customers at the hippie raw-food restaurant Café Gratitude in Berkeley, California.

But this doesn't mean that touching customers is common practice in the restaurant industry, nor should it be. Like you, some customers are turned off by the invasion of personal space. "I touched one guest along the shoulder blade, and there was an immediate recoil; it created a real awkwardness for the rest of the meal," says Hayden.

Because of the possibility that personal contact could backfire so hideously, I don't think it's OK for waitstaff to touch diners. The only possible exception is in circumstances where the relationship between server and patron becomes something more informal for some reason. As Brooke Burton, a food writer and former server in Los Angeles, says, it's OK to do "if the person is in the moment and is doing it as a human connecting to another human." For instance, she says, "If the guest is at the bar and I'm standing close to them and we're joking, I might touch their shoulder." In such situations, it's a pretty safe bet that a shoulder-pat won't give offense. But no server should touch every customer as part of a tip-boosting routine.

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