My Memorable Encounter with the Rudest Waiter in the World

“Elegance and kindness is an elegant and kind reply to the rudeness of this world.” (Mehmet Murat ildan)

Edsel Ford Fong, the world’s rudest waiter, 1982; Photo by Ken Gammage; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s been a story in the news recently about a waiter in Vancouver, British Columbia, who was fired from his job last summer for rude and aggressive behavior. It seems he is now suing his former employer for a human rights violation, claiming that he is not rude, he’s merely French. His firing, Guillaume Rey contends, is discrimination against his “direct and expressive” culture.

The arguments on all sides of this have been most entertaining.

Some are defending rudeness as a quality of the French that is practically inbred. Others are saying that if a Frenchman wants to work in oh-so-polite Canada, he’d better change his ways. Some have said the waiter’s rudeness has been mostly directed toward his work colleagues for their shoddy performance, and that restaurant patrons find him not only acceptable, but charming.

The restaurant in question applied to have the complaint dismissed, but a judge has deemed it to have enough merit to move forward. At a time when nearly everything I see in the news makes me want to scoop out my eyeballs with a melon-baller, this story offers me not only something light to dwell on, but it also recalls a distant memory: More than four decades ago, I had an encounter with a waiter who was—certifiably—the rudest waiter in the world.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, it was widely known that for the best Chinese food, you go to Chinatown. The restaurants there weren’t fancy, but the food was authentic, generally economical, and always delicious.

One summer day, my boyfriend (who, about 25 years later, became my husband), our friend Bob, and I decided to have lunch in Chinatown after a morning of exploring Golden Gate Park. After finally finding a parking place, we walked into the nearest Chinese restaurant which happened to be called Sam Wo, a name that literally means “three in peace.” How appropriate for the flower children that we were then.

We were led up some creaky wooden stairs and shown to a small table in a crowded second floor dining room. A large Chinese man in a stained apron and bow-tie descended on us.

“Sit down and shut up,” were his first words to us.

He tossed three menus on the table and turned away without another word. We looked at one another. Had we heard him right? Couldn’t be. We must have misunderstood.

We looked at our menus. They were printed entirely in Chinese, without even any helpful photos to suggest what the items might be.

The waiter came back with three glasses of water that sloshed across the table as he slammed them down. “What you want?” he asked.

Bob asked if there was an English menu. Our waiter completely ignored him. Bill started to ask a question and the waiter cut him off in mid-sentence. “Her,” he pointed at me, “I talk only to her.”

I, unfortunately, was speechless. Our waiter glared and said, “I be back in two minutes. You be ready.”

Thinking back on it, I don’t know why we didn’t get up and walk out. Bob was rocking in his chair laughing. Bill was also amused, but equally alarmed. At that time, I was a painfully shy 18-year-old. Bill knew it and clearly wondered if I was up to the encounter.

We looked around and saw our waiter berating diners at a nearby table. They looked as startled as we were. Then he went to another table and heaped abuse on the patrons, who laughed and appeared to be lapping up their mistreatment.

Our two minutes were almost up. “Okay, guys, what do I do?” I asked my tablemates. We looked over at the table closest to ours. They were sharing a big bowl that looked like noodles tossed with vegetables and another large plate of stir-fried vegetables and some sort of meat.

“Let’s order that,” Bill suggested.

When our waiter came back, I pointed to the table next to us and said, “We’ll have that.” He turned and left without a word.

When he came back a few minutes later with our order, he tossed three sets of chopsticks in the center of the table. I had absolutely no proficiency with chopsticks, but had seen what happened when another diner asked our waiter for a fork: “No forks. You eat with chopsticks!” he had screamed.

This, I decided, was as good a time as any to learn to use chopsticks.

The meal, when it came, didn’t look much like what we’d seen on the nearby table, but even if it had been octopus tentacles and chicken beaks in butterscotch pudding, we wouldn’t have said a word. Fortunately, it was delicious and we ate every morsel.

The instant our last bite had been taken, our waiter swept the plates from our table and threw down our check with the words, “Small check, big tip.”

We took it as a warning and left him a decent tip. As we stood to go, he was back. He grabbed our money from the table, looked at it and nodded. Then he nodded again at me, leaned over and kissed my cheek. We walked out quickly, with Bob still laughing merrily.

A few days later, I described the surreal experience to a colleague where I worked. He laughed, “That’s Edsel Ford Fong, you really haven’t heard of him?”

Edsel Ford Fong. “No.” That’s not a name I would have forgotten.

I learned then that Edsel Ford Fong was famous. Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, wrote about him frequently and had dubbed Fong “the world’s rudest waiter.”

As we learned more about our waiter, we realized we had gotten off easy. Fong was known to have berated patrons by calling them “fat,” “stupid,” or something equally offensive. On occasion, he required guests to clear and wash the dishes from their table, and it is said that he regularly groped female patrons. This was the 1970s—a very different time!

There is a Wikipedia page for Edsel Ford Fong and a lengthy description of his behavior on http://priceonomics.com/the-worst-waiter-in-history/, which refers to him as “the rudest, most despotic waiter to ever walk the earth.” It also describes how countless San Franciscans came back time and again for more of his abuse. It’s not entirely clear whether Fong was an obnoxious bully, a master showman, or, as I suspect, both.

Edsel Ford Fong died in 1984 at the age of 56. The Sam Wo Restaurant closed in 2012 after nearly 100 years of operation. Fong is still a legend in the Bay Area, and still recalled by many as the instigator of their most unforgettable dining experience. Today, I bear little resemblance to the shy 18-year-old who was once bussed by the “rudest waiter in the world.” Over the years, I have had the pleasure of dining at many fine restaurants, and—while I don’t condone Fong’s behavior—I, too, count that lunch as one of my most memorable restaurant experiences.

While rudeness is rampant in this second decade of the 21st century, I have my doubts that a waiter like Edsel Ford Fong would last long in the hospitality industry—certainly not here in Seattle. I will be watching with interest to see what happens when Guillaume Rey gets his day in Canadian court. French, indeed!

“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” (Khalil Gibran)

Whine Not

“People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.” (Stephen Hawking)

Looking around at the world today, there’s plenty to complain about. Those triggers may be different for each of us, but unless you’ve somehow maneuvered your way into a bubble of bliss, there’s a lot of crap raining down on parades everywhere.

So, we complain. We complain about politics, we complain about our jobs, we complain about our relatives, we complain about the cost of turnips, and—of course—we complain about the weather. And we don’t just complain in solitude, or in silence. We also get together and vent—maybe over drinks after work, or around a dinner table, or when we chat with neighbors over the back fence. It seems to come effortlessly.

And there’s a reason for that: It appears that the more we complain, the easier complaining becomes, and then we complain more and more, becoming expert in this unproductive and dismal habit. To keep the scatological analogy going, our complaints construct mountains of crap, ultimately obscuring pleasant vistas and satisfying experiences.

Our brains are continually adjusting and rewiring their circuitry, closing the gap between synapses for the thoughts we repeatedly have. If we tend to dwell in negativity, fault-finding, and whining, we’ll become ever more expert in pessimism and grumbling. They eventually become our default setting. If you’re interested in the science behind this, Steven Parton explains it quite clearly in his article, “The Science of Happiness: Why Complaining is Literally Killing You.”

If our thoughts shape and reshape our brains, maybe we need to spend a bit more time thinking about how we want our brains to work.

Because there is symmetry in the world, this dynamic works both ways. If we focus our attention on what’s pleasing, what’s good, what fills us with wonder and gratitude, those synapses will start linking all over the place. Instead of training our brains to complain, we teach them to appreciate.

While our brains may still recognize imperfections and failings, we can train them to bypass complaining and look instead for something positive to take away from the awareness. Can we see how to avoid a similar experience, or how to overcome a disappointment? Or how to make a destructive situation constructive?

The term “Pollyanna” is sometimes derogatorily conferred on someone who is relentlessly cheerful and upbeat. It’s a reference that is probably only understood by people who read the early 20th century children’s book or who watched the 1960 Disney movie. In the novel, Pollyanna author Eleanor H. Porter depicts an orphan girl who continually plays the “glad game”—trying to find something to be happy about in every situation, no matter how gloomy or bleak. Her persistent cheer succeeds in transforming the negative dispositions of the rather dour citizenry of the small Vermont town where she is sent to live after her parents die.

Sure, it’s silly. It’s ceaselessly saccharin—even if Hayley Mills did win a special Oscar for her role as the ever-positive title character.

Today, we’re way too sophisticated for such hokum. And these aren’t simple times. We’re surrounded by threats that have brought our world to a precipice. Pretending everything’s hunky-dory isn’t going to solve complex problems. But maybe there’s a way to blend reality with optimism, positivity with activism. Maybe if enough of us change our outlook—while retaining our discernment and integrity—just maybe we can change the world.

The challenge is changing habits of a lifetime. If we’ve perfected the art of complaining over a few decades, and if we also regularly indulge in the practice of venting with colleagues and friends, how do we slow down those synapses and speed up the ones that spark appreciation and pleasure?

I think it’s a matter of practice, mindfulness, and reframing our behaviors. Psychologist Jeffrey Lohr describes chronic complaining in a somewhat crude—but certainly memorable—analogy: he likens complaining to “break[ing] wind in an elevator.” Unless we have no choice, it’s never a good idea.

According to Lohr, a person’s anger or grievance “would have dissipated had they not vented.” Indulging in what he terms “emotional farting” (I told you this would be crude) only extends and multiplies our irritation. So, unless we want to be the sort of people who make complaining an Olympic sport, resist the temptation to grumble, carp, or complain.

Undoubtedly, there are numerous strategies for breaking a longstanding habit of complaining. Meditation, biofeedback, the old rubber-band on the wrist trick…. But I think Dr. Lohr has given us a pretty powerful cue: Next time you’re about to indulge in complaining—whether solo or among friends—think of it as he describes it: breaking wind in an elevator. Then don’t.

Please don’t.

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

Silence Isn’t Golden. SPLC Offers a Constructive Guide to Speaking Up

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Elie Wiesel)

Attribution: Donna CameronFollowing my last post on civility, I had some great conversations with friends—both via the comments section of the blog and in actual face-to-face conversations (yes, we still occasionally have those—and they’re remarkably energizing!). Some of the conversations have centered around specific instances of incivility:

  • What do you do when it’s your boss who says…?
  • I don’t know how to respond when I see someone do….
  • My father-in-law says things like….
  • I thought of just the right thing to say while I was driving home….

I’ve talked before about theoretical kindness and practical kindness, and how understanding kindness and even having kind intentions doesn’t always translate to kind actions. Stuff gets in the way. And one of the biggest barriers is our own uncertainty, clumsiness, and hesitation. It’s not that we don’t want to step in or speak out, but we want to do it right. And acting in ways that are constructive may take deliberation. There are plenty of people who speak without considering the effect their words may have. I don’t want to add to that cacophony unless my words are beneficial and healing.

I’ve found it helpful to try to anticipate comments or behaviors I may encounter and then try to envision how I might respond—not just what I hope I will say, but how I will say it and even how I will feel and carry myself as I do.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a resource at our fingertips to suggest how we might respond in a variety of situations, and reinforce our own skill development? As luck would have it, there is such a resource and I recommend it highly.

The Southern Poverty Law Center—a respected organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for all—has created a practical and informative guide entitled “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry.” It provides guidance for how to respond in a variety of situations, from an ethnic slur voiced by a neighbor, to a family member’s ingrained bigotry, discrimination by a business, bullying, or a teacher’s vocal bias in the classroom. It even helps us to recognize and repair our own biases.

This practical guide includes links to three dozen potential situations we might encounter and suggests how to speak up in ways that open dialogue and don’t escalate conflict.

Some of the situations addressed:

The Guide is available as a link you can revisit over and over, and also as a PDF you can download and share with family and friends. Parents may want to use it to have some meaningful and constructive dinner table conversations.

Here’s an example of one of the situations explored:

What Can I Do About Workplace Humor?

As soon it becomes clear that a coworker is commencing to tell an inappropriate joke—one that puts down a certain group of people or uses offensive language, it’s time to speak up. You can very calmly say, “Please don’t tell it.” Similarly, if reference is made to a race, religion, or country, and someone reacts by making derogatory comments that they think are funny, you can hold up a hand and say quietly, but firmly, “Don’t, please don’t.”

If your request is ignored, and the speaker proceeds, SPLC offers some strategies for responding:

Don’t laugh. Meet a bigoted “joke” with silence, and maybe a raised eyebrow. Use body language to communicate your distaste for bigoted “humor.”

Interrupt the laughter. “Why does everyone think that’s funny?” Tell your co-workers why the “joke” offends you, that it feels demeaning and prejudicial. And don’t hesitate to interrupt a “joke” with as many additional “no” messages as needed.

Set a “not in my workspace” rule. Prohibit bigotry in your cubicle, your office or whatever other boundaries define your workspace. Be firm, and get others to join in. Allies can be invaluable in helping to curb bigoted remarks and behavior at the workplace.

Provide alternate humor. Learn and share jokes that don’t rely on bias, bigotry or stereotypes as the root of their humor.

The beautiful thing about these strategies is that they’re simple, affirming, and they can be practiced. They remind us that standing up for what’s right is both our responsibility and our privilege as world citizens.

I hope you’ll help spread the word about SPLC’s outstanding and informative guide to responding to bigotry.

 “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

 

Discourse 2018 – A Call for Bold Civility and Radical Kindness

“Political civility is not about being polite to each other. It’s about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences.” (Parker Palmer)

Attribution: Donna CameronIt’s been more than a year since, for many of us, the world imploded and taught us lessons we never imagined learning. We saw clearly that values we hold dear are not as universal as we thought, and that some things we took for granted can’t be. We learned that we still have a lot of work to do.

The Stages of Grief

We’ve also been through the traditional stages of grief:

  • Denial – This didn’t really happen; I’ve been dreaming and will wake up to a different reality.
  • Anger – This really happened; how could so many people think a man with no moral compass should lead our nation … and how can so many continue to think so?
  • Bargaining – If we can just get through this, we’ll never again devalue the democratic principles on which our nation was built.
  • Depression – So this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a twitter.
  • Acceptance – Um, this one is hard, I’m really not there yet … my lizard brain keeps looping back to anger, or else I flail in utter bewilderment.

Overlaying all of this is a deep and real sadness, for crumbling civility and the chasm dividing us. There are friends and acquaintances I’ve avoided, partly because I feel disappointment in their choices and find myself questioning their core values, but most of all, because I don’t know if I can uphold my own core values in today’s political, social, and economic environment. What I am really thinking is, “Can I be kind? Can I be civil? Can I make things better rather than exacerbate our differences?” And even, I’m ashamed to say, “Do I want to?”

Out of a desire to understand and be part of the solution, my friend, Barbara, and I recently attended a lecture on “Civil Discourse” at our local community college. The speaker, Professor David Smith, teaches philosophy and religious studies at the University of Washington. It was informative and stimulating. I took pages of notes and want to share just a few of the key ideas about civil discourse he imparted to us.

At its most basic, Dr. Smith defines civility as “treating others with appropriate courtesy and respect.” He stressed that what’s appropriate may vary by culture and circumstance, and also that we can be both respectful and bold at the same time.

For the most part, Smith said, people don’t choose their beliefs. Rather, our beliefs rise within us as we live our lives. They come from how we were raised, our emotions—which are often driven by fear, and our own observations. “Everything we believe is the result of our life story,” he asserted.

Causes of Incivility

Professor Smith noted that there are various reasons for incivility and that they are mostly subconscious:

  1. Failure to recognize my own limitations – These may include intelligence, knowledge, and experience. We’re all wrong about something, but we don’t always recognize that.
  1. Bias – We want certain things to be true and right. Do we value our beliefs more than the truth, or truth more than our own beliefs? It’s an important question to ask. As Dr. Smith noted, “We don’t always want the truth, especially if it means we need to make a change.”
  1. I am X. I don’t just believe X, I am X – Too often we over-identify with a label rather than take the time to discern whether we agree with everything that label represents. Example: “I am a Conservative. I don’t merely believe in conservative values, I am a Conservative.” Replace conservative with liberal, Republican, Democrat, Christian, atheist, etc. The result tends to be that when someone disagrees with us, we take it as a personal attack rather than a simple questioning of a particular belief or conviction.
  1. The incivility of the other person – Their bad behavior triggers our own bad behavior.
  1. Emotion – What would the world be like if the other person’s view dominated? This plays on our fears and phobias.
  1. Uncertainty – Could I really be wrong about some of this?
  1. Affirmation – Are we seeking affirmation from people who are emotionally or intellectually incapable? Look elsewhere. Ideally, affirmation comes from within.
  1. Closed-mindedness – Are we unwilling to consider alternative information or beliefs that might be inconvenient or uncomfortable? Can we hold our convictions and still be open-minded?

Ingredients in the Recipe for Civility

Citing the work of philosopher Edward Langerak, Professor Smith described the key components of civility:

Virtue – Most especially humility, self-control, and courage. It’s important to remember that these are traits we develop and instill over our lifetime; they’re not qualities we can switch on or off at will.

Commonality – Recognizing the humanness of others and understanding the process of belief formation.

Intentionality – Focusing on civility before, during, and after the dialogue. We need to be intentional about being civil, and that’s not always easy!

Communication – Committing to effective rules and practices of engagement. This is speaking and listening, disagreeing and agreeing/affirming, being open and willing to find some commonality.

To Converse or Not to Converse. That Is the Question.

It seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget or overlook: we don’t have to engage, the choice is always ours. Some things to consider:

  • Not everyone is a candidate for civil discourse.
  • My own tolerance level for this conversation.
  • Is there a reason to have this conversation? What is the goal?
  • Start with an appetizer (less controversial issue) before jumping to the main course (the big, controversial issue). If the appetizer goes poorly, why proceed?
  • Are we engaging in dialogue or debate? There’s a place for both. Debate is digging in one’s position and doing everything we can to tear down the opposing position; dialogue invites a more open mind and willingness to explore the other position objectively.
  • It’s okay to exclude from serious discourse those who are clearly outside the boundaries of reasonableness, such as Holocaust deniers. People who are this committed to unquestionably false views are not going to change their minds or engage rationally; don’t waste your time.

In closing, Dr. Smith reminded the audience that to be full participants in a civil society, we need to expose ourselves to people with different views, and not just look for people who will confirm our own world view or biases. We need to be open to the possibility that the other side of anything might contain some truth, insight, or wisdom. We need to be both respectful and bold.

As a new year commences, my hope for 2018 is that it brings increased civility and that each of us can recognize our own role in making that happen. I’m drawn to the notion of bold civility and radical kindness as the means to recovering what we have lost.

“The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.”  (Erik Erikson)