Stoic Solutions for Practical use in the Service Industry
by Christopher Edwards
“Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath.”
– Michael Caine
A successful server is like the duck in Michael Caine’s quote. Not everyone in the Service Industry stays calm though. There is a spirited concoction of challenges swarming about, both interpersonal and mental for the Service Industry professional. A Stoic solution exists, though, in practising the principles of this ancient philosophy, helping to effectively navigate the often stressful realities of the restaurant business.
I’ve been working in the restaurant service industry, in a variety of Front of the House (FOH) positions, from casual-high volume to fine dining, for about 14 years now. I’ve been practising Stoicism as a philosophy of life, (off, but mostly on) for a little over two years and have loosely practised it for more than 10. It is my experience that implementing these ancient principles works to keep a cool head in this Industry.
Challenges On A Busy Shift
I will first walk you through the common situations, pace, and challenges a server encounters during a busy shift at a casual high-volume restaurant. Then I will go over a few crucial nuggets from the later Roman Stoics that have not only helped me in life and in the Service Industry, but I believe can be applied successfully by anyone in this business. …but first, a quote from Marcus Aurelius:
“First, do not be upset: all things follow the nature of the Whole, and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere… Next, concentrate on the matter in hand and see it for what it is. Remind yourself of your duty to be a good man and rehearse what man’s nature demands: then do it straight and unswerving, or say what you best think right. Always, though, in kindness, integrity, and sincerity.” (Meditations 8.5)
See if the above passage helps you spot opportunities to practice Stoic principles in the paragraphs ahead. Keep in mind that servers in North Carolina and many other states aren’t paid minimum wage. It’s $2.15 per hour. They live off their tips. They also have to tip out support staff a percentage of tips and/or sales. If you don’t tip, the server is essentially paying for you to dine out.
What Service Can Be Like
It’s the middle of a dinner rush. You have a 5-table section. You’ve just been “stiffed” (i.e. left no tip) by a table of three guys. A couple sits down and you greet them, “Hi my name’s Chrysippus and I’ll be taking special care of you this evening.” We’ll call this table, table A. You go through the spiel of featured drink and menu specials. The lady at the table sizes you up with a mean look. You give them a moment to glance over the menu.
A second table (table B) has just sat down 30 seconds ago. “Hi folks, I’m Cato the Younger and will be taking care of you tonight….” They let us know immediately that they’re in a hurry and are trying to make the eight o’clock movie. So you, without hesitation, take their drink and food order promptly, then head directly to the Point of Service (POS) workstation to enter the order. As you pass by table A, you check to see if they’re ready to order. They seem okay, still immersed in the menu.
As you’re entering the server station to enter in table B’s order and retrieve their drinks you see the Hostess seating a party of 5 (Table C) in your section. You take a deep breath. After delivering the drinks to table B you figure you have enough time to take take table A’s order. “What are we drinking tonight?” “Well, we’d like a bottle of your Reisling, but we have a question about the chutney on your Salmon special.” “Yes,” you reply?” Could I have it without red peppers?” You’re pretty sure it’s already pre-mixed, so you tell her as much, but to do the right thing, you tell her that you will go ask and return shortly.
Before asking about that, you must greet table C. They are a group of young college kids celebrating a birthday. You introduce yourself and tell them about the drink specials, but don’t take any orders. On your way to enter in the Riesling order for table A, you see there are 2 other Servers in front of you in line at the POS Micros workstation. While you are waiting you ask Server 1 in front of you if it is possible to get the chutney on the Salmon without red peppers? “How long have you worked here?” she asks sarcastically. You don’t say anything. Server 2 answers your question, as he finishes up entering in his order “No, it’s premixed. They can’t separate it. Offer a different topping.” You thank that Server.
As you’re still waiting to put in your order, Server 2 says, “I’m going to be a minute, I have to cash out a six top. The other Micro at the other end of the restaurant has a line at it with other Servers as well. You run to the bartender, to give him heads up that you’re about to ring in a bottle of Riesling, so it’ll be ready to deliver after you ring it in. You see that Server 1 has about another minute, and you’ve made it known that you’re next in line. So during that minute of downtime you rush to make 5 waters for your college kid party of 5. Okay, finally you enter in the wine order for table A.
You make a decision to drop waters off at the 5 top, telling them that you will be right back to take drink and appetizer orders, but first you think to yourself, you must present this bottle of wine to Table A. While presenting the bottle of wine you see that Table B’s food is arriving. They are pleased. Good! After taking table A’s appetizer and entree order you check on table B to ask if they need anything else? “Extra honey mustard.” You dart “elegantly” as possible back to the Server station to retrieve a ramekin of honey mustard for them.
When you go to squeeze the bottle, nothing comes out. The lunch closing Server didn’t restock the honey mustard. You run downstairs to the kitchen to get some from the Chef expediting. He looks like he could use a valium, or rather a Stoic week or two under his belt. The kitchen’s crazy. Before you get to voice your request for back up honey mustard, he barks at you, “Cleanthes! Run these plates to table 32!” You tell him you need backup honey mustard. He tells you to run that and come back for it. He gives you a ramekin of honey mustard but stresses to have a food runner do that kind of work next time. There was no food runner around at the critical moment when things needed to get done.
Throughout this honey mustard excursion people keep pouring through the door. You see that you just got sat a three top. The place is getting busy and coming alive. You deliver the honey mustard, and refill drinks at Table B then head immediately to table C to take drink orders. They all give you a look that says, we’ve been waiting and are ready to order. To lighten the air of tension between the guest and yourself, you ask whose birthday it is. They all look at this one young lady who blushes with upper middle class entitlement. You charmingly tell her that she gets a free desert and to start thinking about which one she wants. She smiles with all eyes on her. The tension eases.
During that moment you begin taking drink and appetizer orders. They all get beers. After putting in the order, you pause to think what the next thing to do is. During that moment the manager interrupts your train of thought asking you to take a bus tub of dishes to the dishwasher because the Server Assistant is currently clearing a large table. It is while performing this side work that you realize you need to print table B’s check, so they can make their movie, and that you have a new table (Table D) that still has to be greeted. All this is happening at the pace of 100 ballerinas dancing frantically to 90’s punk rock, dunking and dodging as gracefully as possible, trying to be that calm Duck paddling like Hades.
You drop the check at Table B. Next, you greet your three top (Table D) and apologize about the wait, then take their drink orders. You see that Table A has finished their appetizers, so you clear the plates from the table and head by Table B to pick up their payment. On your way to run their payment, you see that you are getting seated again (Table E). There is a line at the Server station again. You wait in an antagonizing limbo where you’re tortured with the things that have to be done but can’t do them until you do this thing first. You run table B’s card and make change for a 20 they gave you, fix drinks for table D and deliver them, take table B their card and change, wishing them a fantastic evening, then head to table C to take their food orders. It’s getting hairy.
Table E asks if you can turn the music down after you greet them. On your way to the Server Station to put table C’s food order in, you check on Table A as they just got their main course. They want to see a wine list. On your way to retrieve a wine list you stop by table B to pick up your tip. When you make it to the Server Station finally, the manager speaks harshly to you about not pre-bussing table B, i.e. only picking up my check and not clearing the rest of the table. “I don’t expect to have to tell you that again.” He’s clearly stressed. You start to feel like you don’t have any job security. You don’t. While he’s flaring red, you ask if he can turn down the music in the section where Table E is. He gets flustered and does so.
Upon delivering the wine list to Table A, you check on table C. They all request more drinks. Before entering them in though, you go take table D’s order. Two parents and their daughter. The daughter asks a lot of questions about substitutions and has a lot of complicated order modifications. You give them another minute to make a decision and try to keep a smile on your face as you approach table E. You take their drink order. On your way to put in Table E’s drink order and to pick up the 2nd round of drinks for table C, table D calls out to you, “we’re ready to order now.” To be a good and fair Server, you have to tell them, “just one moment, please. I’ll be right back with you.”
So you go put in table E’s drink order. While doing that, Server 1 is impatiently tapping her foot behind you, hovering. You have to focus. You take Table C their 2nd round of drinks before heading to table D to take their order. They ask for a lot of modifications and you can see Table A growing impatient, ready to order more wine. you also see that Table C is getting their entrees. You get table A more wine. Table C is beckoning for attention.
So much to do. Several things at once. Must keep composed. You have to pee. You’re beating yourself up for being such a Cyrenaic in college and not finishing your degree. You’re thinking if the tips are worth the acting anymore. What else can I do for you folks at the moment, you ask? ” “Can I have extra honey mustard?” “Of course.” “Another beer?” “Certainly.” “Yes.” “Absolutely.” “My pleasure.” “HEEEELLLLLPPP!!!!!!”
Okay, hopefully with all that, you get a sense of the oftentimes, difficult and chaotic pace of a high volume restaurant shift. It’s not always exactly like that. But usually, the money comes from these high stress shifts. So, how on earth is one supposed to keep it together during all that? When customers are demanding and running you around; when you have to endure the cattiness and mean tempers of co-workers, and take crap from your superiors. When you’re doing everything you can to be as efficient as possible with your time, but you still get stiffed from that one table that couldn’t be pleased. What about the pace? …accelerated heart beat, people engaging in substance-less conversations loudly; feeling the hectic rush that a fast paced shift entails… knowing that you’re not able to give the service you want to give because so many things have to be done, seemingly at once. Thank goodness for the Stoics.
Let’s get right to it! One thing that works for me is to meditate on what my day may consist of, upon awakening. Then I do it again, as a quick pre-shift meditation, before walking in the door of the restaurant. This could also be paired with a similar technique called Negative Visualization, where one visualizes potential adversities befalling them, without dwelling on them, throughout the day, so when and if it does happen, you’ve allowed yourself the capacity to foresee it, and hopefully prepare for it.
Marcus Aurelius gives us an account of how to do this in Book 2.1 of his Mediations:
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.
Another late Stoic, slave turned philosopher, Epictetus, has something useful to say about preparing oneself for the reality of certain places, events, etc. Try applying Chapter 4 from the Enchiridion to the Service Industry, specifically, before going into a serving shift, and see if it helps you better map out the potentialities therein:
Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse – people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature – which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’
Holy cow Epictetus! You said it. Reading, meditating on, and practising this stuff can make the difference between staying cool during a shift or having a swarming stress box of a head, wearing the face of a very uncalm duck. Speaking for myself, the practice of doing this on a regular basis helps me anticipate difficulties, and curves my reaction to these difficulties. When people start acting nuts and catty, I pause, and say, “…that is the nature of this industry.” I don’t have to take it personally. When the pace gets out of control, I smile to myself and say, “I will carry on the best I can, and will not be taken away to high levels of stress by these impressions… just do what’s in front of me.”
One of the most helpful key elements to use in the Service Industry from the Stoics, for me, is the dichotomy of control as Epictetus lays out in Enchiridion 1.1 – 5:
 We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control…
… So make practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’
It is a good thing for a restaurant and for me financially, when we get busy, but it can be quite the stressful thing to endure. When it gets crazy, and I am “in the weeds,” I don’t have to freak out. I slow down, focus on what needs to be done, and in what order, and do it to the best of my ability. Again, with practice, you’ll find the calm within this awareness, increases. When a customer is overly perturbed at not getting the perfect service and experience they feel entitled to, you don’t have to take it personally. Stay professional, but keep moving. What is the next right thing to do? They cannot harm your prohairesis (faculty of choice)!
Managing Impressions and dealing with difficult people and situations:
When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you. But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends… (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.27)
Essentially, practice being indifferent to things that are outside of your control and resolve to press on, kindly, with your duties.
This next one by Marcus should be reserved for when events or people are really begging for permission to get under your skin, or when you’re contemplating the relevance of JUSTICE over social kindness and need to simply avoid interactions with difficult people as much as possible:
What sort of people are they when eating, sleeping, coupling, shitting, etc.? Then what are they like when given power over men? Haughty, quick to anger, punishing to excess. And yet just now they were slaves to all those needs for all those reasons: and shortly they will be slaves again” (Meditations 10.19)
Be careful here not to get onto a Stoic “high horse” though. Some people are fundamentally flawed or conditioned in ways which predispose them to seemingly “mean” behaviors. You still have to work or interact with these people, just keep your prohairesis straight!
Then there’s this:
Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control. (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 20)
This is where I like to pause, breathe, and consciously think first… “What is in my control?”
I ask myself too, “What is said person trying to tell me (if it is a fellow employee or superior) that pertains to my job, rules, correct procedures, etc…. Because oftentimes, co-workers and customers (let’s just call them people) say and intend relevant things, but in a mean way, or with a smothering tone. And I know I’m not alone in having an equally cut-throat reaction to some of the harsh language and stressors a service industry professional endures. The thing with practising these principles though, is that you can learn to assess these emotive-thought reactions against a calm, rational criteria… then, hopefully… Stoic-on!
Dealing with the crazy pace:
These are a few of my favorite principles to implement. Here, I try and keep an expansive philosophical perspective, which has a calming effect, while staying engaged in the grind.
“Keep constantly in your mind an impression of the whole of time and the whole of existence – and the thought that each individual things is, on the scale of existence, a mere fig-seed; on the scale of time, one turn of a drill.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.17)
“You can strip away many unnecessary troubles which lie wholly in your own judgement. And you will immediately make large and wide room for yourself by grasping the whole universe in your thought, contemplating the eternity of time, and reflecting on the rapid change of each thing in every part – how brief the gap from birth to dissolution, how vast the gulf of time before your birth, and an equal infinity after your dissolution.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.32)
This is definite consolation that your shift will be over soon. It will also help you stay right sized (at least you don’t have to stay two hours after closing, like the dishwasher does. Be nice to him or her). If situations or people become increasingly difficult, it might be helpful to pair these last two exercises with a quick view from above which Marcus also advises in Meditations 9.30. I have, on a few occasions, had to go to the bathroom and do this along with some deep breathing and cognitive distancing. Afterwards, I leave the bathroom calm, and carry on without going to pieces.
Now, I want to stress how all of these principles compliment one another. You manage the negative impression of your Manager talking down to you by deconstructing the facts. “He is talking down to me. He obviously feels justified in doing so. Where is he coming from? It is in my power not to take offense from his outbursts. That is within my control. It is my duty to continue to work the best I can, where my integrity allows, given whatever situation arises. And, didn’t I understand that something of this fashion was bound to unfold anyway?”
These are principles that work perfect in theory within the Service Industry, but one will only be able to see the benefits from them by practising it daily! Seneca, a later Stoic, advises us to ask ourselves before retiring at night, what progress we made that day, how did we excel in our character. Well, if you didn’t throw your hands up and curse your boss or a customer out, then you’ve succeeded. If, in spite of a particularly difficult customer, you maintained the standard of good service, then you have conquered an army. So, although the interpersonal and mental challenges within the pace of a busy shift are difficult, practising these Stoic principles creates space for a certain peace and clarity, to see what’s the best way to navigate each situation, maintaining your moral purpose, as a working member of society. Be like the duck.
Do not look around at the directing minds of other people, but keep looking straight ahead to where nature is leading you – both universal nature, in what happens to you, and your own nature, in what you must do yourself. Every creature must do what follows from its own constitution. The rest of creation is constituted to serve rational beings (just as in everything else the lower exists for the higher), but rational beings are here to serve each other. So the main principle in man’s constitution is the social… (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations 7.55)
Christopher L. Edwards works in the Service Industry in North Carolina. He is also a singer-songwriter who draws on philosophical themes. He uses Stoicism primarily in recovery from alcoholism and addiction, but finds that practising it as a philosophy of life makes for eudaimonia. For more of Christopher’s experientially-based reflections on practical uses of Stoicism in relation to recovery, the service industry, and living the good life, check out his site, A Stoic Mime’s Blog.