There’s Nothing Wrong With Server-Speak. In Fact, It’s Polite!

A waitress looks nervously as a customer tastes some soup.
“Is the soup going to be to your liking, ma’am?”
SeventyFour / Thinkstock

Today in kinda niche but nevertheless instructive Twitter dustups, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times book review, weighed in on two of the most divisive topics known to the internet: the service industry and grammar.

Paul’s tweet, which took aim at the particular way servers say a table is going to be right this way rather than simply is this way, was promptly ratioed (receiving many responses and few cosigns), and the editor was roundly mocked as the elitist avatar for everything that’s wrong with the New York Times.

It’s not entirely surprising that the tweet hit a nerve. Paul’s tone was unnecessarily pedantic in noticing an entirely harmless linguistic turn (shouty caps are never a good idea when ‘correcting’ someone’s grammar), and, given how the service industry is inherently gendered and classed, she couldn’t help coming off as a bit tone-deaf. Which means that your average Twitter user could feel great about dog-piling on this one, even after Paul added context to her nag by recalling her own brushes with the minimum wage and theorizing that this tense shift was “silly corporate jargon that is certainly imposed from above.”

But as the fracas fades, it’s worth pointing out that what Paul viewed as a new degradation of language actually offers an interesting case study in how manners, power, and grammar mix in a restaurant context.

There’s a well-documented history of servers bending over backwards both physically and emotionally for their customers: It makes sense that in a world in which “the customer is always right,” certain linguistic tics would develop to finesse the uneasy exchange of labor, food, and money. Because something as simple as saying “no problem” can send some people into paroxysms of irritation, servers are often drilled by management to only speak in a way that could be construed as passive, inviting, and appropriately formal for whatever dining establishment you happen to frequent. It’s why servers often use the royal “we” when they ask, “what are we having tonight?,” and why, as one colleague and service veteran told me, servers are sometimes not even allowed to use the word no. These affectations are designed to create a sense of intimacy, to soften the transactional nature of the relationship, and bring customers further into the dining experience—which can be grating if you’re just trying to get your Bloomin’ Onion and $5 margarita and go.

In this specific case, the shift to “is going to be” that Paul decries isn’t really a shift at all. As one Twitter user coined it, the “culinary future” tense is very common, and in any case likely not a choice made by staff but one made at a management level. Saying that the foie gras is going to be served with winter squash and pumpkin seeds is just a slightly less formal version of the traditional construction “madam, the foie gras will be served with winter squash and pumpkin seeds this evening,” or “yes sir, your table will be right this way.” It’s a grammatical flourish that builds anticipation and excitement and, perhaps more important, seeks continuing customer buy-in. The unspoken message is that this action or that situation will happen if you choose to continue your dining experience with us. Which, even if you don’t love the sound of it, is a fundamentally polite gesture.

Like most fine dining etiquette, this “culinary future” tic can be a bit annoying for the average customer. But it’s also not a reason (and there rarely is a reason) to get angry at the person just trying to get you fed.