Lesson in serving up mutual respect


    Sep 08, 2015

    Lesson in serving up mutual respect

    A DISPUTE between a teenage waiter and a customer boils over into a debate about class disparity and mutual respect.

    On Aug 24, a verbal tit-for-tat in a hotpot restaurant in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, escalated into an act that some have called cruelty while others saw as fighting back, albeit excessively.

    According to a police deposition, the incident involved a customer surnamed Lin and a young waiter surnamed Zhu. At the Mr Hotpot restaurant, Ms Lin asked Zhu to add water to her pot, which she and her family were in the middle of enjoying. Zhu, busy serving the next table, took a look and determined it could wait while he finished his job. Ms Lin was impatient and said: "Quick! What if my pot dries up?"

    When he later came to add water, she reprimanded him: "Your service is no good. How come you were so slow?" To which Zhu retorted: "Don't bring your bad mood into my work."

    "Get your manager. I want to file a complaint against you," Ms Lin said.

    "Stop being so pretentious," he mumbled as he left.

    The spat could have ended here but it did not. Ms Lin wrote a post of complaint on her micro blog and the manager upbraided Zhu, saying he should "communicate" with her and patch things up. Zhu went back to her table: "Did I do anything wrong that deserved this? Can we talk at the back?"

    To which she snapped: "Who the f**k are you? How dare you talk to me like this?"

    The sentence with the F word was the last straw for Zhu. Most Chinese would have interpreted it as an emphatic way of saying: "Who are you to act this way?" But the Chinese term includes the word "mother", so it fell on his ears as: "Who is your mother so you act like this?"

    It happens that Zhu's parents divorced while he was a toddler and the 17-year-old has been growing up with his father. So, he was extremely sensitive to the mention of a mother figure. Seeing it as the ultimate insult, he fetched a pot of boiling water from the kitchen and poured it over Ms Lin's head.

    He then dragged her backwards and started beating her furiously. She suffered severe burns to 42 per cent of her body. Zhu has been in police detention since. The whole episode was captured on a closed-circuit camera.



    The squabble that spilled over to cyberspace was represented by two camps: one arguing against the waiter and the other for him. Centrist that I am, I found myself in the strange position of agreeing with both sides on major points.

    Under no circumstances should a service staff member take the drastic action of physically harming a patron. True, a complaint from a customer might have robbed him of the bonus from his already meagre wage. But he could have explained the situation to his supervisor.

    In the hospitality industry, one complaint does not mean much. It is usually a case of he said/she said. The management has to detect a pattern of behaviour before determining whether someone consistently delivers poor service.

    Although Zhu went through training that included handling difficult patrons, he was not really prepared, saying he had never encountered someone so rude in his work. In his line of work, he needs to adjust his temperament so that he can take the heat even when the customer is totally wrong.

    In hindsight, he should not have retorted but asked his manager if he could switch tables with another waiter.

    I was surprised it was the "mother" remark that pushed him over the edge. Usually, it would be a build up of tangentially related incidents that would cause the aggravation. Even a rational person could be pushed too far. But given the circumstances - the patron's behaviour was not extreme as most of us would define it - there is reason to believe that a personality defect was a root cause as well.

    To put it mildly, Zhu is not cut out for such a job. Waitering requires an innate ability to cool things down, rather than to heat things up. The management should have caught his short fuse but, unlike airlines and five-star hotels, it probably could not afford to offer rigorous vetting and training in jobs where turnover is high.



    There is a flip side though, which concerns a society's culture as well as its disposition. Every society has its share of rude people, but in China, public attitudes towards those in certain service industries swing like a pendulum.

    In the age when everything was in short supply, for example, those in sales, including shop assistants, were often kowtowed to as they acted as a conduit to precious goods and services, such as a yard of cloth or a bag of sugar. Imagine Death Of A Salesman set in that era. It would come out as Death Of The Purchaser instead.

    However, with the free market comes an abundance of things and, with it, the lowering of status of those who sell them. The mantra that the customer is god is drummed into the public psyche to the point that a segment of the paying public expects those who serve to be servants, even slaves. This is borne out by many postings in the aftermath of the above incident.

    In the old days, we were taught that every job was equally significant to the building of a better world. That utopian notion can no longer work now that success is more or less measured by wealth.

    We have reached the stage where we have to recognise that waiters, cleaning ladies and security guards may be low in the social pecking order, but they deserve our respect nonetheless.

    From my personal observation, things are generally moving in the right direction despite the occasional flaring up of hot spots. More people give those who serve a courteous smile, nod or thank you when they leave a restaurant or an aircraft. It is good manners but, more importantly, it is a case of treating others the way you want to be treated.