The Water In The Restaurant: A Parable

So you sit down at the restaurant and the service is terrible. You’re parched, and they don’t even bring you a damn glass of water.

You watch as they bring you bread, set the table, but they’ve forgotten to bring you the cool glass of H20 that’s supposed to be sitting here by default. Eventually, finally, they ask if you’d like anything to drink and by then you’re pretty snippy – “A water, thank you” – and you’ve already made a note to decrease your tip to the minimum.

Guess what?

You’re an American. Go to Europe, and they don’t even understand this concept of “free water.” If you order water, they bring you sparkling water, which is wretched concoction prohibited by the Geneva conventions, but no matter.

Water’s just not part of the meal unless you ask.

And you’re not a Californian, either, because the drought there means that you also have to ask for water. That’s part of the culture.

But because you have these quiet expectations of What The Staff Are Supposed To Do For You When You Sit Down In A Restaurant, you don’t recognize that your lack of hydration is because you’re actually failing to communicate a need.

It’s not that the waiters don’t want to make you happy – well, except maybe in France – it’s that for some waiters, “What they do by default for customers” does not include “serving water.” They’re actually good waiters, and you’re potentially a good customer – this is just a cultural difference you haven’t absorbed yet.

You can still get your water; you just have to specify.

Likewise, a lot of relationship problems spring from this concept of what you should do by default for someone who’s upset. Because like all these watery restaurants, you grew up in a culture where when someone’s upset, of course you bring them food/leave them alone until they ask for help/smother them with questions/take them out drinking.

So you sit down in the chamber of I Am Upset In The Presence Of People Who Love Me, expecting that damn glass of water that everyone’s given you since you started going to restaurants, and they’re not doing the thing they’re supposed to do.

You get furious at them, and eventually explode…

…and if you’re unlucky, you never learn that the person you’re dating went to very different restaurants.

This is why we have to use our words, annoying as that is. Because quietly, we’ve picked up on all these unspoken assumptions about The Way Things Are, and we often don’t realize that this isn’t The Way Things Are, it’s The Way Things Are Where You Grew Up.

And it sucks, because it often feels less comforting, somehow, if you have to ask for what you need. You’re used to that quiet placement of that glass by your left elbow, that simple satisfaction of knowing they get you. It feels alienating, asking the waiter, “Could I have a glass of water?” and – if you’re in Europe – seeing that slight narrowing of the eyes that says, Why would they want that?

It can get embarrassing. I was having a bad weekend at a convention I had to go to alone, and for me, part of loving someone is being on-call when they’re under stress. But my wife often puts her phone aside for hours at a time to charge it, leaving me isolated.

I had to say to her, “Look, I know you don’t normally do this, but this weekend I need you to keep your phone within range at all times. I might need you to talk me out of a panic attack.” Which made me feel absurdly needy, and a burden to her, and I would have far preferred if Gini’s natural temperament was “Go on standby.”

But it wasn’t. So I used my words. And she was there for me when I needed her.

And I’ve seen people not ask for what they need because it gave them plausible deniability. What if they asked the waiter for water, and this was a super-snooty restaurant where they’d laugh at you silly Americans and your ridiculous obsession with hydration, and you’d end up thirsty and embarrassed?

Better not to ask, they think. In one scenario you’re getting crappy service, sure, and that crappy service will never change – but you also never have to find out that the restaurant secretly despises you. It’s a lot easier to sit there, furious and silent and justified in your outrage, than to get a definitive no that bruises your dignity.

But really, you gotta ask. Because if this restaurant – or person – really will think less of you for asking for the stuff you need, then you shouldn’t be dining there. And maybe that’s a painful realization, but better to move on to a restaurant more suited to your requirements than it is to sit angrily by a water-free table.

In the end, it’s nicer to go to a restaurant that provides the water without asking. But that doesn’t mean your favorite restaurant can’t be a place where you have to ask.

And if you ask often enough, and the staff gets to know you, they often make special accommodations. You can get your water, you can get your love, you can get your comfort.

You just gotta be willing to educate the locals.

1 Comment

  1. Joshua
    Nov 22, 2016

    And the thing is … this isn’t just about water or just about how to take provide care for someone using their love language rather than your own.

    It’s also about how we need to discuss our needs and articulate what works for us rather than just adhering to our preformed social expectations … even when those expectations ARE broadly shared.

    I’ve often thought that the main thing I like about polyamory isn’t the multiple partners or the vast oceans of sex or anything like that. It’s that it requires a conversation. It needs to be actively decided upon. And even if, after that conversation, you and your partner decide upon monogamy, it’s going to be a BETTER monogamy, because it will be a monogamy that you both picked, and that neither of you are secretly resenting.

    Same thing for kink vs. non-kink. I’ve often wished that the vanilla world could normalize the discussion and negotiation process that’s become such an expected part of kinky sex. “Sitting down and talking about it beforehand” is unlikely to produce worse sex, for god’s sake, and assumptions vary in a huge number of ways, not just along the spank me/don’t axis. How many women have ended up finding themselves giving blowjobs they really didn’t want to give just because the social expectation was that “this is what comes next?”

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