Sunday, October 07, 2007

Thing three

Since my return stateside more than two weeks ago, it seems like I’ve eaten out in restaurants at least once or even twice daily. During these dining forays the very first thing that grabbed my attention was the manner in which I was waited upon. From what I’ve seen, American wait staff are almost universally magnificent, UNLESS, of course, you speak to some "spoiled" Americans who have never been anywhere. From them, you’ll probably hear a much different tune and a whole lot of restaurant ‘war stories!’

So, what does that have to do with the Philippines? At the risk of offending some, I bring this "old" subject up (I’ve mentioned the waiter/waitress thing before, and I know I’ve commented on it in Ed Abbey’s blog too.) because once again, the very first time I entered a stateside restaurant the differences in the styles and enthusiasms between US and Philippine wait staff became immediately obvious to me.

On the very next day after I got here, after a bout of shopping, my parents decided on some Chinese cuisine for lunch. We stopped into a restaurant that I hadn’t been in for probably near 20 years. There were no Asian waiters at that early lunching hour, but my mom assured me that "they" came in for the more active evening dining hours.

[...grin...Chinese food requires Asians of SOME kind, doesn’t it? After all, even if non-Asians are cooking it, Asians SHOULD be serving it. It’s all about the "atmosphere;" Oriental dining, for it to be credible, REQUIRES Oriental faces at least SOMEWHERE in eyeshot!]

The young man who came to our table seemed downright excited to wait on us. Whoa! I’m not used to that after living these past 5 years on Central Luzon. Almost with fanfare he told us his name and that he KNEW that our dining experience would be the best we’d EVER had. Obviously, he was being a little tongue-in cheek, but it was nice that he was so into what he was doing. With great deference he took our orders, brought us appetizers and drinks, and after bringing the main courses, he checked on us at least every 5 or 10 minutes. Without asking first, he brought out water refills, and as far as my iced tea, upon reaching an inch of empty, it was magically restored without my having to ask for it to be so.

All the while, he engaged us in snippets of drive by conversation. By meal’s end we knew that he one day planned on opening his own restaurant and we joked with him about "his dream" as the meal progressed. He engaged us and made us feel glad to be there. Better yet, I felt that he had more than earned his tip, although he had NOT done any more than what is expected of ANY waiter in the USA. Just the same, for his flare alone, I gladly gave him his 15% and then some.

I’ve been to at least 10 restaurants since that initial visit, and although I wasn’t always made to feel as if I had made a new friend like at that Chinese place, the waiters and waitresses have always been quick to serve and never had to be flagged down. I knew within a minute or two that I would hear a cheery, "Everything okay here? Can I refill that coffee cup for ya!"

So, I suppose I’m relating my American dining experiences here under "thing three," because for the most part, it just seems that the waiters and waitresses back in my "country of retirement" are just about as diametrically opposed as they can get to their American waiter and waitressing counterparts, at least when it comes to their willingness to actually "wait."

How do I put this without being offensive? I guess there is no real way to do it but to say it: In the Philippines there is little service in the service industries, such as when it comes to restaurant dining, and that befuddles me, because providing good service only makes common sense when it comes to parting a diner from his tip money.

For five years I’ve mulled over the following conundrum: why is it that people working in Philippine service industries (and NOT just waiters and waitresses!) are so unresponsive and seemingly so unwilling to do their jobs with any alacrity? I think I’ve come up with several answers since this is not a simple problem, and I’m sure several others will read this and have their own theories as well.

First, I’ll tell you a bit about the first time I watched my own daughter do her bit as a waitress. Only a young teenager at the time, she went about her duties in a Mexican restaurant about ten years ago in Jacksonville, Arkansas as I sat eating at a table nearby. After greeting me she seated her first customers, a couple, and handed them their menus. From that point on I barely recognized her as "my" daughter. She laughed at their silly jokes and made some back; everything she told them sounded sincere and enthusiastic, as if THEY were the most important people in her life at that moment. During the course of their meal she never stopped smiling and in fact continued what seemed to me to be a nonstop "kindly assault," and once they had finished and left her a paltry tip, she just laughed it off and continued to give the rest of her customers the same amiable professional attention.

I asked her about the couple’s stinginess and she confided to me under her breath, "Oh, they always tip small like that. It’s no big deal. I don’t think they have much going for them at the moment."

Even knowing this, she STILL waited on them as if they were millionaires. Why did she do that? Because she had developed a work ethic and a sense of pride in what she was doing that caused her to want to do her best no matter what she was paid. How can a father not be proud to observe such a thing in his progeny?

In "thing one," I observed that if Americans were suddenly plopped into the Philippines that they would retain their American ways and attitudes, and I believe that. I also said the same thing would probably be true of Filipinos if plopped in the States, but for this one thing I don’t think so. There is a noticeable enervation in workers of all kinds back in the Phils and I’ve always found that intriguing, because that spiritlessness doesn’t exist among them "outside" of their own country. In other words, "plop" an unenthusiastic waitress from Angeles City into a restaurant in the US and just watch her go! From my experience with pinoys and pinays transplanted to the States, she’ll become every bit as enthusiastic as ANY American, probably more so.

In fact, Filipinos are very much sought after in the US for their work ethic, loyalty and enthusiasm. THAT is what I knew of them BEFORE I retired to the land of their birth. Imagine my confusion when I went there to live and went into my first restaurant and had to get up, chase down, clap my hands, call out to, wave at, snap my fingers repeatedly, or use semaphore to get a waitress’ attention. I thought the first time it happened that it MUST have been a fluke.
‘Surely, not all restaurants are like this,’ I thought. But oh yes, they certainly are.

Over the years I’ve gotten used to having to wave both hands wildly in the air to get a waitress to come over. Usually, they’ll be in a group of other waitresses doing what they love most, socializing. Sometimes a good thing, see "thing two," becomes a bad thing, and that’s what happens with the "socializing thing" at times.

At the VFW restaurant in Balibago, where I used to dine on occasion, I even tried to "teach" a waitress just exactly what I expected from her to wit: I placed ten pesos on the middle of the table and told her that every time she checked on me that I would add another ten to "the pile." She smiled, eventually brought me my food and a single glass of water, and that was the last time I saw her until I was ready for my check. I had been prepared to leave her as much as P1000 as a tip and told her as much when I had to finally get up, run her down, and ask for my check. The very next time I went there I placed P10 on the table and the same thing happened. So, somehow I’m not so sure its about the money.

I say that, because I thought perhaps it is the low wages that causes the indifference, but in this case I was willing to part with way more than twice that waitress’ normal daily pay to make a point and still she ignored my overture. Perhaps it was the renowned Filipino pride that made her act this way. I confess, even after all these years, I STILL don’t understand the culture all that well. I think its because I tend to inject my own American attitudes into everything around me. What seems reasonable to me, as an American, might not be seen the way to a person raised in a different society, like that of my recalcitrant waitress.

(Then again, perhaps it IS the money. I've learned recently that many Filipino businesses practice "tip sharing," where all the tip money goes into a collective. The first time I heard that I was outraged, thinking, 'Why should I tip at all, if MY waitress is not the one to get the benefit of the reward or "the lesson" of receiving little for her lack of regard?' If this IS so, and wait staff are NOT allowed to keep what they individually earn in tips, no wonder they act like they don't care if I'm happy or not. My question is this: Do they teach this nonsense in business classes over there? If they do, they need to incorporate basic classes on human psychology. People, it didn't work in the Soviet Union, and it certainly is NOT working in the Phils!)

Another thing occurred to me: Maybe what I, as a foreigner, specifically as an American, expect from service people in the Phils, such as waitresses or hotel clerks, is NOT what is expected of them in the context of their society. I’ve watched Filipinos eat in restaurants, and they don’t seem to have a problem in the least with doing what they have to do to get a waiter’s attention. On the other hand, Americans will tend to sit there and just wait, and then we’ll fume and wait some more. Then, when the waitress doesn’t come over, we don’t understand what is wrong with her; we think she’s being lazy or obtuse.

Here’s a thought. It could be that she is doing EXACTLY what is expected of her: she comes over WHEN someone calls her or gets her attention. It could be that THAT is how things are done as far as she’s concerned. Although, I’m convinced the "games" do begin when the wait staff use what small "power" they have in "their situation" by forcing the customer to go to whatever lengths is required to get their "attention." Perhaps I’m "injecting" or even "projecting" again, but it seems that there is indeed an undercurrent of "game playing" at times. To tell you the truth, I’m not entirely convinced that those waitresses aren’t actually ignoring us.

To break it down then, for an American, having to go to great lengths to get a waiter or waitress’ attention is outrageous and unacceptable, while to a Filipino diner its entirely satisfactory and not a problem at all. Perhaps now I’m getting it?

In other words, "MISS! Over here please!"


Ed said...

I haven't had any problems similar to what you described when eating out in the Philippines but then again, I have always eaten out with a Filipino and never alone. Perhaps that is the difference.

I think the practice of tip sharing, which is also becoming common here in the States, came about to share the money with the kitchen staff so that the owner can pay them low wages too. I think it is horrible and like you said, takes away any benefits you might get from tipping well.

Anonymous said...

Hey Phil,

Great to hear you are back in the states for a visit with family. If I would have known...I would have made a trip back to Michigan for a visit. When do you leave to go back to the PI? By the way I lost your e-mail address.
Your Cousin

Brian Kennedy

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hi Brian. That would have been great. I'm sure I don't have your current email either, since the one I have is at the Pentagon. Drop a line at It would have been great seeing ya again...

ardee sean said...

Just droppin :p

Amadeo said...

Among the early jobs I had was with a huge hotel here in SF which maintained different restaurant outlets. As some kind of roving cashier I got to roam thru those outlets, dealing with their very diverse wait staff. Couldn't help but observe how each interacted with clients.

Confirming one of your observations, Phil, the Filipino servers (they preferred this title rather than waiter)not being good initiators of or at conversations, tended to indeed just "wait" on the clients, waiting for them to express what they wanted/needed.

Expectedly, they were more at home when the clients were also Filipinos.

I have to say also that the Filipino servers were very competitive when it came to tips, thus would not hesitate to go the extra distance if it meant a possible larger take. BTW, "proper" tipping (as a percentage of bill) in PI is not that defined and practiced.

Re tip sharing, the nature of the business makes this also obligatory, though maybe not necessarily written as policy. A server better be "kind" to the chef who does the orders, or the busboy who prepares and clears your tables. Or else, your clients may not get the service you promised them. Even the exalted maitre'd gets into this equation.

Anonymous said...

I think the difference between Filipino and American style of waiting is due to culture. In top class restaurants in Manila, one can experience the kind of waiting that you described. But that's because the customers are mostly wealthy and influential and the waiting staff were surely trained the "American" way. For undergoing such training and being attentive to customers' needs, the waiting staff are paid handsomely.

But that kind of waiting you won't find in casual restaurants, especially those located outside Manila. As you correctly stated, it is because the waiting staff are, in addition to being paid low wages, just casual employees that are hired for short term by the restaurant's owner.

As a Filipino, I hate being disturbed by a waiter while I'm dining. I don't want anyone butting in during my conversation with whoever I am with while dining. And I think I share the same attitude with my compatriots in general. I expect my waiter to serve me if I want him/her for something. I don't want him/her to come to my table every 5 minutes to check on whether we are eating well or how the food is. I would give my comment about the food after I finish my meal, thank you, but I don't want any distractions while I enjoy the food.

Of course, some Filipinos welcome the conversation with the waiting staff especially if the customer is dining alone. But if I'm dining with my date or with friends, we expect the waiter to leave us in peace while we enjoy our dinner and our own conversation. To butt in is being rude; to frequently appear on our table without being called is just simply annoying.

So I guess it all boils down on culture. And I'm sure you know that when it is a cultural thing, it would just be wise and better to do as the Romans do. That's why you find the Filipino waiting staff in American restaurants so energetic and enthusiastic: they're just doing it the way the Romans do.

PS. Of course it's a little different when I'm drinking in a bar like the ones you have in Fields Avenue. I expect my waitress to pay attention to my needs and I'll tip her handsomely if she does. If she doesn't, I want another waitress to wait on me.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Jocaper, that is exactly the kind of insight i was looking for... Well thought out response. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion the difference lies with the amount of unemployed.

In a country that is predominantly Roman Catholic most are unemployed.

The windows on my home all have bars. Tall walls with razor wire (or something cheaper) surround each home.

Armed guards are even in some of these yards.

You can't go any place without passing armed guards.

Most people walk around with blinders on so they can't see what is all around them. If you take the blinders off all you see is poverty every where you look. Squatters and beggars are every where you look. With individual blinders on you can choose what you see and avoid what you don't want.

You don't want to be bothered when you have your blinders on.

The grown ups are still living their "Terrible Twos"! Everyone is reactive to almost everything. No one knows how to be proactive. Independence does not exist here. How can people claim to be free when they don't know how to be independent? They huddle dependent around those who have some type of job.

Win-Lose is the goal, Lose-Lose is the primary result.

Win-Win would require communication and you can't do that with blinders on.

The culture of this place would be very different if unemployment was as low as it is in the United States.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Sounds like you've given this a lot of thought... Maybe time for you to think about calling it quits here?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Ultimately, all the excuses and rationale in the world that people can come up with to substantiate why its okay for the local waitstaff to be so unresponsive comes down to this...

Whether there is a policy of tip sharing or not, when a waitress acts like most do here and doesn't actually wait on anyone, if a foreigner is the customer, the tip is going to be small. So be it...

Islasfilipinas said...

I think training has something to do with it. When I go to the Iloilo McDonalds the staff are so friendly, helpful and enthusiastic its astounding. I find this with some other foreign-run restaurant chains. Go somewhere else and you'll get the usual indifferent service. Filipinos are not born knowing how to be a good waiter or salesperson, they need training and motivation and they can excel.

Phil, I read your engaging posts with amazement. Life in Iloilo is nothing like to describe in AC. I've walked hundreds of miles in Iloilo, alone, I ride the jeeps. I have only been treated with kindness and respect.

Bob in Iloilo City

PhilippinesPhil said...

I know what you mean Bob. I've visited other locations there and its not universally homogenous how things are. The way things are digressing where I currently live its a sure thing that I will be moving to some other location same country after another year or so. So, Iloilo is good neh?

PhilippinesPhil said...

I know what you mean Bob. I've visited other locations there and its not universally homogenous how things are. The way things are digressing where I currently live its a sure thing that I will be moving to some other location same country after another year or so. So, Iloilo is good neh?