Her reaction surprised me. She looked at me doubtfully, eyes narrowed, but then, a tentative smile began to lighten her face. “Me?” she asked, as though I had mistaken her for someone else.
What precipitated this brief interaction was my comment as Elaine and I prepared to leave the restaurant that her service had been both attentive and sincerely pleasant. Well acquainted with restaurant-speak (“But of course!”, “Certainly, sir”), obligatory, but nevertheless canned expressions, I had been impressed with her unobtrusive, caring efforts throughout dinner. I’ve always basically sensed how physically taxing a server’s shift must be and how some customers can strain patience, so I really appreciated the pleasant aura she added to our meal. She deserved to be told about her positive impact, and I had done so quickly and casually.
Why, then, the disbelieving, “Me?” response? Puzzled about its motivation, I thought about it later. Possibly, I had over-analyzed its significance, but I really didn’t think so. The tone of her answer conveyed self-doubt, as though she couldn’t imagine herself being praised for anything she did, including her job. Being told that she’d done something well seemed to have aroused disbelief, not pleasure.
For a day or so, the episode stuck with me and made me sad. An exemplary employee seemed to have so little self-confidence, so little self-awareness that when she was complimented, she thought herself undeserving of praise. Sometimes, unglamorous jobs are performed competently, pleasantly, and unostentatiously. I like being on the receiving end of such service, and when I am, I try to go briefly beyond the perfunctory “Thank you” and specify what pleased me. I’m not trying to be Mr. Nice Guy; I simply think that deserving people should be told when their efforts have been both effective and appreciated.
Fast-paced and abrupt as life tends to be, we recipients of added value shouldn’t be oblivious to small actions that make it a bit more livable. That thought first occurred a while ago, and I acted on it in an incomplete way. Instead of talking to the waitperson, I mentioned how pleased I had been to the restaurant manager, telling him to convey my thought to the server. Maybe he did, maybe he meant to but forgot, maybe he didn’t. If I’d said my piece directly, there’d be no uncertainty. In any case, I subsequently overcame my reticence and briefly praised when appropriate. Under ordinary circumstances, a “thank you” is sufficient. Under extraordinary circumstances, that’s not enough. It’s always a good idea, in addition to the personal thank-you, to let the manager know about an excellent employee.
So when things go well, I leave both a gratuity and a tip. The gratuity, of course, is cash to supplement a less-than-lavish salary. The tip is in the form of a reminder that people whose performances surpass the average deserve to feel good about themselves. Some, obviously regarding themselves as mere cogs in a wheel, need to be made aware of that fact. Most times, the faces and words of those I compliment reflect quiet satisfaction because of what I’ve said. But the “you can’t mean me” response does occasionally crop up and reinforces my conviction that personalized expressions of appreciation can have a deeper impact than the bestower realizes.
The effort is minimal. The outcome can motivate improved self-awareness.