January 30, 2009

By Jeff Kirsch

We have expectations of how we want to be treated by others, but do we ask ourselves how other people perceive our actions and behaviors?  Can the most well-meaning actions lead to awkward situations?Mashed Potato

Recently my wife and I went to dinner to celebrate our anniversary. With the kids tucked in (and baby-sitter briefed), we headed to a local steakhouse for a quiet dinner and conversation. Our quiet conversation was interrupted with a sudden, “Hello Mr. Kirsch.” The manner of the greeting made me think the person behind me was someone I knew. Yet it turned out to be our waitress.

“I thought she was someone who knew me, I guess they give their wait staff our names from the reservation” I noted to my wife. “You should have seen your face, the brief panic” she responded back. Little did I know this was only the beginning.

While enjoying our appetizer, a pitcher of water came over my right shoulder, without warning, to fill my glass. I suffer a bit of paranoia in public places, so this sudden movement out of the corner of my eye set my senses on high alert, and made my wife laugh again. Her intentions were excellent, yet her focus on customer service left me rattled.

Nerves settling back in place, we welcomed our steaks. At this restaurant, the side dishes are served “family style,” each is on a separate serving dish. After taking our servings, we began our main course. When our friendly waitress stopped in to check on us, imagine our shock when she reached over and, in mid-conversation, began mixing the potatoes left on the side plate. It took everything I had to keep my jaw from dropping to the table. If it had been when the potatoes first arrived, it would have been perfectly normal. However, at this stage of the meal, it was awkward and just plain weird.

The rest of our meal had other interesting “experiences” that lead to some great conversations, including what we can learn from events like this.

How do we help?

In the absence of effective communication, people make assumptions based on past experience. Either the restaurant or our waitress assumed that the customer wants to be addressed by their formal name, leading to the awkward initial contact. Another assumption made was when maintaining the customer’s water glass, it is more important to be seen and not heard. In this case, a simple “pardon my reach” or “excuse me” could have prevented an unnerving situation. Finally, an assumption was made that since there was a passage of time, the formality of our positions could be relaxed and actions did not need to follow normal conventions.

It is clear that we either hid our reactions like professional poker players, or our waitress was not paying attention to us. She had an opinion of expert service and delivered it to her liking. In this case, what worked for her did not work for us. It did not ruin our dinner, but definitely left an impression.

Hopefully most people do not go around stirring someone else’s potatoes. But how often are the best of intentions misconstrued?

In the end we have to ask ourselves a few simple questions. Do we base our dealings with family, friends, co-workers, or clients on assumptions or through communication? 

If you find that you rely more on assumptions, you should rethink your approach. Open a conversation to gain an understanding of the expectations of the relationship. With this information you can begin, but don’t allow yourself to lapse back to assumption with the passage of time. Communication is a continuous process, not a point in time event.

Allowing the natural communication process to take place can instill a strong trust relationship between those involved and in the end leads to a more valuable outcome for all involved. Just ask yourself how you would feel if someone you didn’t know unexpectedly stirred your potatoes.

About the Author Guest Blogger

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