Sounds creepy, doesn't it? It really isn't. It's actually one of the best parts of the job, and it works to your benefit.
Backing up here for just a minute, it's kind of the chicken and the egg question when thinking about whether waitressing or journalism has resulted in one of my very favorite abilities: reading people. I did waitress for five years in high school, which provided thousands of encounters with people from all walks of life who ran the gamut of personality types. But journalists are required to focus in on human interaction, to read the nuances in conversation and body language.
By far the best part of being a reporter is having the opportunity to study people every single day, and that study is taken to a new level when you have to put what you see to words. For five years I taught a feature-writing class at the university in town, and I drilled into my students the importance of descriptive detail -- when you paint a picture with words of a person or scene that is so concrete, your readers can see them in their minds. Readers love those types of stories, and that's because we all, as people, share a fascination with the human condition.
So how does this all play out in a restaurant?
The other day there was a guy sitting in my section alone with two menus. I asked him if he wanted a drink, and he paused and said, "Yes (chuckle, rubs hands together), but I better wait." He was nervous about something. I brought him water. When a woman finally arrived and sat down it became immediately clear what the nerves were about. They didn't know each other. This might have been a blind date, or maybe just a first date. The conversation was insanely polite, and so forced at first. (How many siblings do you have? What do your parents do? Where did you go to college?) But, God bless him, he was trying so hard, and she was being really sweet about it. She was clearly the least nervous of the two, and after every silly little thing he said, she threw him a smile and a courtesy laugh. When they were ready to go, she did all the heavy lifting so he wouldn't have to muster up the courage to ask for a second date. She said, "This was so fun. Do you want to go to a movie or something next week? I'm free Friday night." (Um, yeah, he wanted to go to that movie. BAD.)
You might ask my role in all of this. Being an observant waitress really helps me to tailor my service to each table. When it's a business meeting, I know to back off a little and let the table talk shop for as long as they need. When a table with a bunch of kids comes in, I know to "GET THEM FOOD. JUST GET THOSE KIDS FED." (Or at least that's what a lot of mothers' eyes are screaming.) And, when a first date is unfolding in a quiet booth somewhere, I know to walk by frequently so that they can ask for what they might need, but not insinuate myself too much. I know to suggest a sharable dessert and offer to bring two forks. I know to create as much intimacy as I can in a crowded restaurant.