As a waitress, there are a myriad of ways that I communicate with my tables that are as reliant upon body language as they are upon actual words. When I'm trying to take an order, for example, and have no idea what the customers at table 51 are actually saying to me due to the explosive horns in the salsa song blaring from the speakers right above us. Or when any sound made at a normal decible is rendered inaudible by the jubilant shrieks of the ten girls at table 20, as they pass the porron and spill cava everywhere in honor of "Kelly's Birthday
These are instances when I find myself reading lips, wiggling my eyebrows up and down a lot, and nodding or shaking my head emphatically at my customers to determine what they need and how to best provide it for them. My brainy roommate Marissa, who studies international cultural relations, calls this "nonverbal gesture based communication." I call it silly, and I feel silly participating in it. I mean, imagine if all you normal desk-job people suddenly found yourselves pretending to type at an imaginary keyboard every time you told someone you'd email them? I bet you'd feel pretty silly, wouldn't you?
My favorite silly restaurant gesture is the universal symbol for "check, please!" You know, the one where people pretend to be holding a pen in one hand, and wiggle it up and down ever so slightly as they simultaneously move it from left to right. I can only guess that these people are pretending to write something in invisible ink with a fake pen on the air in front of them when they make this gesture...but really, when I think about it, I can't be sure. I mean, what is that? What exactly are you doing when you make the universal symbol for check?
Are you pretending, quite literally, to sign an invisible check? Why would that make any sense in a country where people rarely accept personal checks for any form of payment anymore, especially in food service establishments?
Are you mimicking the signature you will leave on your credit card slip after I swipe your AmEx? Okay, but how can that makes sense, when I'm fairly certain this gesture pre-dates the ubiquity of credit card machines in all retail establishments?
Or are you literally pretending to draw an invisible check mark on the sky, one short mark down followed by a swift, long mark up? This is my favorite theory, as it is absolutely absurd.
I have seen people from all over the world request the check like this, French, American, East Asian, Italian, in both America and in Italy. Somehow, everyone in the world seems to know that this is how to get your waitress to bring you the bill. But why?
And if you're like me, do you ever catch yourself in the midst of making this gesture--or as is more often the case, for me, responding to this gesture--and feel totally and utterly ridiculous?
If you don't, you should. And you should laugh about it. Out loud. No matter who accompanies you at the table.
And, fellow waitresses, next time you have a really annoying customer, someone you've really hated having to wait on, who has chapped your ass all night long request the check from you this way, I encourage you to think twice about this body language and smile. Because no matter how much power this person has yielded over your mood for the duration of his dinner, no matter how rude, or picky, or patronizing this person has been to you, right now he is asking you for his check, and he is doing so by drawing an enormous, invisible check mark in the air, for al the world to see. And there is no way for him to not look just plain silly in this moment.