Ask The Salty Waitress: I Accidentally Called My Female Customer "Sir"

Dear Salty: Help! This is happened to me a few times.

I am almost 60 years old, and still say "ladies and gentlemen" to the customers seated at my station in the restaurant where I work. I recently said, "Ladies go first," and looked pointedly at the person in the corner. Someone at the table looked at me and said, "That's a man." I of course apologized, but felt myself grow red, and felt like a fool. 

Then, I called an 18-year-old girl a boy at her birthday celebration. I always apologize, but do not make a big deal out of it, not wanting to draw any more attention to the offended party.

Is this the proper way to handle it? Or is there something else I should be doing? As a fellow server, I could really use your help, thank you Salty!

Lisa in Texas

Dear Lisa:

I too have been around the restaurant block a few times, and I have found it pays to be flexible. Because the world is, in fact, constantly in flux. Some years back, my sister-in-law was instructed to use "they" to refer to a singular person in her memos at work, instead of using "he" or "she." Once I Googled "singular they" a few times to figure it out (grammar is not my strong suit), I told her that she needed to get with the program. "Singular they" was the way to go.

Since then, I've made some changes in my own serving style. Sorry doll, but you should probably retire the "ladies and gentlemen" stuff. I know, it can be tough after so many years of habit. Take it from me—I still catch myself using words like "doll." But a better bet would be to open with, "Good evening everyone," or "How are you all doing tonight?" (In the South, you can say "y'all," and in some Eastern parts, "yinz." No one can resist a "yinz.") "Hi ladies," or even the more seemingly neutral "hi guys" can still come off as offensive or overly casual to some. Try a "hi all" or "hello everyone" instead. If you have to gesture to someone, like they dropped their wallet or something, use the second-person "you" or that third-person "they" instead of "he" or "her," or some other phrasing altogether. ("Excuse me, someone in your party dropped their wallet" or "Did someone in your party step outside?").

A really helpful guide is the GLAAD website, which has some tips to help older folks (no offense, hon, I'm in your boat) modernize our language. Even if you intend something as a compliment, comments like, "You're so pretty, you look every bit a woman" are not going to land in the way you intended. GLAAD says you are on the right track with your quick apologies, though: "If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun, apologize quickly and sincerely, then move on. The bigger deal you make out of the situation, the more uncomfortable it is for everyone."

The point is, with gender as a wide spectrum instead of an either/or situation, it's best to just... not refer to gender, if you can help it. Some women dress more masculine. Some boys are wearing nail polish. Some people don't want to have a gender at all. Your job as a server is to make your guests feel comfortable, after all. So, similarly, instead of gesturing "ladies first" when you're taking orders (a longstanding but outdated notion), just start by going to your left. You can say: "We'll start to my left," if that clarifies it. And for land's sakes, don't automatically hand the bill to the man at the table, except if he's the one who asked for it directly. If no one person specifically asked for the bill, just place it in the center of the table at the end of the meal for everyone to fight over.

Sure, rewiring your language and habits is going to take some doing. But it's worth it to avoid offending anyone, or wandering into those embarrassing situations you described above (I can't imagine your tips at those tables were anything to crow about). If it makes you feel better to fall back on an old-time rule, here's one my uncle always use to say: "Don't assume. It makes an ass out of you and me." That goes for people's genders as well, so stick with neutral words to stay on the safe side.

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