Ask The Salty Waitress: Is It Ever Okay For Servers To Touch Customers?

Hi Salty, I'm a woman who's generally not "a touchy person." I don't like hugging acquaintances and I tend to get a little panicked when someone I'm not really close with goes in for the hug.

This week, I was at a restaurant for lunch and our very chatty/friendly server made a remark and then put her hand on my shoulder. I had taken my jacket off and was just wearing a sleeveless shirt so the feeling of her hand on my skin totally startled me. It was just a momentary thing—barely a quarter of a second—and from her perspective, I'm sure, completely innocuous. But still, it felt a bit forward of her. Can you let servers out there know that some of us don't like being touched?

Thanks, Hands Off Please

Dear Hands Off,

Some people might not even notice the type of quick shoulder-touch you described, but I get that it's way too cozy for others. I tend to be a hugger myself, but I save it for my cats, my nieces and nephews, and god willing, Chris Hemsworth one day.

My general rule is for servers to be good observers of their customers, and to be cautious when it comes to touching customers and other coworkers. Some people are sensitive or don't want to be touched, like you, and you never want to make a customer or coworker uncomfortable. So try to read their body language. If you're standing close to a customer's chair, do they lean away? Are they keeping very tightly to their physical space? Then don't risk bothering them. Keep your hands to yourself.

But Saaaaalty, there are these studies saying servers who touch customers get bigger tips. The most persuasive one I've read is from the fancy Cornell Hospitality School, which found that tipping increases with a two- or four-second touch on the shoulder when the bill is delivered. The study suggests managers not discourage servers from touching guests, and should in fact tell them to go for it: "Our results, along with those of previous research, suggest that hospitality managers could benefit from encouraging their employees to touch customers. Such a policy would make customers feel more welcome and appreciated. It would also increase employees' tip income, which should increase employee morale and reduce turnover." The authors say there's basically no basis for a customer or a server to legally complain about this policy, but I'm still cautious.

The way I gauge how to deal with people, in touching and in general, is to be as observant as I can be without staring. Servers, have you heard about mimicry? It's basically behaving like a mirror to your guests. People find it reassuring, because we're programmed to feel comfy around people who are like us. So, a guest talks with their hands, you talk with your hands. They speak softly, you speak softly. They're touchy, you're touchy.

Sorry, Hands Off, maybe that's not the black-and-white answer you were hoping for. But I don't think your question has a black-and-white answer, because people feel differently about touching. Touching someone on their skin would be a no-go for me, but not everyone is as brilliant a reader of people as your dear Salty.

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