By this point in the pandemic, diners have likely discovered that many restaurants that uphold the custom of requiring patrons to wear shirts and shoes are insisting that they wear masks, too. But that policy unhinged a recent prospective guest at Kwei Fei, who started screaming about being shut out of the James Island restaurant as soon as a manager quoted the rule.
“We’re happy to feed you, but we can’t seat you without a mask,” the manager explained.
The guest then yelled an epithet so crude that no version of the noun or modifier he chose can be printed in a family newspaper.
Disconcertingly for Charleston-area restaurant workers, patron behavior of that kind has become increasingly common over the past six weeks or so. Hospitality professionals on the receiving end of rudeness, insensitivity and disrespect peg the escalation to roughly the first week in March, when Gov. Henry McMaster lifted the statewide mask mandate and the nation’s fully vaccinated population surpassed 1 million people.
“It is so different” from the first year of the pandemic, Kwei Fei owner Tina Schuttenberg said of prevailing customer attitudes. “It is just the complete opposite.”
Restaurant patrons weren’t all angels when COVID-19 was surging: Reports of customers instructing servers to remove their masks or refusing to comply with safety protocols surfaced almost as soon as restaurants reopened for on-site dining.
Those incidents were serious and significant because they put workers and fellow guests at mortal risk, but food-and-beverage employees say they didn’t represent the norm at most places.
By contrast, the current outbreak of incivility is widespread. Casual observers who might expect the latest wave of diners to act with more gratitude and consideration than diners who came out last summer with little regard for science or the law would be advised not to put any money on that hunch.
At Kwei Fei, Schuttenberg said, there’s usually about one unsettling guest encounter each month that merits an email involving the entire management team.
Since March, that statistic has shot up to two encounters each week.
“We’re doing everything the way we always do it, but we’re seeing more grouchiness,” Schuttenberg said. “I liken it to like when someone has a toddler, and the toddler definitely wants to participate, but they’re a little disoriented and need to go down for a nap.”
Toll on restaurant workers
The phenomenon isn’t limited to the Lowcountry, although it’s possibly more apparent here because of the volume of tourist traffic.
Alicia Grandey, a Penn State University professor who studies employee mistreatment and the emotional labor of service workers, on April 19 received results of a restaurant workplace survey she conducted the previous week. Out of 129 respondents, 49 said they had “experienced rude or harassing behavior” from a customer in the days leading up to the poll.
Grandey’s previous studies have revealed “a fairly low number” of such interactions, with workers putting offensive behavior in the “rare, but it happens” category.
“Now it’s happening, and the stories are so detailed,” she said, adding that in some cases, rudeness is veering into racism, with patrons accusing Asian American workers of causing the coronavirus.
Another offshoot of the swelling boorishness is sexual harassment.
A server at a downtown Charleston restaurant, who asked not to be identified because she isn’t authorized to represent her employer, on Friday evening waited on a table of men who groped her repeatedly; her manager insisted on delivering their drinks for her protection.
“People are ruder now,” she said. “This guy looked at me and went, ‘I’m kind of weird but I don’t have any respect for anyone, so when’s our food coming?’ I’ve been working in the industry since I was 14; I’ve seen it all. But my jaw was on the floor. I’ve never had anyone say that to me.”
According to Grandey, sexual harassment, verbal abuse and other forms of customer misconduct are detrimental to restaurant workers, even if they pride themselves on toughness.
“It’s like getting slightly bruised over and over again,” she said. “It’s linked to job burnout; it’s linked to alcohol abuse. It has a toll on the body; it causes headaches, body aches, stomachaches. Some may argue that work is pushing your body to the limit, but service workers are pushing their emotions to the limit, and they aren’t fairly compensated for that effort.”
Schuttenberg said outright meanness is especially hard for hospitality workers to bear because they thrive on making people happy.
“You live with it,” she said of the inner echoes of nasty sneers and cusswords.
After a few recent trying episodes, she and her husband David Schuttenberg, Kwei Fei’s chef and co-owner, have gone home from work and “just sat there. There’s no TV on. No music. We’re just sitting there in silence. Man, it wears on you hard. I don’t know how much more I can take.”
Toll on society
It’s not just restaurant workers who stand to suffer if discourtesy keeps up. Scholars Matteo Bonotti and Steven Zech of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, contend that society could corrode if people continue to act out in restaurants.
“Consequences of impoliteness can be far-reaching,” the authors of "Recovering Civility during COVID-19" wrote in an email. “Restaurants are important sites for fostering social cooperation and a sense of community.”
In short, they say, an inability to regain some grasp of restaurant manners could inhibit “the opportunity to build a more inclusive and cohesive society” in the wake of COVID-19. When diners accept that a restaurant doesn’t stock their favorite salad dressing or say “please” when asking for another glass of merlot, they’re practicing for more momentous exchanges in the world beyond restaurant walls.
Restaurant workers emphasize that not every patron has become impolite over the course of the pandemic. They credit their regular customers and certain other locals with showing appreciation and patience, which they say is tremendously valuable as they get back into the groove of standard operations.
But what about the rogues who are causing trouble for restaurant workers on a nightly basis? Why are people suddenly so rude? What accounts for big spenders throwing fits over being charged 25 cents for PPE purchases or modest cake-cutting fees?
Since customer demeanor shifted so suddenly, it’s impossible to know for sure which circumstances are responsible for the epidemic of ill will. But it’s certainly possible to speculate. Here, a few best guesses at what’s going on:
1. People forgot their manners
Literally. “After long periods in isolation or lockdown, people may have forgotten how to act politely,” Bonotti and Zech said. If a diner has spent most of last year with just his dog for company, he might be accustomed to speaking loudly and plainly.
“People are rusty,” said Lynn Bufka, a psychologist who helped develop The American Psychological Association’s 2016 Stress in America survey. “Social skills are out of practice.”
For those in the habit of going to restaurants, it’s not surprising to learn that a reserved table isn’t ready precisely at the promised minute. But someone who’s been eating at his or her own dining room table for more than a year may have trouble fathoming that sitting down immediately isn’t an option and may also lack the willpower to not complain about it.
2. Restaurants can do anything (or so it seems.)
At the start of the pandemic, it was a foregone conclusion that most restaurants would fail. But they survived, in certain instances by making radical changes to their business models. Sit-down restaurants sold groceries. Fine dining restaurants offered takeout. And many didn’t reopen their dining rooms before reconfiguring furniture and installing plexiglass.
The server at the downtown Charleston restaurant suspects that diners got it in their heads that restaurants can deal with anything that comes their way.
“I notice people asking where their food is as soon as I ring it in,” she said. “With businesses being so accommodating, people take that as we should try to accommodate everything. Every lunch shift I work now, three or four people come in demanding brunch. They don’t understand.”
3. Uncertainty is stressful
“Stress is when you feel like the demands outstrip your resources to respond,” Bufka said. “Even a happy thing can feel stressful.”
Bufka said a huge amount of mental processing is required for people who haven’t been in public for a year to cope with the faster pace of shared spaces and different stimuli. The resulting stress often manifests as irritability.
Plus, it’s not just the positive stress of returning to restaurants that’s weighing on diners. Even though the fight against COVID-19 is progressing, vaccinated people still worry about variants and wonder what it means that children aren’t yet eligible for vaccines.
“They’re still not entirely sure what’s safe,” Bufka said. “They may have walked up to 2021 thinking we’re all fine, but they’re still carrying anxiety.”
4. Alcohol is strong
“I’ve seen so many drunk people,” the restaurant server said.
As Grandey points out, several studies show that Americans drank more during the pandemic. They appear to be maintaining those consumption patterns in bars and restaurants, perhaps as a response to the aforementioned stress or in celebration of new freedoms.
Either way, restaurant workers believe Charleston visitors are getting drunker — and getting that way earlier in the day.
Alcohol notoriously lowers inhibitions, Grandey said, which is problematic if inhibitions are preventing a diner from commenting on his server’s appearance or demanding a free appetizer.
5. Not every restaurant owner is a role model
A significant number of former food-and-beverage workers have chosen not to go back to the industry, contributing to a well-documented hospitality staff shortage. Some of those who have publicly defected from the profession say restaurant work has never received the respect it deserves, including from owners who offer low wages and little in the way of other employee support.
Last summer, for example, many workers claimed their bosses were concealing COVID-19 cases or otherwise not safeguarding their health. While it takes plenty of dots to connect mismanagement to a customer barking about the temperature of her steak, it is possible that patrons absorbed the message that restaurant employees are expendable.
6. South Carolina is open for business
“I don’t want to slag people who are coming to town, but it’s more people coming in from out of town,” Schuttenberg said when asked about the demographics of rude diners.
Throughout the pandemic, South Carolina was depicted in the national media as a place where the pandemic was brushed aside. Northeasterners may have seen images of people partying on beaches and assumed they wouldn’t confront any painful reminders of the pandemic in Charleston, such as servers in masks.
“Sometimes people act impolitely in order to signal their disagreement with public health restrictions related to COVID-19,” Bonotti and Zech said.
Essentially, they feel like they've put up with enough over the preceding year and don't want to put up with the continued use of masks, too.
7. Pandemic dreams
Finally, scholars suggest that the newly vaccinated may be making reservations with expectations that few restaurants are equipped to fulfill.
Perhaps they’ve spent the last year thinking about a certain burrata preparation or repartee with a favorite server, not realizing the restaurant’s cheese importer stopped carrying that brand and the server left to pursue a career in real estate.
Disappointment breeds unreasonable behavior, Bufka said.
“People are making up in their minds that going out is going to be amazing,” she said. “The crashing reality is they didn’t have the appetizer you wanted, and you chose a wine that wasn’t that good.”
Although she admitted she doesn’t have any data to cite on this score, she recommended instead finding pleasure in the fact that someone is bringing you food and taking away your plate when you finish.