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Marriage Counseling: Use the Waiter Rule to Evaluate a Date or Partner

Working my way through college, I waited tables and tended bar. Though I have several degrees with an emphasis on human behavior and psychology, I swear I learned more about people from slinging hash and pouring drinks. I can remember accidentally spilling a few drops of an ice cream drink on a lady’s skirt and being totally humiliated as she screamed at me in the restaurant. I also recall a very kind man who didn’t get upset even though there were repeated problems with his order.

Rudeness to service staff reveals information about a person’s character reported in a recent article in USA Today. Office Depot CEO Steve Odland, who also waited tables as a teenager, states, “You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she treats a waiter.” It seems that he is not the only CEO to discover the “Waiter Rule.”

The Waiter Rule has been identified by many executives, including Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson. There is one rule that Swanson says never fails: “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person.” Swanson first identified this phenomenon when he was eating with a man who became irate to a waiter because the restaurant did not stock a particular wine.

“Watch out for people who have a situational value system, who can turn the charm on and off depending on the status of the person they are interacting with,” Swanson writes. “Be especially wary of those who are rude to people perceived to be in subordinate roles.”

The Waiter Rule has also been noticed on the dating scene. A November survey of
2,500 by It’s Just Lunch, a dating service for professionals, found that being rude to waiters ranks No. 1 as the worst in dining etiquette. Some waiters report that women will actually pull them aside to see how much their dates tipped to obtain insight into his use of money and other tendencies.

The Waiter Rule can also apply to how people treat those in other service roles like bellmen, hotel maids, clerks and secretaries according to USA Today. This can be more indicative of someone’s character than all the charm you experience in the relationship.

Using the Waiter Rule can be an accurate predictor of character because it isn’t easily learned or unlearned. It is more likely a person’s true colors and speaks to how they were raised and their value system. How a potential partner treats a waiter may be how they will treat you.

Some behaviors that indicate a problem:

*Playing the power card. Comments like “I could buy this place,” or “Do you know who I am?” reveal more about the diner’s character than his wealth or power. It is unlikely that he will be compassionate to you if he is consumed with power and control.

*Having a short fuse. This person may have an ego that is out of control. It is a way of saying that she is better than the wait staff; she is special. These people tend not to be collaborative in relationships.

*Demanding about every detail. You may be looking at a micro-manager who consistently sends the message that your efforts are not good enough. He may be critical and demeaning rather than supportive and encouraging.

*Speaking in a condescending manner. The message here is clear; she thinks she is better than those in subordinate positions. She may have a need to feel important by putting others down.

*Making a public scene. If he embarrasses you in the restaurant, he will embarrass you at home. At best he has poor manners, at worst, his judgment is faulty. Either way, he will not make a good partner.

*Easily turning on and off the charm. These folks have situational values, which may also indicate situational ethics. People with firm character adhere to their value system regardless of the circumstances. Avoid these people like the plague.

*Constantly looking around the room. Rather than being focused on the table conversation, he is distracted and not engaged. He may be looking to see who else is there or whether he is being noticed. Regardless, he will have the same behavior with you in other settings.

*Poor tipper. She may justify leaving a poor tip with various complaints about the service or the waiter. Anyone who has ever worked in a service industry knows that it is very hard work with a low base pay. If the service is adequate, a 15% tip is customary. A twenty percent or more gratitude is standard for exceptional service.

Try using the Waiter Rule whether you are evaluating a partner in a relationship. You may save yourself a lot of future problems by dining out.


Barbara Bartlein, RN, MSW, is the People Pro and a relationship expert. A clinical psychotherapist, she has worked with couples for over twenty five years. She is the author of "Why Did I Marry You Anyway? 12.5 Strategies for a Happy Marriage," which received a five star rating on Amazon. She can be reached at or visit her website at

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