I rarely eat out these days. I love the discipline cooking at home brings in my life. But once in a while, the craving gets the better of me.
I had been daydreaming about Ethiopian food for a while, and after subduing it for a week, I ended up at the only Ethiopian place I knew in town. I had only been there twice before, with friends, and had loved their lamb preparation. This time, I was on my own.
When I showed up at 5:30 pm, the place was fairly empty barring a few tables that were occupied. Yet, my server looked around uncomfortably, wondering where to seat me. I looked around too, noticing tables for four and two. I asked if I could sit at a particular corner for a table for two. My server hesitated, asking if I could grab one of the tables outside the restaurant. It was a public corridor inside an indoor mall, and a fairly busy one too. I did not want to eat in the middle of a thoroughfare. Hence I politely declined, asking if I could sit inside the restaurant. So she found a corner and asked me if I could sit there. That corner did not have tables and chairs, only stools. One would have to stoop and eat unless one was sitting on the floor (which was not an option they provided). It did not look like a comfortable spot. I asked her what the matter was since so many tables were empty. She said that there was a major concert nearby starting at 7:30 pm and she was expecting a lot of people to show up for dinner before that. She did not want me to hold on to the tables for two and four.
I told her that I was on my own and I was going to eat quickly and leave since I was going back to work. I would not be lingering around. I had even looked up the menu online before I arrived and was ready to order right then. She did not look convinced and reluctantly gave me the spot of my choice before disappearing inside the kitchen.
I had barely settled in my chair for two minutes, placing my heavy backpack by me when the owner showed up. She told me the same thing, only more authoritatively. People would be crowding up for dinner soon, and I should choose that corner they were offering with stools instead of where I was sitting. I did not want to argue, I was hungry and was already beginning to feel humiliated. This place was bang opposite to the direction of my home and I had changed two buses to get there. All I wanted was a quick dinner before moving on with my life. Reluctantly, I dragged myself and my backpack out of our spots and took the seat she gave me. My hunch was right, the stools were uncomfortable, the food table was lower (not higher) than the stool and one needed to bend at a weird angle while eating.
I did finish my meal as quickly as I had promised but lingered for a while to see if the fictitious crowd showed up. However, I already knew the answer to that. Yes, there was some inflow and outflow of people. However, just like when I had entered, most of the tables remained empty. Instinctively, I always knew this is what would happen. When my server came with my bill, I told her the same. She smiled at me sheepishly and disappeared inside the kitchen.
This episode made me reflect on an aspect of human behavior I have seen many times- an attachment to the perceived idea of everyone showing up at the cost of failing to respect those who actually showed up. This is not the first time that I was witnessing it. How many times have we seen the host of a party constantly calling those who haven’t made it rather than spending time with those who actually did? Or someone planning a trip and then constantly sending reminders to those who do not want to join the trip rather than planning with those who said yes? Guess what? Those who did not RSVP or reply to that email or haven’t yet shown up at the party on time are not likely to. Yet, people remain attached to the idea of larger crowds, full attendance, filled up rooms, sold out shows, large numbers as an indication of success. When a meeting where only 10 people showed up is delayed by 5 minutes because the others did not, we actually waste 50 cumulative minutes. It doesn’t matter how many did not show up. The time you waste waiting belongs to those who showed up and not to those who did not.
The moment my server got nervous and told me that the restaurant would soon start to fill up, I instinctively knew that it would not fill up (not that I wanted it that way), not at least until I left. But she was attached to the idea of seeing a full restaurant, rather than taking care of that one person who actually showed up. I have been recently planning a trip and on asking four people, only one of them said yes. So I thanked the other three and started making plans with the one who said yes. Yes, a group of five would have been great. Actually, no. There is no evidence that a group of five would be great. It is my attachment to the idea that a group of five will make a great trip. In this case, only two of us traveling will make a great trip, because both of us are willing and invested in the trip. It does not mean that the five of us will not have an awesome trip in the future. Just not this time.
Businesses suffer. Relationships suffer. Families suffer. All because of the single-minded attachment to a larger crowd showing up (indicating greater perceived success) than being thankful to those who actually showed up. The inability to let go of what has slipped from the hand than holding on to what is still in hand. Think about how happy a customer I’d be had they let me sit properly to enjoy my meal, the one meal I was eating outside after months. Yet we continue to pine for those who did not show up rather than honor those who actually did.
When I paid for my meal before walking out of a still empty restaurant, this is what I wrote on the merchant’s copy of the receipt- “I wish you’d let me sit more comfortably and enjoy my meal.”