Henry Alford - who claims to make his living as an "investigative humorist" - proposes to whittle down etiquette to its core values in his new book, Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?, a collection of essays on how people should treat each other. I haven't read the book, but the chapter which has garnered the most press attention lists a few harmless "misdeeds" that Alford believes fall within the boundaries of good manners, including a game that can only be played in restaurants.
"I play a game called Touch the Waiter," Alford writes. "You see who at the table can touch the waiter the greatest number of times without the waiter's figuring out you're doing so."
Alford confesses his boyfriend is dubious about the game's premise.
"Greg asked, 'How do you think the waiter feels if he figures out you're doing this?'," he writes. "How did the waiter feel? That had come up before. In my mind, I checked a box marked "Depends on Situation."
Hmm. Well, that's one response. Another approach might have involved a game I call "Ask the Waiter." I'm no investigative humorist, but this week I polled a few servers on how they'd react if they learned a guest had been secretly keeping count of how many times he could sweep his hand across their backs or poke their shoulders.
"Mr. Alford's game, I don't find quite so innocent," says working waiter Paul Paz of Portland, who's just released the second edition of his book The Professional Server: A Training Manual.
"Mr. Alford's game is condescending and disrespectful, no matter how much he tips," says Paz, who wonders if Alford's promise that his game is never lascivious would ultimately protect him from assault accusations. "It is even more disgusting because he uses his dining group to mock and belittle another human being with public humiliation. It is a form of bullying."
Paz finds it especially galling that Alford targets a group of professionals who are barred by service expectations from challenging their customers. He'd like to see what would happen if Alford and his pals played "Touch the Cop" or "Touch the Lawyer."
Yet Paz's opinion isn't shared by every server. Angela Lopez, who waits tables at Tulio, says she "totally would not mind" if she discovered her guests had been discreetly touching her.
"I like to have as much fun with my tables as I can," Lopez says. "I would not be offended at all."
Lopez isn't sure how many times a pro such as Alford could touch her during the course of a meal, but suspects his touch total would hinge on where he was seated.
"If he was seated in the middle of the room, he would do really well," Lopez says. "It sounds like an interesting game."