The Awkwardness of Gender-Specific Service


As someone who goes out to eat a lot, I’m tuned in to the nuances of service at restaurants, but I’m also used to them. It rarely bothers me when a waiter hands the wine list to the man I’m with, or puts the check down in front of the man, assuming that the man will order the wine and pay. If anything, I find these assumptions amusing.

But on a recent meal with a queer friend, I found the ladies-and-gentlemen code infuriating.

It was a French restaurant, lunchtime, in Midtown. One of my companions wore a blue dress shirt and trousers. His head and face were clean shaven. The waiter, after a few moments of hesitation, decided we were all ladies and for the rest of the meal, he insisted on it. “Ladies,” he asked, “can I get you anything?” “Ladies, how is the wine?” And when we finished our meal, “Ladies! May I?”

I couldn’t understand why our waiter felt compelled to pointlessly label my group of three, especially when he could have asked us all the same questions, and likely delivered the same level of service, without referring to our gender one way or another. Was it out of habit? Was he making some kind of point?

“I don’t mind,” my friend assured me, “I think it’s funny. Well, kind of.”

After lunch, on our way out, a different waiter approached to offer us cookies to take home. We were delighted. But there were none for my friend because this waiter perceived him as a gent. “No sir,” he said with a wink as my friend reached out for a bag, “these are just for the ladies!”

It was an honest mistake, but an awkward one. We don’t go to restaurants only to fill our bellies, we go to brighten our days, to feel good. And it turns out this code of gender-specific service can do just the opposite.