A few days ago, I had the pleasant occasion to share lunch with a friend and his son. I have known the younger man for quite a few years, because he is a longtime friend of one of my own kids. He is a delightful and accomplished fellow (and one who writes a very good movie review blog, by the way) who always does his part in keeping up interesting conversations.
As we were ordering our lunch, I noticed him ordering in a way that my own children often do: “Can I have a . . . ?”. I don’t remember what he actually ordered, only that it was phrased in the form of a question. When out with my own kids, I sometimes cannot resist the temptation to follow up with “Of course you can have it, so long as it is on the menu and they are not out of it.” I stifled my urge with my friends that day, since the young man is not my child. There is sometimes a fine line between making a joke and being a cranky old man.
My finding funny a food order that is a question instead of a simple declarative sentence reminds me of when I would telephone my friend Dan when I was in high school. When Dan’s father would answer, my “Is Dan there?” would be met with “Yes”, followed by a long silence. He loved taking my question literally and making me ask the follow-up question.
I don’t know why this method of ordering (I guess I mean requesting) food sticks out with me. Perhaps I am just looking from a vantage point that includes more years of accrued experience at things like this than I care to admit. Or perhaps it is them.
My own method is to walk up to the counter and, when greeted, announce what I would like for lunch. “I’ll have a double cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, pickle and ketchup, and let’s make it a meal with fries and a drink.” It never occurs to me to ask if I am allowed or if it is possible. That’s why they call it an order. I will frame it as a question if I request something that is not plainly on the menu, such as whether they would be willing to do a half and half mixture of sweet and unsweetened tea. I’m not a complete jerk, after all.
But perhaps my children and their friends are closer in age to the typical person behind the counter, and approache the interaction with more of a sense of equality and solidarity than my own method conveys, which is more of an old-school master and servant approach. Of course, their gentler approach would leave open the possibility that a surly young woman with the silver stud in her nostril might not be so accommodating. “No, I don’t think you can have that today. Maybe next time when you are dressed better.”
When I put it this way, I think we can rule out the “common cause with the young staffer who has to wear the awful uniform shirt” because I don’t think for a moment that the younger customer’s response to such a refusal would be “Oh, OK then. Can I at least get a side salad?”
I suppose it is more likely that, given their younger age, they are still used asking we parents if they could order this or that. This “still used to being subject to authority” mindset would be easy to carry over to the person behind the register, who was quite the authority figure in the not-too-distant past when these guys were twelve. That they long ago stopped asking me if their choice was permissible (other than for budgetary reasons, of course) might not yet have translated to a direct transaction with the guy ringing up the order.
Or maybe they have just turned into polite people who try to treat those with whom they deal with kindness and respect. I suspect that this is the real answer. And it is an answer that makes me feel good about the whole thing. Some additional assertiveness will come as they get older and more used to being in positions of authority. But until then, I don’t think it hurts a thing that they can make gentle requests for service. But I still reserve the right to occasionally kid them by telling them that no, they may not have what they have just so politely requested. Being a generation older than everyone in sight ought to carry at least some privilege.