There are so many hidden rules under which the general population’s expectations reside that must be upheld to have an enjoyable experience at any restaurant when you are dining out.
Imagine this scenario:
You are seated at a table with your family patiently awaiting the food you ordered nearly 20 minutes earlier when you notice the people sitting across from you are in the midst of a challenging situation. Their four-year-old is standing on the bench looking away from the table, pointing and squealing at what can only be described as a horrified look on the senior man’s face who has just been struck on the side of the head by the chicken strip she threw.
Her parents, faces flushed red with embarrassment, were cleaning up the water that she spilled–she had managed to get the lid off the plastic cup just enough that when she tried to grab it quickly, its entire contents spilled across the table–and in those few seconds she had just enough time to turn an inconvenient accident into a story that will be told for years to come.
Their attempts to apologize and explain away the situation in the most tactful manner possible–knowing that their daughter has just broken many of the hidden rules in play–were being received well by the gentleman, but handling that delicate situation looked uncomfortable, to say the least.
Depending upon the type of restaurant, this scenario could be somewhat simple, or incredibly difficult to handle.
Which hidden rules apply here?
- Do not stand up on the bench
- Do not turn your back on the table
- Do not ever throw any food
- Young children should be seated in a booster chair
- Do not point and laugh at another person
- Use both hands if necessary, to grab and lift beverages whenever possible
Luckily there is nearly always some consideration afforded to young children for their antics because they are learning the hidden rules. Now imagine a 12-year-old in the middle of the same situation.
How would those reactions be different? There would be higher expectations, and emotional responses may not be so easily handled.
These hidden rules are exactly the plight of so many children with developmental disabilities, who may exhibit maladaptive behaviors in any restaurant, for any number of reasons. We certainly need to do all we can to prepare for these situations to increase the probability of having an enjoyable experience for the individual, family members, and innocent–or at least mostly innocent–bystanders.
What follows is not an exhaustive list of hidden rules for restaurants, but will hopefully provide you with a starting place wherein previously unwritten standards and expectations now become visible and concrete because they are now written, uncovered, and tailored to the individuals and families that need them.
Hidden Rules in Restaurants
-Wait in line, without standing too close to the person in front of you, to order your food.
-Do not comment on what another person ordered unless it is a positive statement such as, “That sounds good.”
-Know your order before you get to the counter or drive through speaker/window and speak clearly to specify the items and sizes that you would like to order.
-Have your money ready early so as not to hold up the line.
-Pay for your meal and keep your receipt. It will most likely have a number on it that will let you know when to get your food.
-If they give you a number, take it with you to your table and be sure it is placed in a location where it can be seen by the person bringing the food to you.
-If there is an area where children are playing, be certain to check the height, weight, and age limit before entering.
-When seated at the table, do not touch your mouth, nose, eyes, ears, or hair.
-Carry hand sanitizer and use it, or say, “Excuse me, I need to wash my hands.” Always wash your hands before eating.
-When you are finished eating, throw away the trash and uneaten food in the garbage can. Do not throw away trays or baskets.
-Ask a family member, friend, or support person for help if you have any questions while at the restaurant. If you are alone, ask someone who works there to assist you.
-Read the signs posted at the host or hostess stand near the entrance. If the sign says, “Wait to be seated” then do that, but if it says, “Please seat yourself” or “Please find your own table” select your seat and table.
-If there is a host or hostess present, use a standard greeting such as, “Hello” or “Good afternoon” when you meet him or her initially.
-They may ask you, “How many are in your party?” This means, how many people are in your group, not that you are necessarily having a party, so give them the number of individuals in your group. They will also ask you for “your name” or simply say “name,” and you will reply with your first or last name.
-They may also tell you that you that there is a required time to wait until they have a table ready for you. This means that there are a lot of people eating at the restaurant and that you need to wait if you’d like to eat there. Talk with the other members of your group and decide if you would like to wait to eat at that restaurant, or if you would like to go somewhere else to eat. This may allow you to eat sooner. It does not always work out.
-Follow the host, hostess, waiter, or waitress to your table when it is ready–they will call the name you gave them if you were waiting for a table.
-Once you are seated, do not leave the table without first saying, “Excuse me” following which you may only explain what you are doing, “I need to use the restroom” but do not provide more details.
-Look at the menu until you have chosen the meal you’d like to order, and stay seated until you have placed your order. If someone else is paying for your order, ask them politely–with a calm inside voice–if it is ok to order that item.
-We each get to choose what we like to order and eat either with or without support from others. Do not negatively comment about what others have requested, for example, “What a terrible thing to order” is an inappropriate remark. Do not state your thoughts about whether or not someone can or should order dessert.
-While you wait for your food, have a conversation with the people who are with you. Use an inside voice even if the restaurant atmosphere is loud. Keep your eyes and body oriented to your group. It is rude to turn your body and eyes away from the group. Do not turn around and look at the person seated behind you, or stare at another person in the restaurant.
-Refrain from calling attention to, or commenting on a person you do not know. Do not tell the waiter that he “looks terrible,” or that he seems “too tired to be working tonight.”
-When one person gets food, they will wait for the rest of the individuals in the group to get their food before anyone eats. If you get your food first and you have been waiting for over five minutes, ask group members if it is ok to eat by saying, “Would you mind if I started eating?”
-Remember your manners, to chew with your mouth closed, drink without slurping, and use your utensils. To help you not eat too fast, take small bites of food throughout your meal. Remember to wipe your mouth with a napkin or handkerchief, but blow your nose with a tissue.
-It may take time for the waiter or waitress to bring you the bill/check for your food. Ask politely by saying, “Check please.” Do not repeatedly ask for your bill/check. Do not talk loudly about how long it has taken or is taking to get your check.
-It is polite to wait for all of the people in your group to be done paying their checks before you get up from the table. Do not forget to leave a tip for the waiter or waitress, ask for help if you don’t know how to tip between 15-20% of the cost of your meal.
-Leave all cash that you see left on your table or any other table that you pass as you exit the restaurant.
Don’t be afraid to add to or take away from this list as needed. These are just guidelines. Some may seem overly precise, but they need to be to promote the hidden rules. If simpler rules or fewer rules are required, begin with only one or two rules until those are mastered, then add to the list until the person has a complete list of rules that he or she can understand and apply in each public setting.
Provide positive behavior supports whenever possible to increase appropriate behaviors in each of the restaurants and be as consistent as possible once a hidden rule is identified. Hold all members of the group accountable to the same standards and the group will function very well and have the best chance at having an enjoyable meal.
Joel C. Johnson is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor and serves as the Assistant Community Outreach Director for Including Kids. He has six years experience working with young adults with autism and enjoys the uniqueness of this disability population. Joel worked at Utah State University as an assistant track and field coach for several years and as the coordinator of the EmployAbility clinic for nearly two years, helping to develop a program placing individuals with autism and other disabilities into competitive employment. He understands educational, public, private, for profit, and nonprofit business work environments and cultures. He is dedicated to providing the highest quality services to his clients and their families, and is an advocate for individuals with disabilities to experience full community inclusion.