Stop Thinking You Have the Whole Story

by Bill Brenner on November 2, 2012

I’m watching a lot of people go apeshit this morning over a restaurant receipt someone posted online. Apparently a single mom was too poor to tip her server on a meal that cost $138.35. Have a look:

Restaurant receipt

Mood music:


It looks real enough, but I’ve grown skeptical of most online pics these days. It’s easy to fake images these days. But real or not, somebody posted it to get a reaction, so I’ll take the bait.

My first reaction is that this single mom didn’t think things through, and some hard-working waitress got shafted. Surely, if she’s struggling financially, she shouldn’t have gone to a restaurant. She certainly should have aimed cheaper. McDonald’s, for instance. It’s horrible to skip the tip, especially when service is top notch.

That’s what people are saying, anyway.

On that I agree. I always try to leave a tip above the baseline percentage simply because waiting on tables looks like hard work and my kids always leave a mess. The bigger reason, though, is that something inside me wants to do something nice for someone, even if they don’t deserve it. I’ve had plenty of shitty service in my day, but I still left a tip. Have I ever stiffed someone on the tip? I can’t remember, but I’m sure I have.

There’s a bigger point, though. When we see these things online, we instantly assume we’re looking at an accurate, honest picture, and we can’t contain our outrage. I’m certainly guilty of it.

So for the sake of being nicer people, let’s consider some things.

Whenever we see or hear something, we’re only getting a piece of the story. If someone cuts us off in traffic, for example, we’re pretty sure we’ve just suffered at the hands of some asshole with reckless driving habits. What we may not know is that the driver is rushing to the hospital after getting word that a loved one is dying.

If this mom took her kids to a restaurant despite the lack of financial resources, maybe she felt she didn’t have a choice. Maybe she lost power days ago from Superstorm Sandy and all the food in her fridge spoiled.

Maybe she skipped the cheaper restaurants because they had no power either or because one of her kids has allergies that make fast food a dicier proposition.

Maybe she walked in there thinking she had enough money to cover everyone, only to receive a bill that was a lot higher than she expected. I’ve run into that scenario before.

There are other questions for which we lack answers. For example, how many mouths was she trying to feed?

If you’re getting pissed at me for spoiling your moment of self-righteous indignation, I don’t really blame you. Nobody loves wallowing in self-righteous indignation more than me. But ever since I started taking a class on mindfulness-based stress reduction, I’ve been thinking about something the teacher said: “We spend most of our days making judgments, but we never know the entire story.”

Whenever I see all the outrage on Facebook and elsewhere and feel tempted to join in, that statement keeps coming back to me.

It makes it harder for me to get angry.

But then I’ve never been a server in a restaurant, so if I’m not feeling an adequate level of outrage, it’s probably because I don’t have the full story there, either.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nancy December 25, 2012 at 5:13 am

The “Jumping to Conclusions” game. If my life was a book, I’d have a whole section devoted to this. It is a hard lesson. What is most tempting about it is: 1) It requires little effort. 2) It temporarily diverts my attention from my own problems. That’s a win-win, right? Well, not so much for me. I am usually wrong. It stings the pride to be wrong. It leaves me with some math to figure out. I have to multiply my shame by how many people I shared my poor conclusions with, and multiply one more time by how passionately I gave it. Yikes! But, I am human, so I still play the game now and then.

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