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OPINION | The Waiter Test: How you treat the “little people” says everything about you

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"The boxing champion wasn’t the only person to work on the principle that people who were rude to waiters couldn’t be trusted." — Tang Li, OPINION

I got an unsolicited response in my LinkedIn box today from a former creative director of a large multinational agency who once worked with my dad. He said that he liked my old man because he treated his film crew well. He made the point that my dad trained his crew and ate with them instead of just hobnobbing with the clients and creative directors from the agency.

This former creative director’s comments brought me two months back when I met with two of his old crew. Called them “Uncle,” and realized that I wasn’t being polite to older people but stating a fact. My father’s crew had been with him for nearly thirty years. They had seen me grow up and he saw to it that they were there at family events and he was at theirs. The only thing that didn’t make them family was biology. My dad took care of his team and he took it personally when the government preferred to let a White Australian director of photography lead a Hong Kong-based crew to shoot military ads over him because he had a predominantly Malay crew.

My father remains a very talented photographer and advertising film director. He studied the techniques of the great photographers of the day intensely and he did well. He treated his people well (I mean those in the private sector who worked for a single employer for nearly 30 years) and they worked well for him.

What has struck me is the fact that one of the creative directors mentioned this aspect of my father as a key point for liking him. Given that the ad agency creative directors have a say in who becomes director of photography, it struck me that the people who are giving you work are taking note of your character.

Functional organizations will value character in the people and contractors they work with. They will look out for it and no matter how clever or talented you are, they will test your character and if you fail the character tests you will not be hired.

Dysfunctional organisations on the other hand forget that character counts. They tolerate your talents to suck up to the top rather than value your character because that’s all that really matters. If an organization doesn’t test your character, you should ask yourself whether that’s an organization you really want to work for.

I bring up these instances because they are fundamental to the heart of social dynamics, particularly in Singapore, which places so much emphasis on things like economic growth and attracting the world’s rich. I’ve argued that we are at a place where bureaucrats who did well at school, run the show.

In fairness, there is plenty going right with Singapore and as every foreign friend I have says “What are you complaining about?” I agree that much of Singapore does work and there are parts of Singapore that are really nice and I get that even the not-so-nice parts of Singapore compare very well – or as an American navy boy I took to Geyland says, “If this is your worst neighbourhood, come to America and I’ll show you a bad neighbourhood.”

However, whilst much may seem right, a place run on elitist principles, has one dangerous flaw, which is the fact that the myth that everything good about society is due to the top. Hence, anyone with a brain cell or two starts sucking up to the top in order to get to the resources there and anyone who isn’t in the race is left to die. At the same time, the top develops a belief that it’s the top because of some divine right.

Let’s remember that we are the place where a daughter of an elected member of parliament took to social media to tell someone talking about job insecurity to “get out of my elite uncaring face.” The father actually tried to defend his daughter by telling people they didn’t want to hear harsh truths and only apologized after a public backlash.

Whilst these things are not criminal per se, they do reflect a rather sad mentality or confusion between elitism and meritocracy. The elite believes it is the elite based on merit because that’s what it has been conditioned to think. Being “uncaring” is associated with being “elite.”

As a matter of disclosure, I am not from “humble” beginnings. I have never known a day of hunger in my life. I’ve always had shelter. I belong to a very privileged minority and having a PMET job has always been understood. Yet, I have always been weary of seeing myself as being “better” because I can use the letter “BA II” behind my name. Whenever I hear people talk “Oh but you are a graduate,” or “You know so and so,” I am inclined to question why these things matter.

I’ve grown up understanding that to get to the top, you need to know how to work. Part of it does require ego stroking but I’ve also grown up with the idea that people at the top know that you will inevitably suck up to them because they have the power and money over you and so you have no choice but to be nice to them.

If anything, people at the top of reputable organizations should inevitably be more interested in your character, which is revealed by how you treat people with nothing to offer you and so, at a certain level, the job interview is being taken out to dinner. You get what they call the “waiter test,” because how you treat the waiters says everything about you. One of the most famous quotes on this comes from Mohammad Ali:

Photo: Beautifully Incoherent blog

The boxing champion wasn’t the only person to work on the principle that people who were rude to waiters couldn’t be trusted. As the following link suggests – CEOs of big corporations do make judgments as to how you treat the “little people” if I look at the things that have been said to me about my father in perspective.

CEOs say: A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person

A version of this article first appeared at beautifullyincoherent.blogspot.com

OPINION | I invested in people… and in return, they invested in me

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