Three Ways to Deal with Difficult Diners


By Sarah Elliston, author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person”


Sarah H. Elliston, author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person: How To Deal With People Like Us,” shares advice on how to handle difficult diners on Big Blend Radio.

The intriguing person you have invited to lunch suddenly turns into Godzilla when he returns his meal to the kitchen twice, sarcastically and loudly disparaging the server.

Your team from work is having lunch together and the team leader argues with the server about her order, becoming noisy and unpleasant.

A family celebration for dinner at a special restaurant evolves into a silent, resentful, embarrassed event when one person criticizes the meal, insults the server and quarrels with other family members about it.  

We have all had dining situations when a member of the group returns an order to the kitchen.  People make mistakes. It’s okay to send an order back once but more than that is rude. Often the difficult diner also makes spiteful comments about the server or the chef and becomes disagreeable and everyone is very uncomfortable.

What to do?  Is there a magic wand?  Can we make the tension disappear?  Here are three possible remedies, suggested by service staff:

1. The serenity prayer, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” is very useful for all concerned. 

Essentially the prayer reminds us that the only thing we can really change is ourselves so servers have learned to change their reactions and not respond with hostility.  They have learned to smile and say, “We can fix this for you,” or to offer the diner an alternative meal. They work at letting negative comments slide past them without accepting the intended insult.

As a member of a restaurant party with a difficult diner, it is a little more challenging and yet the prayer can be helpful.  The atmosphere of antagonism that has been generated doesn’t lend itself to a calm, dispassionate conversation about appropriate dining behavior.  And often we are not in a position to mention it.  We can consider the personality of the difficult diner and accept the fact that we cannot change it. 

2. Humorous comments are useful in defusing a stressful situation.  Fellow diners can laugh at the difficult one and ask in a joking tone, “C’mon Joe, what‘s getting you so uptight?  Let’s relax and enjoy.” Or “So, what bit you this morning?  You’re acting like you’re mad at the world.” 

Some diners will apologize to the server with humor.  Asking questions with a light tone and a smile: “Hmm, let’s see how I can mess up your day, heh-heh;” or “I’ve been waiting all day to confuse my server tonight.  Let’s see what can I order that will hassle you?” 

3. Finally, some validation of the server, the Chef, and the restaurant can lessen discomfort for fellow diners.  You can write a note on your receipt to the server, apologizing for the difficulty, thanking them their excellent service.  Leaving a generous tip can also ease some of the pain. Along the same line, I have spoken to the manager as I was leaving to point out how well a server handled a situation.  And I know one person who asked to speak to the Chef because his food was so good.  Then he hugged the Chef which surprised everybody and the laughter cleared the air.

Ideally, we would love to actually converse with the difficult diner and explain how their behavior is ruining our meal. We would love for them to change.  My book “Lessons from a Difficult Person, How to Deal with People Like us,” can help you have that kind of a conversation.  But in group situations or at meals where the time is short, it is hard to really listen to the reaction of the diner to our comments and to allow the diner to talk about what is really annoying them.

My bet it that the difficult diner has something going on in his life that has nothing to do with food and becoming argumentative with food service is a way to release the fear and rage.  Except it isn’t much fun for everybody else. Without time and an investment in the relationship, trying to gently point out that the behavior isn’t okay usually merely fans the flames.

Take a deep breath, remember the things you can change and look for some humor.  Follow these three suggestions to relax some of the tension so you can enjoy your meal. 

Bon Appetit!

Sarah H. Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”. She is a faculty member of the William Glasser Institute and is a workshop leader and trainer who is certified in Values Realization, Parent Effectiveness Training and Reality Therapy. For more about Reality Therapy and to read Sarah’s blog, visit





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About the Author:

Sarah H. Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”.

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