At Your Service: May 27, 2009

The economy is on everyone’s lips these days; the number two conversation starter is some form of the privacy/security question. They are subjects that have large-scale ramifications for the nation and world. Closer to home, they can impact our lives in little but important ways.
We, some friends and I, are seated at a local eatery. The economy is the question at both ends of the table. No one understands how so many people could have been scammed by Bernard Madoff; one couple is reinventing their retirement plan after their own losses in a “highly reputable” Ponzi scheme; everyone wonders what kind of person preys on charities and the poor.
The participants are a mix of local sole and second home residents. Their perspectives include varied and diverse issues; their opinions are not that different. Even those in the financial industry are surprised by the extent of the calamity among banks. Everyone has a personal story that includes financial hardship and sacrifice; what varies is the number of commas in the equation. Assumptions about who has and who doesn’t are startlingly inaccurate.
As the conversation turns personal, people begin to share the details of their financial challenges, offering one another solution ideas and direct assistance. Among friends, the intimacy increases directly in relationship to the sense of security being fostered. People have completely lost sight of the fact that they are in a public restaurant. During the evening, glasses and plates have come and gone without the loss of a sense of privacy.
As the waitress leans in to deliver the check, she looks pointedly at one who has just shared the extent of his losses and says, “I’ll give this to someone else.” She places the check beside a woman who had just offered a different friend a small loan. Like a bear trap closing, the conversation stops as the waitress saunters away.
Around the table, wary glances are exchanged. The feeling of violation is palpable. The group may have been in a public restaurant, but their voice levels had remained discreet. They thought they were in a position to speak with honesty and then quite suddenly must doubt both their judgment and the security of the information they shared. Eyes reflect the fact that minds are playing back the tapes of what may or may not have been revealed. The sense of security has completely evaporated.
Silence prevails as individuals reach for wallets to pay their share of the tab. People pick up the check, look it over and add their share to the pile of bills in the center of the table. The party is over and people uncomfortably begin to move toward their cars. Someone mumbles, “I can’t believe she was listening to our conversation.” Another responds, “This is the last time I’ll eat here.”
When the waitress comes to clear the table, she is surprised to discover that while the tab has been paid, there is nothing more than the exact amount charged. This table had been filled with people she knew from previous experience to be big tippers. She doesn’t understand what happened, she had taken extreme care to leave them to their privacy knowing the conversation was personal.
What she may learn is that just as in a previous time when “loose lips sink ships,” they also kill tips.