The other day I was driving in downtown San Francisco, and in a not-too-unusual situation where there was heavy traffic, a car thought it could make it through the intersection into a full lane of cars and cable cars but got stuck when the light turned red, blocking the whole intersection. This is not about the cars going in the other direction, but it is a story of the pedestrians who continued to cross through the crosswalk while the culprit driver was left to continue blocking the intersection even after the lane had cleared.
What was going on was cultural punishment. I see this happen frequently. I used to think it was one group asserting its “rights” over another, but I’ve begun to think about it in another way. In the hotel and restaurant business these scenarios play out in terms of tip amounts or the reverse — poor or arrogant service. It is characterizing guests as stupid because they don’t know some of the descriptions on the menu and therefore deserve the contempt of the server or kitchen. It could even be that someone is over- or underdressed for the restaurant, and the guest is either rewarded as being adventurous and innovative or punished as uneducated or unenlightened.
The restaurant business in many ways is a study of cultural surfing. How can restaurateurs stay abreast of what is important now — not last week, and not too far into next week, but what is hot today. This is where hotels frequently fail to catch the wave. Locking into a concept with a particular chef, design or style can be cool when you first open but gone within the year if you do not have someone who is focused on the cultural path on which your “concept” is taking you.
Cultural punishment in restaurants comes in the form of avoidance. In hotels, the restaurant continues to be referred to as “the outlet.” Cultural punishment comes not in the form of low tips but in the form of little to no business. Not understanding your guests, in the hotel and the community, can leave you like those cars in the intersection: paralyzed.