The waiter, revisited

As some of you will remember from Issue 4, or perhaps from Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre discusses the fawning and overly-deliberate actions of a cafe waiter.

The accusation is that the waiter exhibits bad faith: in throwing himself fully into the role of waiter he is denying his ultimate free will.

Buried in this article about authenticity (pointed out by Neil), a new interpretation of the waiter’s actions is proposed:

It is possible, however, to turn this analysis around, as some critical Sartreans have done, and to defend the poor waiter. Gary Cox, in his excellent The Existentialist’s Guide to Death, the Universe and Nothingness, argues that the waiter, far from being deluded that he really is a waiter, is consciously acting “with ironical intent”. In this sense, he is a paragon of Sartrean authenticity, because “he strives to take full responsibility for the reality of his situation, choosing himself positively in his situation by throwing himself wholeheartedly into his chosen role”.

This is a stunning idea. I really like it. But it doesn’t quite cut the mustard for me. Leading a life defined by one’s occupation is the very essence of bad faith, it being the condition in which people cannot transcend their situations in order to realise their human fallibility and their lack of immortal, conceptual waiterliness.

Still, it’s a great way of letting employed people off the hook. God knows they have enough problems as it is. Perhaps we should be kind and extend to them the benefit of the doubt, if only to cut them loose from our own ledger of concerns.

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

2 Responses to “The waiter, revisited”

  1. Anna says:

    I very much relate to this second interpretation of the waiter. After surveying their circumstances and the situation, I think a person can and should decide to inhabit their role fully (in this instance of being a waiter), for the time they are required to perform it. Rather than begrudgingly performing the actions of a waiter, whilst believing you are above them, or believing in fact that you really are a waiter (the bad faith model), you can accept your current situation and ‘act’ the part of waiter to your fullest abilities, and enjoy the detail and conceit of the part you are playing. No one needs to know that you are not really a waiter and it doesn’t really matter. You know it yourself.

    I did this for a number of years whilst performing the role of ‘administration assistant’. I did not think I was above being one, and I did not think that I personally was an administration assistant and nothing more. It was a role I played whilst aspiring and studying to be something else. But I enjoyed inhabiting the character and relating to the characters around me in the stage of the ‘office’. In fact I played the role so well that when I finally left the job and announced to my colleagues that I had taken up a position as a curator in a museum, one of them remarked ‘But you’re just an administration assistant!’. Ha! Fooled them!

  2. It’s growing on me. I think its a generous and interesting new take on the waiter.

    Reinterpreting Sartre: it’s what New Escapologist was set up for.

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