The work ethic at the dinner table

It is to Alan Bennett, of "Beyond the Fringe" fame, that I am indebted for a recent reminder that the dreadful query from restaurant staff, "Are you still working on that?" has not always been with us.

The New Yorker ran a "Talk of the Town" interview with him a couple of weeks back. The conversation turned to the subject of differences between British English and the American idiom. He observed, "The American phrase 'Are you still working on that?' for instance. Where did that come from? You hear it every day now in restaurants and on planes, and I'm sure you didn't hear it ten years ago."

I hope he's right. If the phrase arrived at some point in the recent past, we may cherish some hope it may go away in the near future.

"Are you still working on that?" is a phrase that hit me on my return to North America in 1998 after a few years in Germany. In Europe the protocol of "closing up" knife and fork on the plate to signal "I'm finished" seems to be more widely practiced and understood.

In North America, on the other hand, I have sometimes been tempted to use knife and fork to fend off a waiter by resorting to a bit of minor swordplay: "Away, thou varlet!"

I'm not the only one to take issue with AYSWOT. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman has speculated that the use of the phrase is connected with the general American work ethic: "Americans do have a stunning capacity for turning everything into work. If you don't believe that, think about the waiters everywhere who approach your table with the inevitable question: 'Are you still working on that?' They make it sound as if chewing pasta was an onerous job to complete."

A columnist for Silicon Valley's Metroactive.com discovered that it took a trip to Italy to make her realize what she found wanting in restaurant service at home: "Why do waitresses, like some dentists, wait until your mouth is full to swoop by and suddenly ask whether 'everything's all right'? Nobody feels especially happy about having to smile and nod and respond, all while sitting across from someone he or she hopes to charm and impress, with a mouth full of gooey pasta or dripping with a froth of crème brûlée."

Heartening though I find it to have commiserators on the AYSWOT question, what really caught my attention in the Bennett interview was his larger point about a language and the society that speaks it. Or, as we might better say in the context of the distinction between British and American English, the connection between an idiom and the society that uses it.

The New Yorker interview also included this: "Of his ear for dialogue, Bennett said, 'I can't write about any place where I don't understand the social structure as it's expressed through the way people speak. I can write in posh, public-school English, because it's what I grew up hearing in cinemas. But I can't write in American, though it fascinates me.' "

The AYSWOT dialogue is rooted in the conditions of the typical industrial-scale mid-market American restaurant experience: high volume, huge portions, relatively low prices, and high turnover of tables. (I can think of at least two popular national restaurant chains with "factory" in their names.)

But I think Ellen Goodman may be right that the actual verbalization of this question, the choice of words spoken, says something about the work ethic in America - just as the "posh" talk Bennett learned at the cinema reflected the structure of British society.

I could ponder this further, I suppose, but I think I'd better wrap this piece up. I've just had a check-in call from my editor.

She wanted to know, "Are you still working on that?"

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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