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Killing with kindness: David Whitley

Everyone likes good service, but when it comes to hotels and restaurants there’s such a thing as too much attention

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As the lift door opens, I pray there’s no one around. It’s no use. There’s already one “Good morning, Mr Whitley” before I’ve turned the corner, and another three before I make it out the lobby doors.

It’s only taken two days for this gauntlet of cloying false greetings to drive me to murderous thoughts. Somewhere in America, there must be a training manual that says having every dogsbody creepily address guests by name — and bombard them with small talk at any opportunity — is great service.

It’s the same manual that ruins meals in any restaurant trying to elevate itself above the level of Nando’s. Instead of letting diners enjoy their meal in peace, or maybe talk to each other, a policy of continual waiter interaction is imposed. Before being allowed to try the food, there’s a lengthy explanation of what each ingredient is, even though you know already because you read it on the menu. If you’re really lucky, the waiter will then proffer extensive directions on how to get to the farm where the chicken was raised and a detailed genealogical history of each vegetable, neatly ensuring the food has time to go cold before you try it.

Take a sip of water, and someone pounces to needlessly top up the glass. An ever-inquisitive squadron of buzzing pests ask how each mouthful tastes. Your ‘server’ is introduced as if he or she will be a companion for a six-month jungle expedition rather than someone who’ll put a few plates on your table.

This continual shoving of staff members in a guest’s face has little to do with guest satisfaction. It’s all about wringing as much tip money as possible out of the harassed, badgered captives while pretending it’s all in their interest.

The porter is usually the first culprit. Using cheetah-like reflexes, he leaps on your suitcase before you’ve chance to shoo him away. The quest for immediacy then miraculously disappears as he brings the case up to the room 15 minutes later, hanging around for a few dollar bills as if you’ve not needed anything in the case in the interim.

The maid gets in on the act too, via the turndown service. This rigmarole — invariably attempted when you’re in the shower or trying to have a nap — has somehow become synonymous with luxury. Personally, I find there’s little luxurious about having to yelp ‘NOT NOW!’ in a Pavlovian response to a door knock while sat on the toilet. Especially when it’s so a maid can come in and remove extraneous cushions that she shouldn’t have put on the bed in the first place. If, in the unlikely event you’ve got clothes on and are out of the room when she arrives, she might delve into her extra bag of super-helpful tricks. These may include turning the TV on so you can have the pleasure of switching it off again when you get in. Or perhaps putting the floor pile of methodically-flung clothes inside the wardrobe so they’re never seen again and left behind when you check out. Or picking up and folding your discarded pants before placing them on a chair — something I’m certain is done purely to trigger shamefaced acknowledgement of the maid’s dignity sacrifice.

After a week or so of having things done for me, irrespective of whether I want them done, it comes as a relief to check out to a chorus of “I hope to see you again, Mr Whitley”. They will, but only once, when I return to pick up my bags before heading to a world of perfunctory, anti-social motel service — eye contact-less grunts as key cards are handed over beat continual fawning any day.

Later that afternoon, I nip back to collect my case. “Mr Whitley,” says the receptionist. “I’m glad you’re back! You left something in your room.” He pulls out a plastic bag. Inside it are the torn, tattered boxer shorts that I’d thrown in the vague direction of the bin, knowing their long life of stoic service had come to an end. If that sort of glorious reunification isn’t worth a five-dollar tip, nothing is.

Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)