Sunday, 7 February 2016, 12:20-1:20pm. King’s Chinese Buffet.
Kirksville doesn’t have a lot going on when it’s cold out, so it was hard to think of something that would work well for this assignment. Then I remembered, regardless of the season, restaurants are always packed at lunch, and there is no better restaurant to observe social interaction than a Chinese buffet.
King’s Chinese Buffet (King’s) is fairly average in terms of size, atmosphere, and popularity. Though the decision to go during the lunchtime rush was deliberate, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I was showing up during the after-church lunchtime rush. This meant that there were a lot of larger groups of people, friendly stop-and-chats, and much more opportunities to observe the unwritten rules of buffets.
Like any dine-in restaurant, the first thing that happens upon walking through the door is telling the maître-d’ how many people are in your party. For me, this was easy; I said, “just one” and he showed me to my table (I requested a table where I could clearly see the buffet and other tables as politely as I could). For larger groups, this takes a little longer, the largest groups sometimes having to wait by the door to be seated.
In general, every place of business in Kirksville has the same three types of people: college students (younger people), locals (middle age-elderly people), and employees (mixed). King’s was no different, but, as previously mentioned, there was definitely a preponderance of locals who appeared to have just come from church—I say this because so many people were dressed up to some extent. What’s more, I noticed several friendly stop-and-chats (e.g. “Carol! It’s so good to see you. How are the kids?”). While this is not uncommon in a small town like Kirksville, this never seems to happen so frequently in one place, another reason why I suspect King’s must be an after-church hot spot.
The average table size was between 3-6 people (there were, of course, outliers like me and a group of about a dozen or so people, as well as a few couples). Large groups tended to speak much louder, while smaller groups rarely spoke louder than a whisper, with the exception of the couple sitting in front of me, who were unabashedly loud. Smaller groups (2-4 people) always waited until everyone was finished to get another plate, a sort of gesture of social politeness. It was much more common for one or two people to break off for more food in larger groups, probably because this is less disrupting to the group as a whole.
The most interesting and complex part is the process of actually getting food. At King’s, at least with such a large crowd, there seemed to be an unwritten/understood rule that you must go around the buffets in a line (kids, however, were free to jump around wherever they wanted). I respected this ritual for my first plate, but challenged it on my second. After grabbing a new plate and surveying the area, I jumped into an open spot next to a middle-aged woman who was busy filling up her plate. Without actually saying anything, she flashed me a brief look that accused me of “cutting” in line (what’s funny is, she didn’t even want anything else from that part of the buffet). Having said that, occasionally, people would go back to a certain item after an initial pass. When doing this, instead of simply swooping in, they will stand behind you to politely indicate they are waiting for you to finish. (While I wouldn’t say people are “rude,” per se, this very structured line system and rules of politeness are not as common in bigger cities like St. Louis—there, it’s much more of a free-for-all.)
Finally, I took note of the waiter and waitresses’ patterns of cleaning off tables and the non-verbal signs of communication. For instance, an empty plate (without a fork or napkin) at the end of the table signals you are finished, but going back for more food. What’s more, the plate will not be picked up until you leave for your next plate. By the time you get back to the table, the plate is gone and your drink is refilled like magic. Most importantly is the location of your fork when the plate is picked up—keeping it on a napkin signals you are planning to eat more, when it is on the plate (usually with a used-up napkin), this signals, “check please!”
1) What are the strengths and weaknesses of this method of observation? How have you experienced these strengths and weaknesses in regard to this particular setting?
The non-obtrusive nature of this method made it easy to make objective observations and allowed me to see things I may not have normally noticed. On the other hand, doing this assignment in this particular setting made me feel self-conscious and a little creepy. During my observations, it was hard to look like I was just eating food and not trying to spy on the entire restaurant; this tended to get in the way of thinking critically about what I was seeing during the first 30 minutes or so.
2) What strengths and weaknesses do you possess for conducting this kind of research in this type of setting?
I think I have developed a keen eye for observation and the ability to think critically in the moment. On the other hand, the self-conscious feeling I mentioned was undoubtedly my biggest weakness and challenge.
3) What ethical problems, if any, do you sense in doing this kind of research in this kind of setting?
In certain settings, this type of research may easily be considered an invasion of privacy depending on what information was gathered and how it was presented. However, in most situations, like King’s, this seems like a pretty harmless method of research.
4) If you were to do this exercise again, how would you improve your approach?
Though King’s ended up working really well for this assignment, I found it hard to simply blend in. If I were to do this exercise again, I would choose something where I could be an active participant, at least to the extent that I don’t feel quite as creepy. Looking ahead, I’m confident that I will be more comfortable making these types of observations during JazzFest, given that I will also be an audience member.