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It takes finely developed observational skills, superhuman impulse control, years of servitude and an unshakeable sense of humour to become a top-flight restaurant waiter – which is why many places just make their service staff to stick to a script.

"Hello, my name is Tristan, and I'll be your waiter tonight."

They're told to say that. They're also instructed to say, "Can I tempt you with our hot peanut fudge quadruple scoop sundae?"

But a few of the big restaurant chains are realizing that you can't script a waiter for every possible situation, so they're doing something crazy: trying to teach their servers human observation skills.

According to The Wall Street Journal, "Even chain restaurants like Denny's, T.G.I. Friday's and Romano's Macaroni Grill are focusing more on personalized service by training staff to note body language, eye contact and offhand remarks, hoping to make service feel less mechanical."

They're doing it in large part because of the difficult economy of recent years, but also in hope of setting themselves apart. As one Applebee's executive told the Journal (in a breathtaking example of understatement): "Food is easy to copy, a building is easy to copy, but it's not easy to copy our people."

Among the cutting-edge lessons many of the restaurants are hoping to drum into their floor staff: kids don't like lettuce, customers who arrive early and well-dressed are likely on the way to the theatre and need fast service, chatty tables are more likely to respond to suggestive food and beverage selling, and a guest who says that their food is "okay" probably isn't happy. (A side note to budding waiters and restaurateurs: If you sense a customer isn't happy about something, the correct response is not to avoid them.)

And as the Journal points out, couples who are cranky or fighting over their dinner are likely to get better service.

Yet it's unlikely that these lessons will upend the service standards at higher-end restaurants. As the Journal piece neglects to point out, most of them are common sense.

What might be more useful is to have servers at chain restaurants servers learn a little sign language, as they do at Splendido, in Toronto.

Failing that, it's not always a bad idea for customers to learn some too.

How do you find restaurant service to be these days? Do the waiters you encounter need some training in observational skills?