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15 Polite Habits Fast-Food Workers Actually Dislike—and What to Do Instead

Updated: Jun. 12, 2024

Sometimes our good intentions can miss the mark when we're trying to be helpful at a fast-food restaurant. Here's what to avoid.

Mcdonald's cashier taking fast food order
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The do’s and don’ts of fast-food ordering

Nearly 5 million people in the United States work in fast food, and several of them are in my family. Three out of the five of my children have worked fast-food jobs (and the youngest isn’t quite old enough for a job, so it may end up higher!). And the number of dinner conversations we’ve had about restaurant customers—and their habits, both polite and rude—is … well, at least a weekly occurrence. Not to mention very eye-opening.

While a lot of rude people frequent fast-food establishments, thankfully there are far more customers who are kind and polite, according to my kids. But there are some people who do things that they think are polite or helpful but actually end up inconveniencing the workers. “Before I say anything else, I want to say how grateful I am for anyone who tries to do anything nice at all. Like, trust me, bro, those people make my day, even if it isn’t actually helpful,” says my 17-year-old son, who works at a popular chicken establishment. “I don’t want people to read your article and stop doing nice stuff. Nice people, we see you and we love you! No cap!”

(By the way, “no cap” is teen slang for “I’m not lying” or “seriously.” You’re welcome. Even though it probably won’t be popular anymore by the time this article runs.)

That said, if you are a kind person, wouldn’t you want to know if you were making a few accidental missteps that made workers’ lives a little bit harder? I asked my kids, plus a bunch of other fast-food workers, to reveal what they wish customers would stop doing. Nice people, read on to find out which “polite” habits fast-food workers actually dislike, including the polite habits McDonald’s workers dislike, and what to do instead.

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making fast food burger
Jordi Salas/getty images

Telling them the “recipe” to make an item

It can be tempting to tell an employee how to make something, especially if you’ve worked at that restaurant before or if the employee seems new or uncertain. You know the recipe for the Chicken Club BLT or all the ingredients for the salad, so you’ll just save them the time of having to look it up, right? Resist that urge.

“I work at McDonald’s, and it turns out a ton of other people have worked at McDonald’s or know someone who has, so there are a lot of people who want to tell me how to do something, like how to make a certain sandwich,” says George H. “But I usually already know, and also sometimes the instructions have changed or we no longer offer that particular item.” Trying to do a worker’s job for them comes across as patronizing and can also imply that you think they’re dumb.

Do this instead: Be patient while the worker makes your order, and don’t hover over the counter. If your order ends up incorrect, simply ask them to fix it or replace it.

Woman with coins in hand with purse

Paying with exact change

If you’re paying in cash and have the exact change handy, great! The problem is when people take a lot of time digging through their purse or change holder in the car to find exact change. “I think they think that they’re making it easier for me because then I don’t have to calculate the change to give back to them, but really it just makes the line move really slow. Then, people behind them get frustrated, and I have to deal with those angry customers,” says Maria V., a Burger King employee. “The register makes counting out change really fast and easy.”

Do this instead: Good etiquette rules say you should have your cash ready to go in an easily accessible location so you’ll be able to count it out quickly. The same is true when you’re in grocery and retail stores.

Sanford, Florida, McDonald's Restaurant drive thru order area, with line of cars
Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

Paying for the car behind you

This one is controversial, but paying it forward—as in, paying for the order of the person in line behind you—is a genuine act of kindness you can offer to a stranger and it can be confusing and annoying to fast-food workers. “I hate it when we get these chains of people paying for the next car because everyone feels like they have to continue it, or if they don’t, then they feel like they have to explain it or apologize. Or sometimes they want to tell me a story about why it’s helping them … and it just really messes up the morning rush,” says Sophia S., who is a barista at a coffee chain. “Plus, sometimes we lose track of who is paying for something that’s not the actual order we’re handing them, which makes it easier to make register mistakes.”

Do this instead: We’re not telling you to not do an act of kindness for a stranger, but perhaps limit this to a time when the line isn’t really long.

 Fast Food Utensils Behind Counter
JUSTIN TALLIS/getty images

Reaching over the counter or glass to grab something

It makes sense: You see an item that you need just on the other side of the counter, so you can just save everyone time by reaching over and grabbing it. Unfortunately, this often goes against restaurant policy and may create extra work if you contaminate something. “We keep a lot of things behind the glass where people can see it so they can ask for it, not so they can grab it,” says Jo M., who works at Chipotle. “If you reach over and grab a lime slice, then we have to throw away all of them because your hands probably aren’t clean.”

Even if the item is individually sealed, like a packet of utensils, it’s still not polite to grab it. “If it’s behind a counter, that’s because it’s store policy that we have to hand it to you,” she adds.

Do this instead: Ask politely for what you need. “It’s not a bother for me to hand it to you, and I’m happy to help,” Jo says. This is also something that bartenders advise.

man ordering at Mcdonalds counter
Jeff Greenberg/getty images

Telling them to “just do” something

Some things fast-food workers have to do may look inefficient or frustrating (and sometimes they really are!). It may seem kind to give them “permission” to do it in a faster or easier way. “I recently had a customer tell me to ‘just do’ this ingredient substitution instead of waiting for more to come out,” says Jo. “But it had already been put into the system the first way, and it would have changed how much it cost, so I would have had to make an adjustment, which probably would take longer than just waiting for more chicken.” Then the customer told Jo to just charge him the first price even if it was a little higher, which she says she can’t do either because it messes up the inventory and order numbers.

Do this instead: You’re not their boss, so you really can’t give them permission to subvert the rules, even if they wish you could. Allow the worker to do their job the way they’ve been taught, even if it feels inefficient.

dollar bill in hand being handed to someone
antonio arcos aka fotonstudio photography/getty images

Giving them a tip they can’t accept

Tipping culture has gotten a bit out of control, so you might be surprised to know that many fast-food establishments don’t allow their workers to accept tips. While tipping is usually a great kindness to workers, it’s more polite to follow the rules. “People would try to hand me cash or tell me to add on a few bucks to their bill, but we weren’t allowed to get tips,” says Meagan D., who used to work for Little Caesars. “I tried explaining I’d get in trouble if I got caught, but they insisted they were trying to be nice!”

Do this instead: Follow the tipping rules for an establishment. If a worker can’t accept tips, don’t tip. And don’t try to do it in a covert way, like through a handshake or by sliding it across the counter under your hand.

fast food employee hanging customer straws
Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

Making comments about their working conditions

Fast-food workers are sometimes not treated well and are expected to work under stressful and even unfair conditions. This can be painful to watch, and it’s understandable that you’d want to help by advocating for them or simply commiserate with them. But this is one of those polite habits most people dislike. Making your comments to the worker at the register isn’t helpful and can make them feel bad, says Mitchell T., 67, who works at a popular burger chain. “I’m retired, and I’m flipping burgers. People feel bad for me. But I don’t like it when people feel sorry for me or say things like, ‘I can’t believe they’re making you do this at your age’ or ‘It’s awful you have to work so late,'” he says. “I can’t change those things, and you pointing them out doesn’t come across as sympathetic—it’s patronizing.”

Do this instead: If you have a problem with how a company runs their business, don’t go to that establishment. Or if you see an issue at your local franchise, speak to management about it. If you want to empathize with an employee on duty, you can offer a kind compliment (“Thanks for making my order so fast!”) or ask a polite question (“How’s your day going?”).

A young man is holding a piece of hamburger in his hands. A guy or a man eats fast food. A hungry skinny guy is eating an appetizing burger. The concept of unhealthy food, diet, overeating, gluttony, dependence on food. Fast food restaurant, snack bar.
Aleksandr Zubkov/Getty Images

Apologizing for your “bad” eating habits

Some customers appear to feel ashamed about eating fast food or coming in so often, and they will apologize for what they see as “bad” behavior. But the worker isn’t judging you for your dining choices (at least they shouldn’t be), and even if they are, you don’t owe them an apology for living your life.

“I work at a place they literally use in heart-attack statistics, so it’s not like I think I work in health food,” says Francisco M., who works at a popular pizza chain. “I have these people, especially ladies, who will come in and be like, ‘I’m so sorry—I swear I don’t normally eat like this,’ or ‘I’m so sorry I’m back again this week.’ Or sometimes a heavy dude will be like, ‘Don’t worry—this isn’t all for me.’ It honestly makes me feel bad for them. Like, I don’t care what you eat. I’m happy to see you. It’s all good.” Saying things like this can also put pressure on the worker to reassure you, which can make them uncomfortable.

Do this instead: Order your food, and get on with your life! There’s no need to apologize for you, your lifestyle, your clothing or your order. You’re a paying customer, and that’s all the employees really care about. Don’t put fast-food workers in a position where they feel like they have to be your nutritionist or therapist, and definitely skip any comments about weight.

long line at chipotles
Joe Raedle/getty images

Warning them about mistakes they might make

Perhaps the last time you went to this particular chain, the worker got your order wrong or forgot the straws or made some other mistake. You may think it’s helpful to tell the fast-food worker who is currently helping you about the past issue so you don’t have to bother them to “fix” the problem if it happens again. But you have to remember that while each franchise in a chain looks alike, each employee is different, and unless you’re dealing with the same person, they are unlikely to make the same mistake. Sharing problems with past orders can just come across as complaining.

“I had a lady order a salad and then tell me, like, five things to ‘watch out for’ when making it because whoever did it before did it wrong. But I don’t even think she was at our location when she made that order,” says Calvin L., who works at Chick-Fil-A. “She said she was just trying to save time by warning me in advance so I didn’t make those same mistakes, which honestly felt kind of insulting.”

Do this instead: Be clear about your order, and allow the workers to make it to your specifications. If something is wrong, ask them to fix it.

A customer bought food from a McDonald's Drive-Thru...
Zhang Peng/Getty Images

Opening every package to ensure it’s correct

Everyone has had the experience of going through a drive-thru only to discover after they’ve driven away that they’re missing an item or something was made incorrectly. It’s frustrating and time-consuming to go back, so it’s definitely a good idea to check your order when it’s handed to you. This polite habit saves everyone time. But it crosses the line into impoliteness when you open every sandwich wrapper or sip every drink. “I had a guy recently open four different boxes of nuggets and count them at the window,” Calvin says. “He just wanted to make sure it was right, but it really held up the line.”

Do this instead: Count your items to make sure they’re correct. If you feel like you need to do a more thorough check, move out of the drive-thru line into a nearby parking spot. That way, you’ll be close if you need to go back inside.

In-N-Out Burger employees laughing as customer orders
MediaNews Group/Getty Images

Starting your order with a “joke”

When a fast-food worker asks, “What can I get you today?” it may be tempting to respond with something humorous, like, “Whatever is free,” “How about one of everything?” or “Food.” Unfortunately, your humor may fall flat, as fast-food workers have heard those jokes a million times. Also, this type of interaction holds up the line—a real issue in a food establishment where “fast” is everything. Plus, these comments can come across as overly familiar or even flirtatious. Remember: The employee is not your friend; he or she is there to do a job. Full stop. “I appreciate a good dad joke, and I’ll laugh,” Calvin says. “But deep down, I really wish you’d just tell me your order.”

Do this instead: State your order clearly, and skip the jokes if there’s a line. However, if the store is slow, feel free to share your best food puns, Calvin says.

Fast Food Chain Subway Closed Over 1000 U.S. Stores In 2021
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Asking if they like their job

“People see my job and assume I hate it and am just killing time until my real life starts. But I’m autistic, and this job works perfectly for me,” says Caleb H., who works at Wendy’s. “I like the routine, the rules. I actually do like doing the same thing over and over, and I like my co-workers.” He says that when people try to make polite small talk, they often ask him if he likes his job, what job he wants to do in the future or when he’s going back to college. “They seem disappointed when I say that I do like this and this is what I want to do.”

Do this instead: Don’t assume all fast-food workers are miserable. Ask polite small-talk questions, sticking to subjects like the weather, a local sports team or a popular movie. Avoid asking personal questions of any type.

person standing and looking at a menu on the wall trying to decide what to order at a fast food restaurant
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Asking what they recommend or “what’s good here”

Asking your server at a sit-down restaurant what they recommend you order is a perfectly polite question, not to mention a great way to get a delicious dish. But it’s a different story at fast-food restaurants, Caleb says. First, the menu items are generally simple, well known and don’t change, so the food should basically be the same every time. Second, asking the person at the register what they recommend takes extra time and holds up the line.

“I think they think I’ll be flattered that they want my opinion, but I don’t know them at all, and I don’t want to play 20 questions to figure out what they like,” Caleb explains. “Also, I never know what to say when people ask me what’s good here.”

Do this instead: If you’re undecided about your order, stand out of the line until you know what you want. Feel free to ask questions about ingredients or flavors, but don’t ask the employee for their personal opinion about what you should order.

preparing sandwich in the restaurant
EvgeniiAnd/Getty Images

Ordering “the usual”

Many regular customers frequent a particular fast-food restaurant because they have a favorite meal they like to eat. And if you go in regularly, the staff will likely begin to recognize you and may even remember what you like. So simply ordering “the usual” saves everyone time, right? This only works if they do remember your order, and it may make them feel bad or annoyed if they don’t—after all, they serve hundreds of people every day.

“I’m pretty face-blind, so even when people come in every day, I don’t always recognize them,” Caleb says. “Then they’ll be like, ‘Oh, hey—I’m in here every day. Remember me?’ And then I have to say no.”

Do this instead: If the staff member asks you if you want your “usual,” consider it great service! But don’t expect them to remember it.

Mobile App TikTok
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Recording them for your TikTok

Are you one of the 13 million people who watched the video of a young woman deep-cleaning a Burger King bathroom … who was then kicked out by workers because having non-employees clean is against the rules? Recording people working has become a trend in a lot of viral videos. Some of them purport to be kind—say, cleaning, or giving a fast-food worker a wad of cash or new Air Pods—but the reality is that they’re primarily done for the benefit of the content creator and can make the workers feel uncomfortable.

They can also have unintended consequences, leading to workers being harassed, criticized or even fired. “We had a pretty famous YouTuber show up once, and as soon as he came in, he started recording everyone’s reactions,” says Keely S., who works at a mall food court. “We weren’t sure what his angle was, but even if he was there to do something ‘nice,’ I really don’t want to be on anyone’s TikTok!”

Do this instead: If you want to do something kind for someone, there’s no need to film it and post it. Don’t record people without their permission or interrupt their work to put them on camera.

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At Reader’s Digest, we’re committed to producing high-quality content by writers with expertise and experience in their field in consultation with relevant, qualified experts. We rely on reputable primary sources, including government and professional organizations and academic institutions as well as our writers’ personal experience where appropriate. For this piece, Charlotte Hilton Anderson tapped her experience as a prolific etiquette writer and interviewed a dozen fast-food workers. We verify all facts and data, back them with credible sourcing, and revisit them over time to ensure they remain accurate and up to date. Read more about our team, our contributors and our editorial policies.