Still or Sparkling?

The rules of the restaurant water game

Why is it so difficult to ask for tap water in a restaurant?  And how often has the waiter’s favourite question, ‘Still or sparkling?’, pressured you to into ordering high-priced bottled water?

It should be simple to order tap water.  But in fact this is part of a complicated social game, worthy of study by anthropologists. And the only way to win the game is to understand the hidden conventions and gambits.

For a start, restaurants are keenly aware that a request for 'tap water' sounds somehow crude and over-specific, like asking for cow’s milk or pig's bacon.  For a sensitive soul, asking for tap water can conjure up the image of sticking your head under a standpipe to get a drink, which is hardly the thing when dining out.  It sounds cheap.

Secondly, psychology experiments show that given two options, we start figuring out which one we prefer, but rarely reject both.  Sales people understand this.  (Take a moment to salute the genius who first made it a policy to ask “Still or sparking?” in their restaurant.  They really should be in advertising.)  For your waiter, the aim of the game is to reach a place where they can ask 'Still or sparkling?', at which point you officially lose, since it is now too embarrassing to backtrack and ask for tap water.  For you, the aim of the game is to order tap water before they can get to the killer question, and do it without sounding cheap.

But how?  The first rule is always to ask for ‘A jug of water’.  This neatly trumps ‘Still or sparkling’ since it’s clear you don’t want bottled water, but you have avoided the dreaded word ‘tap’.  

Next, if you have sufficient brass neck, you can request a jug of water the moment you sit down.  This wins you the game immediately.  The staff may try to stall, claiming that they don't have jugs (‘that’s ok, glasses are fine’) or being confrontational and asking if you mean tap water, but these are just delaying tactics.  You have already won.

However most of us either forget this early-bird tactic or regard it with unease, as being a bit too warlike.  

The best opportunity to request your jug of water is when the waiter is ready to take the food order.  They will not be expecting it, but it's a reasonable request at this stage.  You win.
Things get riskier if you leave things until after the food order has been taken.  This is when the waiter, scenting victory, asks the innocent question 'Some water for the table?'  It’s a very clever phrase, subtly suggesting that you should be considering the wishes of your dining companions. But if you do, you are lost, because they will start umming and mumbling ‘ah yes, water’ – allowing the waiter time to take aim and fire: 'Still or sparkling?'  Game over. 

So, as advised by warriors from Sun Tze to General Patton, an early intervention leads to victory.  The satisfaction of winning the water game may seem trivial, but it’s better than feeling tricked into spending £4 a bottle for stuff that cost 70p in the supermarket.  And if you find that your assertiveness has created an atmosphere at table, just observe that ‘Bottled water is so bad for the environment, isn’t it?’  There’s no answer to that.