What's the meaning of to scare someone straight?

The usage came from the following passage of this article:

Here is where I find myself turning an about-face of sorts. I have long thought everyone should have to wait tables, but for years my goal was collective comeuppance or just to scare them straight.


The term scared straight worked its way into the American vernacular after a landmark 1978 documentary by the same name. This documentary featured hardened criminals in prison talking with (and often shouting at) teens who were headed down the wrong tracks. The idea was, if some of these straying teens could get a glimpse at what might await them if they didn't get their act together, perhaps they could be "scared straight", that is, maybe this shocking dose of reality could prompt them into making better early-life decisions.

In the article, the author isn't talking about youth headed toward a life of crime, but how customers regard and treat the wait staff at a fine dining establishment. Those who have never "seen the inside" (a phrase that would refer to a serving time in a penitentiary in the original documentary, but, in the Salon piece, the phrase would refer to working at a restaurant) are more apt to treat wait staff with rudeness and condescension. So, the author is saying that everyone should have to wait tables at some time, as it would "scare them straight" – that is, it would dissuade them from lingering in the dining room long past closing time, or stealing a restaurant's centerpiece for a souvenir. I think the "scared straight" reference sets up this sentence in the following paragraph:

A required year on the front lines would not just be a refresher in simple good manners, but the reminder of the underlying purpose of those manners.

In other words, if you learn what it's like to have those things happen to you while you are "doing time" on the restaurant staff, your restaurant behavior will likely be straightened out for the rest of your life.

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To take someone exhibiting bad behavior and expose them to the consequences of their actions so that they come back to good behavior. See here for background. "Straight" is used in the sense of definition 3g here ("not deviating from what is considered normal.") Note: on its own this meaning of "straight" is less commonly used in 21st century English.

Without reading the entire article, I believe the author is suggesting people who did not get better jobs would find the harshness of waiting tables motivation to better themselves so that they could a better job.

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  • Could you put the definition from the link in your answer? Just in the case the link was to stop working at some time in the future! – nxx Mar 2 '14 at 12:37

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