ON TIPPING

We Americans tip. Although we rarely reflect on that custom, beyond a vague acceptance, we may soon need to ponder its worth. Some major restaurants have recently eliminated tipping, replacing it with a fixed service charge, usually 20%. A few op-ed writers urge abolishing tipping altogether. To them, tipping compels coerced servility; accepting tips means being a toady. Nonsense, I say. Tipping is a good thing. It allows brief personal connection between us and someone who serves us. Yes, it’s an atypical form of personal connection—it’s transitory and done through money—but when we tip we’re personally acknowledging a human being, the one who waited on is. Surely most of our financial life is sufficiently impersonal. Ending tipping would remove moments of humanity and spontaneity from our economic life, and entail a variety of other losses—including the loss of signs encouraging tipping.

¨     If You Fear Change, Leave It Here

¨     Tip Big, and Cheat on Your Taxes

¨     Tips Create Great Karma

Tipping is neither a conventional market transaction nor mandatory.  We tip when we chose to. When we tip, it’s only after service was performed; we don’t bargain over the amount of the tip to secure the service, Many might say that they tip simply because they know the worker depends on tips. However, I suggest that tipping survives not only because of a sense of duty, but because most of us are generally satisfied by the service-tipping process. We enjoy the human interplay involved. We’re pleased at being briefly removed from conventional capitalism. I am paying the waiter, not The Boss (or alternatively, I briefly become a Boss). There are no filters or hierarchies between me and my tip to the person who served me.

Astute tip seekers understand that success comes by performing as well as by serving. We tend to be more generous with servers who’ve engaged and related with us than those who haven’t. Not that engagement requires intrusion. The finest performance I’ve witnessed was by a middle-aged waiter in a Parisian restaurant, decades ago. My friend Hayden and I had finagled onto a two-week charter tour of European capitals. For the first time in my life, I was going to have dinner in a Michellin-stared restaurant. But we couldn’t find the place, searching with anxious frustration until someone finally directed us to it, hidden in an alley. Apologetic and sweaty, we arrived over half an hour late. The young owners graciously welcomed us to their intimate, stylish restaurant. Promptly, Hayden and I became exuberant Californians, delighting in food more delicious than any we’d ever tasted, passing forks of treats back and forth, laughing with pleasure. Our waiter laughed with us, heartily offered recommendations (I still recall that chestnut soufflé), and seemed pleased with our sometimes-fumbling French.

Half-way through our leisurely meal, a dignified couple in their 60s sat at the table closest to us. I over heard the waiter’s quiet, “Bonsoir, Baron et Baroness.” Addressing them as if he were in the court of Louis the 14th, he held his body formal and stately. Then he slowly turned towards us; by the time he faced us, he was again the relaxed, friendly man he’d been before. Throughout our meal, he repeated his act several times, starting from either direction. All of us, including the Baron and Baroness, understood precisely what he was doing: performing the waiter appropriate to each of us.

¨     Show Your Gratitude, Leave Big Tips

¨     Atipaclypse Now

¨      Feeling Tipsy

There are, of course, many ways to perform. A core is doing the job right. A waiter recommends what he knows is the best on the menu. A cab driver glides through city traffic, not careening recklessly as if in a NASCAR race. Then there’s charm or flirtation, admirable arts when practiced skillfully. (Overdo them, though, and you have entered the world of servility.) Here’s the legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen’s report: “Smart waiters’ tricks.  A man received in his restaurant change a $5 bill on which someone had drawn a butterfly and the message ‘If you love your money, set it free.’ And yes, he left it as a tip.”

Tipping allows you to feel generous, at relatively little cost. My mom, still exuberant in her late 60s, mentioned that supermarket clerk clerks in our suburban hometown disappeared when she wanted help carrying grocery bags to her car. I asked if she tipped them. She did—a dime. Mom was frugal by nature and necessity, having raised seven children. But now, in the1980s, she and my father were quietly astonished at their prosperity in retirement.

Mom knew that I believed (devoutly) in being a good tipper. The ample tips I had received working in a parking lot during four college-year summers had enabled me to escape the cramped finances normal for an Ivy-league scholarship student. I suggested to Mom that we do some dollar calculations about her tipping. How often was she in a situation where she “should tip? Grocery boys, Christmas tips to mailman, occasional cabs in Manhattan—all of it. How much did she estimate that she tipped now in a year? Now, how about a really good tip each time—not a dime at the supermarket, but a dollar, maybe two dollars. Then we added up the difference. Somewhat over $200 a year.  “Mom, for only a couple of hundred bucks, you to get to be a Sport. You’d love it. Try it.”

         A few months later, she reported that she’d become a big tipper, and was delighted at the results. Grocery clerks now rushed to her, volunteering to carry bags to her car. Taxi drivers smiled and thanked her when she left.  Best of all, she loved feeling she was a Sport—generous, expansive.

¨     To feel good is to give—so please tip

¨     Your gratuities help defray our servers’ education expenses, and they all thank you.

¨     A tip a day keeps the doctor away

The parking lot was at the Enchanted Forest, in the upstate New York Adirondacks. Age eighteen, I became a parking lot attendant, and my colleague Bob introduced me to tips, or more precisely, the art of extracting tips. We wired Forest signs to car bumpers, unless the driver refused one. “Is there a charge?” many drivers asked. “No, but you may tip if you like,” we’d reply. Bob and I joked with drivers, deciphered license plates (“We’ve been waiting for you. You’re the folks from Utica”), and sang along with songs blaring from park loud speakers. Many people did tip—usually a quarter, occasional more, rarely as little as a dime. For the first time in my life, I experienced prosperity. More valuable for a dreamy English major, I learned I could hustle money. American capitalism wasn’t exclusively the realm robber barons and soulless corporations. Even I might turn out to be an entrepreneur, or at least a hustler.

         Bob occasionally expounded on the art of tipping. People who tipped us were Sports; those who didn’t tip but wanted a sign were Stiffs. Sports included most all fast drivers, Italians and anyone smoking a cigar. Stiffs include many red heads (Scotch?) and almost all rich people in their Cadillacs and Imperials. Sports seemed to enjoy life, while Stiffs seemed fearful.

¨     Excuse me while I Tip This Guy

¨     God Knows When You Don’t Tip

¨     Our Heartfelt Thanks for Your Notable Tipping Abilities

Opponents of tipping usually base their case on supposed moral grounds. Steven Shaw, in the New York Times, argued that tipping forces waiters to be “a team of pseudo-contractors rather than employees,” freeing employers from paying them a living wage. What did Mr. Shaw hold up as a model? McDonald’s! “…service at (tip-free) McDonald’s is far more reliable than the service at the average upper-middle-market restaurant.”[OH?] And why Mr. Shaw, is this?

“… because they [McDonald’s employees] are well-trained and subject to rigorous supervision.” Great—just what we need to encourage relaxed restaurant dining: poorly-paid, over-controlled employees.

Curiously, “moral” concerns seem mostly to benefit owners. A few years ago, owner of Per Se, an elite Manhattan restaurant, instituted a 20% service fee on all bills (although tips averaged 22%) because, he asserted, the kitchen help weren’t getting a fair percentage of waiters’ tips. There was, he stated, an “Imbalance of earnings.” This “imbalance” would be correct by reducing waiters’ income, not by the owner paying decent wages to the kitchen help. The owner didn’t mention diminishing his profits at a restaurant where (the M.Y. Times reported) “… customers have been begging for a chance to pay $175 or more for a single dinner there.”

         More recently, several elite Bay Area restaurants, following the lead of Berkeley’s world-renown Chez Panisse, eliminated tipping and added a 20% service charge. The restaurant owners cited a need to equalize pay to all employees, especially now that local minimum-wages laws had risen to the apparently-ruinous levels of around $11 dollars an hour. Once again, the owners didn’t consider the possibility of lowering their profits.

Tipping evoked moral outrage in The Itching Palm, a Study of American Tipping, by William Scott (1916). Excoriating “the moral malady of flunkyism,” he railed against the “willingness to be servile for a consideration. It is

democracy’s deadly foe. The two ideas cannot live together except in a false peace.” Scott somehow overlooked the reality that the  “willingness to be servile for a consideration” is essential for many jobs (perhaps he wasn’t aware of Corporate Life.).  Scott further argued that the Bible opposes tipping. Perhaps, yet somehow tipping has survived since at least Roman days.

Some American crusaders have attempted to make tipping illegal, because of its allegedly anti-egalitarian and therefor immoral nature. Around 1900, a few states passed laws prohibiting tipping, but they were generally ignored, and later repealed. In France, the Popular Front government in the 30s “abolished gratuities as humiliating,” allegedly imposing a servile status on the tippee. Tips were replaced “by a percentage added to the bill. Tips, of course, continued to be given and expected, but the spirit changed.”  (The Hollow Years). This experiment was soon abandoned and the French settled on their current practice: “service compris” in the bill, and paying a bit more, maybe 5% if service was good. Finally, a few cultures do regard tipping as improper. In Japan tipping remains insulting, being regarded as noting inferiority. But the worldwide trend seems to be going the other way. Even in China—where the communists prohibited tipping for decades—the custom now is to tip 3% in major cities.  Similarly in Denmark, which had a tradition of no-tipping because all workers received a decent wage, Danes now often tip a little bit extra.

A perhaps-moral argument for tipping is that the person served can reward good service and punish bad.  The tip is a service rating. Maybe. But how harsh to be if service was below par? Refusing to tip when service was mediocre seems harsh, when you can always tip small. What about lousy service? Then the question become why. Perhaps the server is inexperienced, or overwhelmed. My generous friend Toni is still more accepting; she declares, “Always tip an incompetent waitress. It encourages improvement.” She makes exceptions for bad attitude. If a server is unpleasant, dismissive or hostile, it’s O.K. to stiff him or her. Still, that’s rare. We value tipping not for the occasional times we try to teach the server a lesson by leaving nothing, but for the many times we want to demonstrate our appreciation for service well done.

¨     Tips: For To-Go Coffee and Just Cuz

¨     Tips: Thanks a Latte

¨     Tips: Support “Counter” Intelligence

Some people abhor tipping because deciding when or how much to give is confusing and painful. Esther, the heroine of Syvia Plath’s The Bell Jar hadn’t known that she should have tipped a Manhattan bellhop. Her roommate tells her: “’You ninny, he wanted his tip.’” Esther thinks: “Now I could have carried that suitcase to my room perfectly well by myself, only the bellhop seemed so eager to do it that I let him. I thought that sort of service came along with what you paid for your hotel  room. I hate handing over money to people for doing what I could do just as easily myself, it makes me nervous. “

Later, she gives a cab driver a dime tip for a dollar ride, thinking that the tip was “exactly right and (I) gave the driver my dime with a little flourish and a smile … But he started telling, ‘Lady, I gotta live like you and everybody else’ in a loud voice which scared me so much I broke into a run.”

Well, it’s true, tipping requires that you learn unwritten rules. A tip lover will face inconsistencies. If I tip because I value personal contact as well as service, why do I leave a tip for hotel maids, even if I never see them? I guess because I want reward the maids their specific work for me. But if I’ll I tip all those who do me a personal service, why don’t I tip my dental hygienist? It doesn’t occur to me, because her job is professional, and one rarely tips professionals.  Similarly, I never tip an owner. Tips to my haircutter ceased when she became the proprietor and was presumably earning profits.

¨     (near Halloween) Tip or Treat

¨     (near Christmas) Please, No Tips: Ruin My Holidays

¨     Tipping makes you sexier-try it Darling

Tipping “really belongs to what sociologists call a gift economy rather than a market one,” states James Surowieki, in The New Yorker. By “gift economy” I take it he means things “we do not get by our own efforts,” as Lewis Hyde defined that term in his brilliant book The Gift. Actually tipping doesn’t fit into readily either a market or gift economy. Gifts are made freely, from love or generosity. We do not acquire gifts in recompense for our own efforts. We do not make gifts to others because they’ve served us. Tipping is a market/economic transaction, but a unique one, dependent upon feelings, communication, cultural-tradition, and performance, as well as service. That reality annoys some people. Another moralist, Kelly Seagraves, asserted in Tipping: an American Social History, her diatribe against tipping, “The (Boston) Irish tipped lavishly because they can’t help it. It’s one of the penalties of Hibernicism.” Of course no proof was offered for her generalization. None could be.

My approval of tipping is not a product of my Celtic genes. I simply enjoy and value the talking and connection tipping encourages, and appreciate that I’m sufficiently affluent to be able to tip. Sometimes I’ll tip when it’s not expected. I’ve tipped cheerful cash register clerks at Long’s and Safeway, friendly toll-takers, and considerate employees of fast food joints—as a surprise reward for their upbeat attitudes in tough jobs.  The tips have always been received with delight, sometimes mingled with astonishment. And I feel good—I don’t get to feel generous often enough.

Lets Keep On Tipping.                                                

 

[2009] [2014]