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Tipping Point: Since When Does Everyone Get A Tip?

I see people throw a dollar into a barista’s jar for a two-dollar coffee, writes D. Quentin Miller, and I wonder if I’m cheap when I don’t. (Alex Jones/Unsplash)
I see people throw a dollar into a barista’s jar for a two-dollar coffee, writes D. Quentin Miller, and I wonder if I’m cheap when I don’t. (Alex Jones/Unsplash)
This article is more than 2 years old.

I took my first Uber ride a few months ago and I loved it, not only because of the convenience, but because of what I thought was a no-tip policy. It seemed clean somehow: an even exchange of service for money. A friend chastised me the next day: “Oh, no —  you should tip them. I always do. Just not as much as I would if it were a taxi.” I scowled and felt my exuberance fade.

I have wrestled with American tipping culture for a long time. When I was in college during the hyperinflated '80s, I worked as a doorman at a posh Boston hotel. There was an invisible code about services that generally required tipping: “holding” someone’s car rather than valet parking it, for example, versus simply holding the door: We were doormen! We would go out after work and lavishly overtip the bar staff, 30 or 40 percent. We did it because we knew it was a classy thing to do, and because it would make them happy for a few minutes, and because it made us feel less like workers and more like the wealthy overclass who breezed by us, occasionally pressing bills into our hands.

But when my friend tips his Uber driver (whether or not it was a particularly smooth ride) and I don’t, or when Joe’s Crab Shack reveals that only some of its restaurants will be tip-free ... I’m confused.

I came to expect tips and to develop an ethical system around their give-and-take. We were in the high-end service industry, after all. Since then, however, tipping has seeped into many jobs. Both my teenaged sons work behind counters — one mixing smoothies in a gym, the other serving popcorn at a movie theater — and both come home with a pocketful of tip money after every shift. I’m happy enough for them, but I was a little surprised to learn that people regularly tip for such services. I see people throw a dollar into a barista’s jar for a $2 coffee, and I wonder if I’m cheap when I don’t, or if they’re generous when they do, or if we’re all just a little muddled when it comes to the etiquette of gratuities.

The New York Times recently reported that a number of high-end restaurants in the city have developed a “Gratuity Included” model, and the results have been mixed. The challenge is a delicate balancing act between making sure the waitstaff is receiving a fair wage, the restaurant is profitable and the customers feel good about the transaction, too, given that the power of discretion over a gratuity is out of their hands.

Under the traditional system, waitstaff are paid below minimum wage, and customers are expected to add around 20 percent to their bill to supplement — and to reflect their level of satisfaction with the service. (A 10 percent tip has become an insult, a referendum on poor service, no matter who was to blame for it: the chef, the host, the waitstaff, the dishwashers or the owner.) The Atlantic reported earlier this year that a number of restaurants that had experimented with a no-tip policy were reverting to a gratuity-based system, which had left both waitstaff and customers dissatisfied.

I’ve spent some time in Western Europe, where tipping is not part of the culture. In Ireland during my junior year of college, I left two pounds on the bar for a pint of beer. The bartender returned my change with some force. My tipping gesture was viewed as American arrogance, or extravagance. I didn’t make the mistake again. More recently, I spent a couple of months in France, where a French colleague told me to leave no more than a couple of coins (worth less than a dollar) for a meal, and not to get in the habit of doing that every time. She explained that the issue was one of egalité: everyone should feel comfortable eating at a restaurant in France, and the waitstaff should not pander for a bigger tip from certain customers (especially, it was implied, Americans).

In Ireland during my junior year of college, I left two pounds on the bar for a pint of beer. The bartender returned my change with some force.

Here, tipping is sometimes regarded as a political, rather than cultural, issue. One view holds that the burden of a living wage for restaurant waitstaff should be shared by the staff and the customers and not by restaurant owners. Another view holds that waitstaff at expensive restaurants earn higher tips than their counterparts at cheaper joints because tips are a percentage of the bill. In essence, same work, different money. And yet, another facet of the argument extends to the invisible workers in the back of the restaurant who contribute to the dining experience, but who do not receive tips. One could see the restaurant industry as a metaphor for our economic hierarchy.

Me? I just want to know when to tip and when not to. As a consumer, I want to feel like it’s my decision, but I know better. When Uber and Joe’s Crab Shack decide to promote a gratuity-optional policy, that’s fabulous, as long as the workers are sharing in the profits in an equitable way while the consumers are getting the level of service they expect. But when my friend tips his Uber driver (whether or not it was a particularly smooth ride) and I don’t, or when Joe’s Crab Shack reveals that only some of its restaurants will be tip-free and others will be deliver checks with the percentages for an 18-, 20- or 25-percent tip printed at the bottom, I’m confused. I just want to do the right thing, but I would be grateful if our culture (starting with the industries that frame it) could be consistent.

I’ll volunteer to head back to Europe for a bit if they need a consultant.

Related:

D. Quentin Miller Cognoscenti contributor
D. Quentin Miller is professor and chair of English at Suffolk University. His most recent book is "A Criminal Power: James Baldwin and the Law."

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