"If you can't afford to tip, then don't eat out!" someone tweeted to me when I asked for thoughts on tipping, being tipped, and the general world of customer-service jobs in America.
And, while most people I spoke to -- on both sides of the table -- agree with this, it's a sad fact that in many states, people who work in industries where they may get tipped are not required to be paid the Federal minimum wage. For many waiters, tips are not simply an extra show of gratitude for a job well done or a nice little bonus in addition to their usual wage, but a necessity in supplementing that low wage.
In the Feb. 26 New York Times CityBlog, writer David Sax goes on a rampage against tipping, comparing tipping wait staff and taxi drivers with tipping the pilot of an airplane:
Sure, you're in the service industry. But doesn't that mean that my gratuity should be a reward for better service, or at least an incentive? It sure wasn't to the taxi driver the other night, who sped through two red lights, hopped a cement divider (nearly toppling his SUV) and then strongly "suggested" that I elect the 25 percent tip option on the credit card payment system. Maybe if I had paid up, his next passenger would have had a smoother ride.
Oh, sure, I'm cheap. But not as cheap as your boss, apparently, who figures he can pay you the minimum wage of $4.65 for servers, and the customer will just pick up the rest of your living expenses.
Imagine if everyone did that. As you file out of the airplane, there's the pilot, standing with his palm outstretched like a doorman who just let you into the hotel: "Hope you enjoyed your flight. Ahem, bit of a rough landing there, ahem. Not too easy to pull off, you know. Oh, why thank you, sir. You shouldn't have."
Joe, 33, who works at a restaurant in NYC's posh Soho neighborhood, says, "I'm a waiter. I live off of tips. It is a stupid system, and service people too often expect 20 percent or more. But an editorial like this is not a beginning to positive discourse or even a worthwhile attempt at investigating a solution to a problem. It was created purely to inflame people in the service industry, and crotchety penny-pinchers like the author ..."
(Mr. Sax's article did indeed get quite a bit of feedback, from both those who agree and those who disagree.)
I spoke with people who have taken tip-oriented jobs for a variety of reasons -- including people who lost more stable, salaried jobs due to the economic downturn.
K, who asked that her name not be used, says, "I recently picked up a restaurant gig, and I'm astonished at how some people are poor tippers. My personal opinion is that all customers should tip at least 20 percent. I know that's high, but this is how we earn a living. Most servers do not receive house pay; we work solely on tips. We're going back and forth, bringing you drinks, making sure your water glass is full, keeping your table neat, making sure your courses to get your table on time, speaking with you (sometimes at length) about the ingredients in the dish, making your coffee/cappuccino/latte/tea, you name it! Believe it or not, even after exceptional service, some folks will only tip a measly 10 percent."
Sasha, 28, a waitress in Manhattan, reminds us that "many restaurants are tip-pooling establishments. Which means most employees have their hands on a portion of that 20 percent gratuity -- not just the server or bartender you think you are leaving the tip for." So your 15 percent to 20 percent goes not only to the person who took your order and brought your beer, but to the busboys, dishwashers, table runners, barbacks, and bartenders, and often to the host/hostess as well.
Jennifer, a hairstylist in her late 30s, says, "I always appreciate a tip but understand not everyone can afford to be generous. My tips range greatly from person to person, as I'm sure they do for waitress/waiters. But I don't get paid minimum wage so its not as bad if someone isn't that appreciative. I do think that when the person loves what you did to make them look better, they should tip appropriately."
Eric, 34, who spent some time waiting tables in Waltham, MA, during college says, "I never felt entitled to tremendous tips, and seldom became embittered if someone gave 15 percent instead of 20 percent. The demeanor of the customer made all the difference; unpleasant and rude diners who are poor tippers are going to be aggravating."
Wallace, who has spent time tending bar and waiting tables in New York and Pennsylvania, says, "I honestly almost never count the tips that a table leaves me. I just have fun working and if a bad tip will make me mad, why would I want to get mad?"
Greg, 33, in Boston, Mass., asks, "Is it just me or did 15 percent use to be standard and you'd bump it up a few more if service was really good? Now it seems like the standard is 18-20 percent. Why is that? (It can't be inflation because the rise in food prices have that covered.)" But he still tips above average even when he receives poor service: "When I have [poor] service I'm like, 'Oh. I'll teach her. She's only getting 17 percent!'"
Marie, who's in her mid-60s, from Durham, N.H., says, "I do think there is the expectation that you will leave at least a 15 percent tip. I think when I was younger 10 percent was pretty typical." Though Marie never worked as a waitress or bartender, two of her children work, at least part-time, in the service industry, and she says, "Of course now that I have had a waitress daughter and a bartender daughter, I think of 20 percent as the normal gratuity. And will give more sometimes for service/attention above expectation."
Greg, in Boston, has never worked a customer service job "except one holiday season when I sold Christmas trees for some extra money. I was being paid $10 an hour (under the table), and I didn't expect people to tip me for tying the tree to their roof -- that was my job. But a buck or two was appreciated every now and then." He explains, "I treat most jobs that don't depend on tips like that -- like when my gas is filled up on a cold night. I appreciate the effort and I throw a buck his way."
After being laid off from a design job a few years ago, John, 36, took a job as a bartender. He views the whole situation in a more idealistic manner:
I don't know if tipping encourages good service, or if good service is demanding of a tip. I feel like I come across both attitudes. Often, the concept gets downgraded to merely service demanding a tip. Something about that feels unfortunate. I realize how much tips mean to someone in that service industry, so as a patron, I tend to tip very well. Sometimes it's out of the understanding that this is how these people support themselves. If it's a slow night at the bar for someone I may tip generously because I remember all the dead nights I tended and went home light. Or, if it's busy I may tip generously in the hopes that the tender will remember me on my next round and I may not have to wait as much or will get a decent pour. In either case I tend to tip well, unless the service is glaringly lacking. Even then, however, it's difficult for me to tip poorly.
A good experience leads to tipping, and tipping leads to a good experience.
Many people I spoke with do tip based on service and personality. Marie in Durham mentioned that her husband tips mostly on personality, not on service. And K, that new-to-waitressing girl, related this story, from the other side of the table:
Last night my roommate and I went out to have dinner at a French restaurant. I had steak frites, she had fish bouillabaisse. I had wine with dinner, she had a cocktail. We ate at the bar. The bartender was a Frenchman who was not only extremely pleasant to look at, but very nice and easy to talk to. He even gave us a small sample of a licorice absinthe because we were curious as to what it was. He didn't seem bothered at all but in fact, quite pleased that we were there asking questions, etc... I had a calvados after dinner then kindly asked for the check. The bill was $75.
We tipped him $18, a little over 20%. Why? Because I felt it was the right thing to do. He was very personable, we felt comfortable, he even showed us pics of his newborn from his iPhone -- but most of all, he was knowledgeable of the food and drinks he served. He was a professional.
And that's the point, isn't it? The people who are taking your order, serving your drinks, and removing your dirty dishes are all professionals. They have good days and they have bad days, but, at the end of the day it's their job to give you the best experience they are able to.
While I don't disagree with Mr Sax's view that a high tip being expected seems to go against the point of a tip being a gratuity, I know that people need to make a living wage -- to pay their bills, feed their family, buy health insurance -- and the current way employers pay their waitstaff in the majority of the country just isn't doing it.