3.02.2006

To tip or not to tip

What is the deal with tipping?

This is a question that continues to plague me. I understand that tipping evolved as a societal norm over many centuries, and that according to this article, a main reason to tip is "avoiding embarassment." Sounds like a basic case of social pressure to me.

But the way I see it, tipping has one purpose. You tip to motivate the staff. In a restaurant, where service is key, the waiter knows that if he is extra-polite and brings you free refills and tells you a joke and laughs at your joke, he will get a good tip. If, on the other hand, he forgets your ketchup and spills your water and disappears for twenty minutes, he will get a bad tip. Or no tip. It's all very straightforward.

But like I said, this is a setting where service is key. There are plenty of situations where service is unimportant, or bad, or nonexistent. And yet, tip jars are cropping up all over the place!

At a takeout counter, for example, is a tip appropriate? I was picking up dinner from California Pizza Kitchen the other night, and when I went to sign the receipt for my credit card, there was a line for the tip. Wait, on takeout? I stood paralyzed for at least ten seconds. I decided not to, then immediately felt guilty as I handed the pen back to the guy at the counter. I mean...maybe he deserved an extra two dollars. He was nice on the phone, I guess, and handed me my bags with a smile. But was that smile fake? Did he just want a tip? How can I ever be sure?

Then, there's the tip jar at Caribou Coffee. I don't know, dude. You're being chipper, and asking with a knowing smile if I want to leave room for cream, but I'm not sure that's worth a dollar either...although you are on your feet for 8-hour shifts and surely must deal with customers less accommodating than me. Maybe you do deserve a dollar! But should I be the one to give it to you? You just poured hot water for my tea! Surely my quarters are better spent on my parking meter!

As you can see, I feel more conflicted with each new tipping situation.

The best was Cold Stone's, my old favorite. The girl was half-asleep as she mashed oreos into my ice cream, and then handed me my bag without the slightest hint of eye contact. Right next to the register is the big tip jar. This jar annoys me on many levels. First, for its very presence. Your ice cream is already overpriced! Then, it says "For fun well done." Um, I had no fun. This was a very basic transaction - money for ice cream. And then, it's clear plastic, so you can see the 'other dollars' dropped in by 'nicer customers than you.' I don't know. It feels like they would put a couple dollars in just to make you feel bad, like now your fifty cents isn't good enough. At least here, I felt no cognitive dissonance as I walked away, change in my pocket.

The essential question here is, does tipping ensure good service? It seems like in restaurants, or airport curbs, or hair salons, it might. But in all these food service/retail environments, asking for tips feels a bit audacious. Some might say, "Ask and you shall receive." I say, "Ask and you might receive - but you WILL annoy your customers and you WON'T improve your service." So skip the tip jar, and focus on good service. I'll give you a tip when you've earned it.

7 comments:

Stacy said...

I think the whole "expected tip" phenomenon is interesting. When I worked as a waitress in a higher-end chain restaurant, the waiters would mill around in the back and complain about ONLY getting a 15% tip. It was common knowledge within that culture that 20% was now expected. When and how did 15% ever become the norm in the first place? And when and how was it eventually replaced by 20%? (If it indeed was replaced.) There must have been a point where 20% went from being "for exceptional service" to "for adequate service." It's almost commonplace in restaurants now that, if you're in a big party and the tip is included, it's going to be between 18% and 20%.

The other thing is that people are expected to tip waiters because it's common knowledge that they only make about $3.00 an hour in their paychecks, so you know that they're "working for tips." A coffee barista or ice cream scooper, assumedly, makes a higher salary, maybe $8.00 or $10.00 an hour, I'm guessing. They're not really working for tips like a waiter is. So, I usually figure they don't need it in the same way, and I leave that tip jar empty.

george said...

have you seen the first 10 minutes of Reservoir Dogs? There's a long discussion all about tipping and why tipping is expected in some circumstances (like diners and coffee shops) and then not in others (at McDonalds for instance). It's a good piece, right before all the shooting starts.

Elliott said...

I know at Starbucks the paycheck started at $8 I think. I generally leave my change, not a dollar, unless I'm being really annoying and complicated. I'm one of those people that orders a vanilla skim mocha with whip, which is not a normal drink on any level, so I don't mind leaving whatever change I get from my bill. When I worked there, I only got annoyed at the people who were really really persnickety and made you do all kinds of above and beyond stuff for them and didn't leave any change or anything. (Example: This one guy wanted coffee that we were not brewing that day, so we had to find a bag in the back, open up a brand new one, grind up the beans and make him his own special cup with a French Press. Not only did he not leave change, he acted very put out that he had to wait longer.) If someone was just getting a coffee, I never expected them to tip. I mean, I'm just pouring them some coffee and ringing them up.

I ignore the tip lines on my reciept at places like Potbellies, because... I mean, c'mon. It's like high-end fast food. I'm interacting with people for like, two seconds. I think that kind of stuff may be for like, if you go to that same potbellies every day for lunch and the same person helps you every day or maybe they even know what time you'll be there and what you're going to have so they have your sandwich ready for you, then you may want to give them the extra buck because they're really part of your day. We had a few regular people like that at Starbucks.

The ironic thing that I noticed about tipping when I was barista and bartender was that the people who worried about tipping and tipped appropriately were usually the people who were the easiest and nicest to serve and also the people who seemed like they didn't have gobs of money to spare. The assholes, the demanding people and the most apparently wealthy generally stiffed.

sara said...

Wow, elliott, what a sad-but-true observation. It seems to make sense - the wealthy a-holes are the stingiest too. (Though this keeps me up at night: did they become wealthy BECAUSE they are stingy?)

You know, I often worry that I am over-tipping, like that if I give my hairdresser more of a tip than last time, that the next time, he'll expect even more. But here, I think you're right - you are building a relationship. This person becomes part of your routine, and you want to maintain a high level of service. Maybe they'll throw in free toner or a head massage next time.

Elliott said...

I will say that I tip my hairdresser well and she always brings me a beer right when I get there. :-)

Also, when I was bartending, there were a few regulars who I knew well and I always went out of my way to make their cosmos to taste and they occasionally got a free one thown in. And you know how Jeremy tips. I have gotten more free drinks when out with him than any other person.

I think you're right. It's about building a relationship.

Steve Portigal said...

Eeyew. Hair in your beer.

Elliott said...

Silly Steve, she always warns me to cover my beer when it is necessary.