Friday, October 3, 2008

TIPPING: do we have to?

Full disclosure.
I don’t think tipping is a good thing
and I don’t like what it does to people. I also believe that hardly anybody except for a few scattered bloggers will agree with me.

Tipping is deeply embedded in American culture which means we have access to hundreds of books and articles about the etiquette and how-to’s of tipping, a compendium of tipping situations with guidelines to what constitutes an appropriate tip. You won’t however find a debate about whether tipping is a good or bad thing, such controversy does not exist. But, whether I agree with it or not, the tipping industry does exist, to the tune of $17 billion a year, when last measured.

Politically correct tipping wisdom boils down to two questions:

First, when and whom should I tip? Should I tip the owner, the funeral director, the mover, the valet, the blackjack dealer, the bathroom attendant, the hairdresser, the UPS guy? Somewhere, somehow, the pundits and legislators of tipping have drawn a line in the sand so that we must tip the bartender and barista but not the barrister, the street musician but not the orchestra conductor or subway conductor, the taxi driver but not the bus driver or airline pilot, the one who delivers pizza but not the one who delivers babies.
Once these fundamental lines about who and when have been drawn, the science part if you will, we ask the second question: how much the tip should be? Here is where art and heart come in, your personal beliefs and values, your assessment of the person to be tipped, your own history, experience and standards combining with what society and tradition dictate.

These raise thorny questions about what size tip constitutes the minimum, the punitive, the reward, the insulting, the generous. Mulling over the size and variability of the tip converts us into teachers, parents, judges, soul mates, social workers, psychologists, social activists and who knows what else.  Tipping's more than the tip.

Since I am against tipping, all these questions of course become moot. I can’t shake off the conviction that the employer, not the guest, should be responsible for the employee’s income even though I understand that a good service person can take home a lot more money generate than any fixed wages the employer might offer.

I’m a survivor and I try not to consciously provoke social disapproval and I quite like having friends who like me. So, I confess. I do tip. Of course I do. I have to. Reluctantly perhaps, but every single time. I’m an average tipper, doing what etiquette dictates but not expressing myself through either excessive or miserly tips. For me, tipping is not a way to applaud or chastise or bond with those who serve me. I feel uncomfortable with the idea of regulating somebody else’s behavior by arbitrarily loosening or tightening my purse strings.

If I were to paint a picture that would illustrate the tipping transaction, it would be about hands: I would have the waiter standing with his hands open and the sated eater sitting at the table with his wallet or purse open, as he riffles through the coins and bills. In this picture, power is clearly in the hands of the diner, the patron, the tipper, with a moat thrown between him and the tippee.

Michael Lynn, an authority on tipping at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, describes the economically irrational aspects of tipping—that is, the rewarding of behavior over which one has no control because it is already past. He argues that tipping reflects the customer’s embarrassment at being in a superior financial position vis-à-vis the server, a left-over from the British class system where tipping those socially inferior serves to display one’s own wealth and to underline the imbalance of status and power.

I was happy to find a kindred spirit in the person of Peter Tupper, a writer for the British Columbia-based daily online magazine The Tyee. Describing tipping as a “Class struggle, one meal at time” Tupper expands:

"Tipping is the front line in the class struggle, where pocket change for one side means a decent living for the other. The implied threat of sabotage by slighted tippees goes back to the days of vails. There are apocryphal tales of traveler's baggage being tagged with discreet chalk marks, indicating their tipping proclivities to initiated servants, or diners being pursued outside the establishment as a not-so-gentle reminder. More recently, one hears about various bodily fluids added to orders. Poor service was the more common retaliation.

Even in the Soviet Union, tipping was ubiquitous enough to prompt disdainful editorials, calling it a "survivor of capitalism" that "humiliates the honor of men."

Many etiquette guides preface their sections on tipping by saying that the practice itself is disagreeable. Not only does it add an extra expense and element of complexity to dining out, it reminds people of a time when servants were dependent on the generosity of their social superiors. Others say that management has somehow shifted the responsibility for servers having living wages to the customers.”

Tupper ends by saying: “I've lived mainly off freelance work for the past few years, and if there's anything worse than working for tips, it's freelancing.”

But Gail Podstupka confidently disagrees with me—and with Tupper. I interviewed her on the waterfront deck of one of my favorite local restaurants, The Old Mill in Mattituck, New York, where she is a successful waitress. She likes her work and feels that she is as much if not more in control of the relationship with the people she serves as they are. She does not feel at all oppressed or condescended to although sometimes international customers can create differences in expectations.

I’m glad Gail is my waitress and I’m glad she feels her tips even out in the end to twenty percent but that doesn’t deny the existence of tipping anxiety, a dynamic that in my experience women are much more heir to than men.

How many times have I been with my women friends, a group of three or four of us huddled, looking at each other, staring at the bill in front of us, intimidated by the calculations that await us, voices lowered, brows furrowed, wondering what happens if we double the tax and add a bit, what’s that, let’s make it another $5, divide by four, what’s that, she was really nice, she brought the bread and drinks so quickly and she didn’t complain when I spilled the wine, god that was so embarrassing…this is probably not an unfamiliar scene to you!

Empathizing because once upon a time they themselves may have been on the other side of the table, my friends remember their own experiences, righting the wrongs done to them in those former lives, while our harried but patient waitress pretends to be oblivious to the small passion play being enacted behind her back.
But whatever my peculiar quasi-socialist beliefs may be, tipping in our culture has become mandatory, a fact of life, a social contract. By going into a restaurant you agree to tip the service staff. By violating the agreement you are a curmudgeon at best and unethical at worst.  In America today, you ignore the conventions at your peril.

Consider the meaning and provenance of the word ‘tipping‘. It is said that the word T-I-P-S has its roots in ‘To insure prompt service’ which may indicate that once upon a time tips were offered as an incentive before service was provided. In Germany, Trinkgeld, or drinking money is the word for tips, the same idea as the French pourboire. In the Middle East it’s baksheesh. To me at least, all these terms have an air of condescension or trivializing about them.

I visualize the word being accompanied by a pat on the head or a turning away as the patron leaves the Trinkgeld on the table or hands it to the taxi driver. Tipping is not usually accompanied by a fulll-faced eye exchange as it is, for example, in when one gives a birthday gift or presents the hostess with a bunch of flowers. This suggests to me that a tip is an unequal exchange—on one end is the donor, benefactor, patron, on the other is the grateful recipient, metaphorically at least raising his hand to touch his forehead in a weak salute or perhaps a tug of his forelock in fealty or deference.
The waiter (and I include here all the people who expect a tip to augment their income, bell boys, messengers, taxis, croupiers, belly dancers) does not know in advance to what extent his special attentiveness or his perfunctory or even neglectful service will bring a reward. In that sense, it‘s a loose relationship between cause and effect and an unpredictable business proposition (even though there has been much academic and field research about what increases or decreases tip size—bending on one’s knees while describing the menu is apparently a good thing to do). 

Ultimately the size of the tip depends on the mood of the one signing the cheque. The waiter has no choice in the matter—except perhaps to refuse the tip but I’d be surprised if that happens very often.
Anthony Nigrel does duty both as bartender and waiter in the same restaurant where I found Gail. His friendly open manner and his enthusiasm about the positive relationship between the way he performs and the way he is rewarded does not prevent him from acknowledging the tension that can surround the ritual and reality of what happens at tipping time, when actual money is transferred from one person’s hand to the other. He describes it as ‘demeaning’ and ‘awkward’ to wait and watch as the diner riffles through his wallet or her purse, deciding whether to pull out a $5, $10 or $20 bill. 
So, tipping's all about power?

Urban legends abound (and maybe some are urban truths) about the secret ingredient that might be added to a dish sent back to the kitchen. You know what I am talking about. What is TIPS spelled backwards? That was the sly question asked by one waiter who seems to know what he’s talking about. Complain at your peril! or resign yourself to anxious uncertainty when the waiter comes back from the kitchen with the newly improved dish you rejected. Rather than make yourself crazy you may very well decide to keep the dish, not to complain and, perhaps—or not—reduce the size of your tip.   Now who has the power?

Tipping is one thing in America but can be quite different in other cultures where it is shaped by fewer assumptions and rules. Sociologists point out that tipping tends to be more widespread in countries where people feel uneasy in the physical presence of unequal relationships and clear status differences. Think about tipping, as a kind of very temporary income redistribution and you can see how it might work to briefly reduce that inequality although ironically the tip is itself a statement about that unequal relationship.

American tourists are often confused by tipping etiquette in other countries and feel more comfortable doing what they are used to back home which in turn has altered the cultures in those countries.

In former or presently Communist regimes-- China, Russia, Kosovo, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Cuba for example, tipping is not expected. This is also true in Israel, whose early settlers arrived in the country with socialist principles. In some European countries, where a service fee is automatically included in the bill, tipping is considered unnecessary although sometimes small coins may be left on the table as a token of appreciation.
In some Asian countries, tipping for services other than food can be frowned upon. Although globalization is changing the tipping landscape, tips have not traditionally been expected or required in Malaysia, Phillipines, South Korea, Taiwan Japan, Iceland or Norway. In New Zealand and Australia, tipping can be considered condescending, rude or insulting, raising the specter of servitude, In England one might tell a taxi driver to “Keep the change” although the driver may be as likely to round the fare downwards!
Psychological theories and international anthropology aside, I would much prefer not to think about money—my wallet or the server’s income-- while I’m eating at a restaurant, even if the menu prices make such thinking inevitable. The complexities of tipping create an unpleasant finale to a meal, with money the last thing one processes after draining the coffee cup and before standing up to leave. I will always think tipping is not a good thing!
Tipping is also available as a podcast. In the radio series Tidings from Hazel Kahan, it was produced by Tony Ernst and broadcast on WPKN on September 25, 2008.