Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The end of tipping

A recent article draws attention to several high-end restaurants that have eliminated tipping, and suggests that this might become a trend.  If so, I say good riddance.

I'm glad to have the restaurant increase its prices and eliminate tips.  It's not the money; it's having to figure out how much to leave.  Not the arithmatic, of course, but the psychological burden of deciding how much a person deserves for bringing me food.  The whole server-servee relationship is awkward in America, where no one wants to be a servant and all but the very wealthy feel uncomfortable being served.

The practice of tipping goes back to actual servants, whom masters offered additional incentives for difficult tasks or rewards for a job well done.  Americans originally didn't like the implied master-servant relationship when tipping was introduced from Europe, and the practice was fought on several levels:  some private citizens formed an Anti-Tipping League, while a number of state governments passed laws against tipping (which, however, proved unenforceable).

In principle, tipping gives the customer the opportunity to reward good service or penalize bad service.  In practice, there is very little relationship between the amount of the tip and the quality of the service.  No wonder, since we constantly hear how waiters and waitresses need tip money to make a living wage.  Not leaving a tip often consigns them to a nearly trivial minimum wage of under $3 an hour, so it would take horrible service indeed to warrant that kind of reaction.  If restaurants would pay servers what they earn and need, it would not be on the diner's conscience whether a tip would be sufficient.

Even if restaurants paid their staff more but still allowed tipping, I wouldn't be very happy about it.  Tipping would still be an awkward relationship in which the diner declares that he can spare some money for the underprivileged staff.  (One argument against having higher prices instead of tipping is that poorer people won't be able to eat out.  So you don't have to tip if your income is below a certain amount?  I never see that mentioned in articles about how much to tip.  I've read numerous comments from servers that, if you can't afford the tip, you shouldn't eat out.)

And then there is the awkward relationship between the diners who are eating together but picking up their own checks.  Who wants to seem stingy in the face of one's peers?  This is one of the last holdouts of the noble ethos.  Hundreds of years ago, people liked to show their magnanimity by dispensing money freely, even if they couldn't really afford it.  They weren't supposed to worry about keeping precise monetary accounts because they were about greatness of spirit.  In our mercantile culture, this has died out in almost every other way save tipping.  Few people have qualms about packing up their leftovers to take home -- definitely a bourgeois rather than a noble act -- but many people like to show their generosity by tipping freely.

Perhaps that's why the average tip in America has increased from 10% around 1900 to 18.9% today.  I've heard various numbers recommended throughout my life, from 10% up.  Many suggest 15% or 18% as a minimum nowadays, so I don't know what counts as a generous tip.

I admit it, I don't have the noble spirit.  I like to know how much money is required for goods and services so I can calculate it in advance and not have to worry about it.  Now I have to think about it, not only when being served at a restaurant, but when being served by a barista or when eating at a buffet.  (What am I tipping the waiter or waitress for, I wonder, if I am expected to tip someone at a buffet where I get my own food?)  Not to mention pizza delivery, newspaper delivery, postal delivery, haircuts, taxi rides, coatroom attending, and an ever-expanding array of services.

I'm sorry, my mind isn't wired that way.  It adds stress to my life by forcing me to make the calculation myself whether and how much to tip -- and feeling guilty if I choose too small a tip.  Just tell me the amount, and then I can make a regular economic decision about whether it is worth the money.

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