Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Tipping Point

Assertion: tip jars anywhere one must stand in line to give one's order (such as the "taqueria" where K and I went today) are an abomination, a form of remote buggery. Any questions?

Wow. That's pretty harsh. What's wrong with tipping?

Well, the whole custom is pretty weird.* I think in general it denigrates the service profession. It also is symptomatic of a very ambivalent relationship between tipper and tippee--the implication that the server is at the mercy of the served. This establishes a definite power imbalance and a resulting cognitive dissonance with our belief in a classless society. In Europe, waiting is a fairly esteemed profession, while here it is considered something one does while waiting to sell a screenplay. To a large extent, this is due to the way in which each are paid, and by extension, how each are valued.

When I lived in Detroit, there was a very good restaurant that initially attempted a no-tipping policy: the waitstaff was paid a good hourly wage and an 18% service charge was added to all checks. The experiment flopped. Customers were loathe to relinquish that power. So they went back to the old way.

So, what is the difference between tips for waiters and tips for baristas or tacoistas?

Well, there's not so fine a line between someone who comes to you and who is charged with overseeing your experience, and someone who is essentially a cashier. Do you tip the checkout girl at Kroger?

What about tipping bartenders, then? They stand there, you come to them, and they don't do any more than a skilled coffeeshop jockey.

You don't drink much, do you? Let me put it this way: I can consistently not tip the guy at Starbucks** and yet get roughly the same service. He may not like me, but when it's my turn at the counter, he's gotta serve me. Try stiffing a bartender and tell me how strong your next vodka and tonic is. Bartenders actually enjoy a more or less equal relationship with patrons, because they control the booze--and whether you'll get any. And good bartenders are skilled at an array of nuanced social transactions that are irrelevant to cappucinists. Finally, don't even try to tell me that making a good cafe au lait demands the deft touch required for, say, a perfect Sazerac.

You sound like a total snob. I'm surprised, given all your previous egalitarian invective.

Look, I'm in strong solidarity with anyone who's underpaid. But why should I be goaded into supplementing the wages of someone who is doing what previously required no such expectation of subsidy? In the "true" service professions, for better or for worse, the practice of tipping is entrenched. For a whole host of superficially similar occupations, however, such a custom is an affront and a guilt-trip. The fact that one must set out a container with instructions is an indication that there is something untoward about it. It smells like a racket. And we here at the JoDI don't play tennis.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I spent a good portion of my adult life as a waiter/bartender, and made good money. As a vocation, waiting tables is to be commended for flexibility and the excellent money/time spent at work ratio.

**I don't go to Starbucks and I often leave a nominal tip at [preferred coffee place]. For rhetorical purposes only.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My $0.02.

Funny. Just yesterday I was on an airplane and subjected to a really loud, obnoxious guy having a semi-shouted conversation with two stewardess (flight attendants?) about his job at $BUX. He was whining about the horrid customers who he referred to as "assholes" and the fact that he had to (shudder) "share" his tips and that he only netted about 90-cents/hour in tips. I couldn't think of a person in the universe who less deserved to be tipped or even employed. If you don't like the job, leave. If you don't like the working conditions and pay at a huge corporate employer, unionize. Else, work hard, be trifty, get an education, move on.

I don't tip in jars/cans and any other place organized begging and/or guilt-tripping is suspected.

OTOH, I do tip the guy who drives the airport shuttle I ride a couple times a week because I know he's got a minimum wage salary and actually makes a good living of $20/hour cash in tips to support himself and his family. I don't begrudge him the $ at all since he's in a position of no power at all in his starter/new-immigrant job.

I hate tipping hairdressers who I know own their shops, but I don't mind at all tipping employee or rent-a-space hairdressers.

Tipping is a strange universe.


3:23 PM  
Blogger goliard said...

I tip my hairdresser 20% on average, I tip the dunkin donut's girls cause they set out a pink cup, and never slow down (it could be all that caffeine...). I tip the guys who occasional dig and suck out my sewer, 5 a piece, 'for beer'. Tipping is a strange universe, indeed. I tend to favor the heavy side in order to improve my service on a regular basis- (it works). I tip my massage therapist double the fee, but balk at having to donate two bits to the bums selling papers in the intersections.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Umaga said...

cool post. i agree.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I worked at Starbucks for 3 years, and earned an average of $3/hr. There -is- a difference between a grocery cashier and a barista. The average cashier cannot serve 100 customers in half an hour, preparing what amout to mixed drinks. There is no skill in sliding an item across a scanner.

Like bartending, the quality of a coffee drink is dependent on the skill of the barista. Like bartending, your tips can make the difference between that free extra shot of expresso for favorites, and decaf for jerks. Like bartending, a barista has the opportunity to, and often does, establish a relationship with regulars. There is a level of service and skill that goes above and beyond a grocery cashier, or McD's employee. (I agree that tip jars don't belong in most fast food establishments.)

Tipping is always the customer's perogative, and those receiving the tip, in any setting, must earn it.

1:09 AM  

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