Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Tip me over and pour me out

First online groceries' arrival means the apartment now has some food, but stuff like flour and dry pasta. It felt both wonderful and shameful to all of a sudden have these groceries appear, while at home in slippers. While I eagerly await the opportunity to break free of its clutches, I will be heading to the allegedly-shuttle-accessible Whole Foods later simply because I know they sell prepared foods, and I have fond recollections of this thing called "eating," and will need to do some of that before attempting to fit enough semi-perishable food for a month into tote bags. (Bike needs air, rain needs to let up, P needs new passport to get new learner's permit to take driving lessons to get license.) I'm on that odd moving-time system where I occasionally sit down to enough food for a few, then an unpacking marathon ensues and that sense of being about to faint sets in.

And, who knows how to tip an online-grocery delivery person? Googling this question produced the usual spectrum of results, from 'Anything less than handing over your full paycheck is stingy' to 'Why on earth would you tip that guy?' We tried to tip in cash, but the delivery man ran off. There had been an option to tip with your credit card as you order, but that seemed a riskier option, given that we'd never used the service before - what if they never showed up? And aren't tips generally in cash?

Tipping, as I've mentioned on WWPD before, is endlessly confusing. There are a few hard-and-fast rules (15-20% in a restaurant/20% for a delivery or more if it started pouring since you ordered and the delivery is by bike, a dollar per drink at a bar, 20% or so for cabs/hairdressers), but even there, there's little agreement on whether 20% is generous or the bare minimum, on whether tipping low or not at all is an acceptable response to poor service, or akin to not paying.

And other than restaurant workers, whose pay virtually everyone (American) knows is below minimum wage because tips are assumed, the rationale/necessity of a tip is a bit of a mystery. I, for one, don't know why it is I tip in these other situations, other than that I know it's what's done. I've never looked into it, because I doubt it would impact my tipping in either direction. We did tip our building staff at Christmas both years, and I don't recall exactly how much, but I never figured out what was the correct amount to tip when sharing the lowest-rent apartment in a big renters-and-owners condo tower, where one makes less than the doormen, but obviously you tip in a restaurant even if you're unemployed...

My only experience on the receiving end of tipping, I made more than minimum wage (not much more) in a coffee bar, but this was a coffee bar in Park Slope, and thus all kinds of not representative of anything. I was happy to have that extra pay, but it didn't seem more merited than in other jobs I'd had, where the work had also been strenuous and the pay low.

And to keep the anecdata flowing, I tend not to like pampering-type experiences (food-delivery/spa/nail/anything-to-do-with-hair-beyond-twice-yearly-cuts), wasn't even in favor of living in a doorman building when against all odds an affordable apt. in one presented itself (but was ultimately persuaded by the sweet, sweet dishwasher), so my experience of the wide world of American tipping skews towards things like confronting a tip jar at a Greenmarket stand or purveyor of local dairy, or getting a cup of coffee at a Village hole-in-the-wall, situations in which a privileged-enough consumer might be assumed, but not quite luxury in the sense the term is generally used. So I've seen a disproportionate amount of tip-solicitation in unlikely places, a disproportionately small amount of its use in thank-you-kind-sir-for-fetching-that-for-me situations.

The latest Dear Prudence has set forth much debate on the question what to tip hotel housekeeping - a question addressed but never resolved in one of the L.A. episodes of "Seinfeld" - bringing up the following Big Questions:

-What do you do about the fact that in many arenas, it's simply not known/agreed upon if any tip should be given, let alone what it should be? Prudie was way off calling the letter-writer who'd never even heard of tipping in hotels a "cheapskate."

-Are consumers of services expected to know what employees get paid, and to make up for the difference between that and what they should (in the consumer's opinion) be paid with tips? Or is a tip just a way of saying, 'your job seems way crappier than mine, here's a penny for your troubles'?

-Even if in most cases, the served is better-off than the server and could totally afford to round up, that's not always true. Must each interaction include an assessment of relative privilege? And what if, in an individual case, the server's better off? The customer still comes off as cheap, and if he goes into how he's actually just poor/broke, will have to explain what he was doing in whichever establishment in the first place - a relevant question, maybe, at the Four Seasons, but in many more tip-ambiguous situations not so much. Isn't there an easier (and less personally intrusive) way?

The problem is that there are so many entirely valid excuses one might give:

-Not all difficult and poorly-compensated jobs come with the expectation of tips (a thought I had more than once while shelving books at the college library). Why some and not others? If one-time food-service workers are said to be good tippers for life, where does that leave one-time no-tip-but-otherwise-similar-job sorts?

-Obviously everyone, especially the not-super-well-paid, is happy to be handed extra cash; obviously if work was done, that money counts as earned. But do we think that all interactions between one party who could use $10 more than the other party should include a handing-over of that cash? If so, wouldn't the answer be to channel money - via taxes, large-scale-like - away from the rich? Isn't the tip just a way of making individuals feel like they've done their part, when they've only helped a few people who happen to be visible in their day-to-day lives?

-The 'where does it end?' objection generally comes across as the complaint of the cheap. The counterargument goes: so what if we're now expected to tip at the grocery store, the fish counter, for the black coffee poured into a paper cup at an establishment that doesn't even have seating. Surely all those workers could use the money, at least in upscale neighborhoods. To which the response must be: the proliferation of tip-jars and tip-expectations blurs the line between tips that actually make up for super-low wages and those that don't?

-They should educate themselves! replies the interlocutor. But the Internet provides the full range of opinion, and any site at all tied to whichever industry will explain that any tip under 30% is appalling. Confusion ensues, and there are no doubt customers whose refusal to tip in a restaurant stems from not seeing the difference between that tip and the ubiquitous jar-solicitations.

Or, in more general terms, the question is whether it's beneficial (and it's clear enough where I stand) not to have fixed prices for goods and services, but rather to leave it up to a highly subjective interaction in which a great number of variables having zilch to do with the level of service provided (stinginess and genuine confusion, genuine desire to properly compensate and a for-others attempt at showing off wealth/compassion) impact the ultimate price.

There is - paging PG - no doubt need for a systematic look at which route better-distributes wealth or, in more neutral terms which more appropriately compensates labor: the liberal guilt/showing-off-of-largesse tip-based system, or establishments just paying their staff a reasonable wage. Do restaurant servers actually end up making more because of the popular understanding that they're poorly compensated unless the individual customer nobly steps up with 25%? Is the income lost when a few don't tip/don't tip well made up for by the whoppers the tip option brings in? My guess would be that this works out in some rare cases, but not many.


Dan O. said...

A less than helpful bit of information:

Drivers in marked, company owned vehicles must be documented employees of that company in order to be covered by the company's insurance. No decent company sends out trucks with their name on it when the truck and driver are not insured. (I'm a small business owner, and we have a truck.) Accordingly, such drivers, in principle, have all the protections that employees have, some of which are denied to restaurant waitstaff and off-the-books employees (e.g. NYC's exploited food delivery people).

I don't know anyone who can keep a driver at $40K. That might not answer your question, but it might change the way you feel about it.

Sigivald said...

there's little agreement on whether 20% is generous or the bare minimum

Depends on where you live, I find.

New Yorkers (such as the WaiterRant guy) tip 20%, because NYC is so damned expensive to live in.

This might make sense in SF or LA, too.

In Phoenix? Salt Lake City? Portland? Even Chicago?

15% is fine.

(I refuse the tyranny of NYC tip schedules, and use the 15% standard as my minimum for restaurants*. Because I don't live in Manhattan, and neither do the wait-staff I deal with.

* Take-out, deliveries, baristas? 10%. I never go to bars, so no drink tips enter into it.)

(On the total compensation option, there's also the point that no servers ever report all of their cash tips; they typically report the lowest plausible amount the IRS might contemplate believing, and pay not a cent of taxes on the rest. And nobody really blames them for this, I hasten to add.

This is still small change in the grand scheme of things, but if they're not working at a cheap diner, that 15% per check, every check, every shift adds up, and the marginal tax break is... not zero.

Whether it's a few percent or as high as ten percent, effectively, it's still an effective bonus.

My understanding is that wait staff at fine dining establishments make significant tip income, but they're naturally outliers facing steep competition and demanding the best service experience.

I mean, if they serve 20 tables a night at $200-300 a table, and thus a $30-45 tip even at 15%, that's serious money - even split among a few servers per table.)

Phoebe said...


Not following the relationship between your comment and my post... What part are you addressing?


Yes, so that's your approach. My point is that none of this is standardized, nor is there any overarching rationale. Maybe tip more in NY, or maybe not, given that in all likelihood restaurant prices themselves will be higher, so keeping the percentage the same wherever you are might be fine. Anyone with a "waiter rant" (and I think I've read/or at least about that guy) will of course describe 20% as almost offensively low, because it's in a waiter's interest to guilt customers into thinking 30% - why not 50%? - is reasonable, and enough Manhattanites, at least, will experience either liberal guilt or a sense that showing off wealth is fun, and will go along with that, to live with themselves or impress their companions, respectively.

It's fine that you have your approach, and I suppose most of us adults have some approach (mine being... what I describe above, plus tipping in coffee bars according to whether I'll be sitting down/ordering a complicated drink or not - black coffee to go should not require a 100% tip, which is about what any tip would be in that case), but my point is about the system of tipping as a whole, whether it's anything but irritating, whether it's actually of any benefit to anyone other than the waitstaff of really upscale restaurants, places that could probably just raise the prices to pay staff well regardless.

Dan O. said...


I was responding to your grocery delivery example. I meant that you're not obliged to tip the grocery delivery person under the circumstances I mentioned (i.e. marked delivery vehicle).

Complexity arises when tipping crosses the line between obligation and supererogation. In this case, like many, it is supererogatory to tip.

I find it distasteful when people try to set standards of supererogation. Generally, I find they're just interested in their own social status. They can **** off. They're probably lying anyway.

Some tipping, like in restaurants, is obligatory. For reasons you covered. I hate it, because a restaurant worker has as much foreknowledge of the price of their labor on a particular night as I have of the price of going to the dentist. Which is why I build in 20% without regard to the quality of the service. Why? Because it's not fair not to know how much your labor is worth.

But your initial example was not such a case, nor was most that you listed. So the answer to "Where does it end?" is easy - wherever you say it does.

Phoebe said...

Ah. Didn't get a look at the side of the vehicle, so n/a in this case.

In terms of obligatory vs. not, the problem there is that the only tips many of us want to provide are precisely the ones that ought to be built into wages in the first place - the restaurant tip being the obvious example. Overpayment out of guilt/showing off, which I completely agree people must lie about all the time, esp. in terms of tipping more when with others they're trying to impress, is kind of what tipping is supposed to be about. That plus rewarding good service. Voluntary above-and-beyond. Wouldn't it be better to eliminate necessary tipping by raising wages in the relevant fields, so that it was clear that all tipping was voluntary?

"So the answer to 'Where does it end?' is easy - wherever you say it does."

But it's not so simple. Because of the ambiguity inherent in which situations call for a tip, it's completely possible to be socially shunned for what many will view as almost having exited a place without paying. If everyone around you thinks latte means a dollar tip, and you put nothing in the jar, or just a quarter, sure, you can explain that the barista makes at least minimum wage, but you still come across looking kind of awful. Norms shift, and if an older generation is barely even aware that these jars exist...

Dan O. said...

"Wouldn't it be better to eliminate necessary tipping by raising wages in the relevant fields, so that it was clear that all tipping was voluntary?"

Yes, because it's fair for workers to know how much their labor is worth. That's how sex workers are exploited - Johns and pimps conspire to obscure the price of their labor. Sex workers are structurally deceived by the expectation of higher prices. If sex workers knew what their labor was really worth, they might not be sex workers. However, waitstaff, like sex workers, can falsely infer from one or two salient windfall profits that the price of their labor is greater than it is actually.

Consequently, consumers in such situations should see tipping as an advantage, because they help set the price for labor (while duping labor into thinking prices are higher).

If tipping schedules become set and mandatory, they may as well be built into to the original price of the service. The only difference is that such scheduled, mandatory tipping supports an underground cash economy. (And when it becomes mandatory and scheduled, the IRS has more reason to audit waitstaff.)

"Norms shift, and if an older generation is barely even aware that these jars exist..."

Yes, but one shouldn't worry about people who make character judgments based on limited viewings on you (or me) tip. Socially shunned over tipping? Again, they can **** off. They're either status obsessed or know-nothings.

The sort of people whose tipping should concern us are people who use a lot of services, and therefore have a lot to say about the price of labor. From what you've said, and no offence intended here please, you're just not such a person.

It's not lost on me (is this lost on anyone?) that the wealthier people I've known aren't great tippers. (BTW, I found that the size of wedding gifts, all other things equal [which excludes graduate students, who can't afford anything], was negatively correlated to wealth.) Because, usually, they're in the business of setting the price of labor. And their business (and how they became wealthy) is keeping prices low.

I'll be very happy when I see wealthy people getting socially shunned for poor tipping. Because that will lead to less labor exploitation. I'm pessimistic.

Phoebe said...


Not offended - I know well enough that I have had far fewer manicures in my life than there are nails to paint.

"Yes, but one shouldn't worry about people who make character judgments based on limited viewings on you (or me) tip. Socially shunned over tipping? Again, they can **** off. They're either status obsessed or know-nothings."

Yes, yes, we're not supposed to care what people think. And first-name-only (or for all I know pseudonym) status as a blog-commenter is an easy place to claim that one couldn't care less. But when it comes down to it, most of us do care, more in some situations than others, fine, but it's hard to even slightly succeed at life if you're totally indifferent to how you're perceived. (Unless you're the guy who just brazenly cut in front of my husband and me at the taco place - then I fully believe that off-line and in real life, you also don't care. But seems unlikely.)

I mean, say you've just started a new job or program. You and a bunch of people you've just met - new friends, colleagues, superiors, whatever - are all lined up to get coffee. If everyone sticks an extra bill in that jar and you don't, this will be conspicuous, and it's in your interest to care, even if you could go the Larry David route and explain that technically speaking you're in the right because a dollar tip on a $1.75 to-go drink, at a place where servers make over minimum wage, is uncalled-for. But it's easier to do as others do, and the pattern will be to round up, given that the reverse looks cheap. Same idea if you're on a date. Once the jar is there, not tipping becomes conspicuous.

Dan O. said...


Ha! I've got more in common with Slopedads than badasses. I have that disappearing/reappearing facial hair, but I do try to be courteous with the stroller. But I also know that other people are way too self-absorbed (not a criticism) to pay much attention to what I do. So when I say they can **** off, 'they' refers to some mythical snob I really never meet.

Unless there's a mythical snob in your life that you wish to deceive into thinking that you're also a mythical snob, I don't even see the prudential point in caring about it. If there is, and you do, that's all good.

I will admit, that conformity is strong motive for action. But conformity is not much subject to reasoning.

PG said...

My understanding is that wait staff at fine dining establishments make significant tip income, but they're naturally outliers facing steep competition and demanding the best service experience.

Yes, but fine dining waitstaff are actually having that tip income reported because it's almost never in cash -- who other than mafioso has $200 in cash for anything other than emergencies? And even in Starbucks, in this day of rewards programs and credit cards I always pay on time and thus never pay interest on, it's better for me to pay by credit card.

Also, I'm both temperamentally and professionally disinclined to help someone with tax evasion. (Tax avoidance is totally different and something we're all doing to the extent we take any credits or deductions.) Waiters enjoy the benefits of the DOD, public schools and police as much or more than I do, so they should pony up their share. It's only meaningful to bitch about how Warren Buffet's peers ought to pay more if you pay what you owe yourself.

A possible solution to tipping dilemmas is to have a really strong system of enforcement for waitstaff labor:
(1) paying a living wage;
(2) but unlike Europeans, having non-unionized labor that's easy to fire and hire so crap waitstaff get weeded out;
(3) but avoiding the typical problems of non-unionized workplaces by strictly prohibiting manager-staff fraternization; closely tracking staff performance in a reviewable manner (to avoid arbitrary firings); and even doing "mystery diner" checks on staff performance to avoid potential improper biases in customers' reactions. (Eg Wall Street guys unjustly giving poor feedback to a waitress in a steakhouse because they expect to get a male server there.)

Then tipping can become something you do based on genuinely outstanding performance (eg a waiter whose menu suggestions perfectly match the kind of food you say you like; who takes care of a spill immediately instead of sending for a busboy; who, if you point out that the wine is off, doesn't try to claim otherwise but takes the bad, barely-drunk glass off the bill).

As for the specific question of what to tip delivery guys, I base it on whether I'm difficult to reach. When I lived in a 5th floor walkup, tip at least 20%; when I lived on the 5th floor of a very nice and accessible doorman building, maybe 10%. They're supposed to be getting paid minimum wage, but carting my food up 4 flights of stairs should be more highly paid than minimum wage.

Phoebe said...


"who other than mafioso has $200 in cash for anything other than emergencies?"

Residents of New Brooklyn? Anything upscale/hipster in NY (restaurants, hair salons) is cash only, right? And Greenmarkets... My sense is that in certain "coastal elite" subsets of the city, people do carry lots of cash.

And, your ideas for making tips the exception make sense to me. I'd almost go further and say that there should be some way to give good feedback to supervisors of impressive waitstaff, so they could get a promotion and thus a raise, thus scrapping the tip altogether, because it would be so complicated to get consumers to realize there still are tips, but they're no longer obligatory. I say this because this is what happens when Americans go to Europe - it feels so wrong, if tipping is possible, to just leave a couple coins.

PG said...

I know nothing about New Brooklyn and very little about hipster-approved restaurants, but almost every upscale restaurant I've been to in Manhattan or Brooklyn takes credit cards. The one memorable exception is Gennaro's, my favorite Italian on the UWS, which had a $20 minimum and was cash only. Everyone else -- Nobu, Le Bernardin, Blue Hill, every NYC restaurant listed in Zagat's, I believe -- is happy to be paid in plastic.

I also don't know much about the opportunities for advancement in the waiting field, so I don't know what would constitute a promotion.

Phoebe said...


Prime Meats, until the NYT told them to be reasonable. Other places in Brooklyn I have actually been to but it's all a blur. Mudhoney salon, a mini-chain in Manhattan, where a cut was maybe $85 and really good, but cash-only.

Re: opportunities for advancement, manager? Recommendations for a better job? Connections to open one's own restaurant? It doesn't seem so far-fetched.

PG said...

That Prime Meats succumbed to the NYT telling them to be reasonable does imply a strong norm of credit card acceptance. The only expensive place I've gotten my hair cut (for $75) was a CC-accepting salon run by Nick something who used to be on What Not To Wear as the hair stylist, so I'm willing to concede the hip/ster part -- ie the kind of places that non NYers don't go may well have a norm against credit :-)

The little I know about being a waiter at restaurants that have been around a long time seems to indicate that the more experienced and more competent waiters might have some training and oversight role with the newbies, but that there isn't really enough work at higher levels of the same enterprise that applies their skills. If you are excellent at client interaction, it's foolish for the restaurant to promote you away from that, and if you're at a nice restaurant where you make a lot in tips, you may not gain much from a better salaried position (especially where local courts/governments are forbidding the forced splitting of waiter tips among non-waitstaff).