Tipping On “Service” Not Action

Now, more than ever, as jobs remain scarce and those who are working even feel “lucky” to be in a job that they “loathed” a few months ago, we have to work that much harder to be noticed and appreciated. Americans find themselves tightening their wallets and becoming more aware of how they spend money. Sound familiar? At the same time, service standards have dropped, but tipping, in general, has increased. Why? Has the culture of “rewarding mediocrity” (more on this later) become such an illness that we can’t shake it?

Recently, I started to notice that there seems to be a tip jar just about everywhere you see a cash register. 10 years ago we would be aghast to be expected to tip in most of the places it’s expected of us today. The “take a penny — leave a penny” trays have been evicted from their prime cash-wrap real estate to make room for this tip jar. Today, the tip jar is popping up in some unexpected places; recently I saw one at a local tag sale! But also at less extreme locations: coffee shops, gas stations, convenience stores, pizzerias and deli counters — locations where, at first glance, tipping seems less out of place. But when I thought about it I had to ask myself “Tipping for what exactly?” It seems that performing a standard part of a job description has become an opportunity to ask for tips. And tip jars, by their very presence, have begun to convey a certain expectation or obligation, to the point where my friends and I realize that we feel guilty if we don’t leave a tip.

Don’t think this complacency about tipping is so bad? See if you can relate to the following: Almost every morning I go to my local coffee joint (one of those chains that make their entire profit by dispensing coffee and a few baked items all day, every day, mostly from people who order the same thing, the same way, every day). I’ve noticed — thanks to my travels — that tip jars are a cross-country staple on their counters. And I tip every time I’m there — usually, whatever loose change is left. But here’s the thing: they don’t know my name or seem to acknowledge that they’ve seen me before, rarely say hello or good morning, inconsistently smile and never — ever — offer me a cup on the house. Not that I ever expect a free cup, but admit it yourselves: when you frequent a place sometimes twice in one day and see the same people over and over again one would think that they would get to know what I want? Is it just me, or are you in this trap, too?

For me, a tip is for rewarding something. After all, I simply ask for a cup of drip coffee. The server then fills one, takes my money and makes change. In my eyes, this does not warrant a tip. Yet the tip jar is there, staring me in the face. And for some strange reason, I’m drawn to tip anyway. Why? Because we have become programmed that way. “Seeing a tip jar must mean we should leave a tip”, right?”_so we do. But should we feel this obligation “just because” it’s there? What’s next, the ATM machine prompting me with a tip option?

Let’s clear something up: I mean absolutely no disrespect for the jobs I’m using as my examples. During school, I worked retail, and I know what it means to have the changing schedule, sore feet, and customers who don’t ever make eye contact, never mind the ones that are outright rude. And I know very well that there are service jobs — restaurant wait staff, particularly — who are “expected” to live off their tips and so their base wage is low. But even so, I can’t — I won’t — reward staff for simply showing up and doing the minimum expectation of the job. I’d prefer to tip for something above and beyond that — wouldn’t you? So I’m not saying “don’t tip anymore”, I’m saying “Yes, DO tip — but don’t do it automatically or else it won’t make a difference.”

Still not sure you agree with me? Well then, if a tip jar is okay in a coffee place, then what about the checkout people at the supermarket who, besides scanning each item and taking my money are required to bag the groceries? The extra-cheerful girl at Register Lane 5 who never packs canned goods on top of your eggs: why not tip her? Would you automatically do it if the tip jar showed up there one day? Would you even question it? It’s likely most people wouldn’t.

Think about this: If we are going to be so generous, why are we so inconsistent? We do not routinely tip other service providers such as house painters, plumbers, carpenters, or that one person who we trust most with or beloved pets, the veterinarian. Or maybe you’re someone who does — and if so, it’s probably because they are actively “doing” something where the result of their service seems to generate a different type of thanks — the kind associated with safety and security. But I think most people don’t tip in these situations. More likely they tip on “perceived need”, discriminating based on “income” or “job status”, so are feeling compelled to tip those needing it most. (Like those waiters and waitresses I mentioned above.) Okay, I’ll buy that — who doesn’t want a feel-good moment, right? Or maybe we just like the power-trip aspect of tipping: “Look at me, I can afford to give you my loose change.”

Let me return to my point: tipping should be for service you receive, not a foregone conclusion. I propose a simple decision-making premise: Action (doing the basics of the job) should be the price of entry to keep one’s job. While service (going above and beyond the basic requirements) should make one eligible for a well-deserved tip. Would you tip a carpenter who managed to hammer in a nail properly every time? Of course not — that’s the “price of entry” for that job. You really are not obligated to reward mediocre service.

Back to mediocrity! Maybe that’s the real culprit. We have begun to be swallowed by a culture that rewards mediocrity. Sure, there have always been people who have done “just enough” to get by, but never have they been rewarded as they are now. Imagine if after a baseball game everyone got a trophy just for showing up — not only the winning team or best players but everyone. Oh wait, that’s already happening — in many Little Leagues. Does it help kids feel valued? Sure. But what does it teach them about the rewards of doing their best? Think about how that kind of reward structure might manifest itself in their adult lives. I think mediocrity is a dangerous, slippery slope in this country; almost a disease. How does any disease spread? When no one does anything to stop it, and no one takes precautions against it. How does a disease grow stronger? When you feed it. So, if we continue to reward mediocre service we lower the bar again, and subconsciously reward the server that they never need to do more. It’s a vicious circle.

But, what if you think you have no choices, and you’re in situations where tipping seems mandatory? This next section is designed to help you out. You actually do have choices; you always do.  Here are the most popular tip mistakes one can make in these “pressure tipping” situations:

A Taxi driver– Tipping is customary, but never mandatory. However, if you do get to your destination safe and sound give your driver a 10-20 percent tip, depending on how good you felt the level of service was (i.e. handled your bags carefully, drove safely or used your requested route, the air conditioning/heating worked well, or — my favorite — did not talk on the phone). Do note, though, if you are paying by credit card — in New York and other cities where these devices make it possible — it may appear that you must give a minimum amount of 15%-20% as a tip. Wrong. You can tip less, you just need to carefully follow the prompts.  

Waiter or waitress- Why tip if service was below par? If the service was less than stellar then you should tip at a lower rate than normal. Usually, I’ll speak to the waiter I’m tipping and politely explain the reasons for the lower tip. (Just make sure you’ve eaten all your food before you tell them!) Don’t stiff them based on the food alone; they are not the chefs and have little to no control over how things taste. If you do not enjoy your food then your “beef” (pun intended) is with the kitchen. For good service, 15% or higher is expected.

Bathroom attendant Whether or not you think this is a racket, once you walk in the door and see an attendant you merely look foolish — and feel uncomfortable — if you turn around and leave. The tipping mistake is to just tip automatically. If the attendant does not help you in any way you do not need to tip him for just being there. Personally, I hate having someone loom over me while I dry my hands. That said if he dries your hands (do people really let this happen?), hands you a towel, uses a lint brush on your jacket, or if you use any toiletry items from the display, one should tip anywhere from one to three dollars.

The shampoo girl/boy- What’s the mistake? Forgetting to tip them. Unless you know for a fact that the stylist splits tips with them, assume you need to take care of it yourself. $5 dollars is a good amount, and $10 for the person (other than the stylist) who blow dries your hair.  

The babysitter- The mistake is being inconsistent when tipping so that the sitter is not sure what they did to deserve it and what to do to get one again. Consider a number of factors when determining the best tip for your babysitter: Did she go above and beyond in the care of you children? Was she responsible for feeding or cleaning (versus just being in the house, available, while the children slept)? Did she have to stay longer than originally agreed-upon? Pay your babysitter a tip at the end of their shift and explain that the tip is for doing an excellent job and extra work. Try this: Agree in advance what the basic rate is and what you’ll tip for; they will appreciate the clear expectations.

Always remember: A tip is a luxury that one needs to earn, it should never be expected by someone just because they have a pulse, or else tipping will continue to get out of hand. 10 years ago we would have been surprised by the places we routinely tip today. In 10 years we may see (and hear) the following:

Tip jar next to the driver on a city bus: “Thanks for not crushing me in the doors — here’s a buck!”

Gratuity line on your doctor bill: “I know you had to send me to a specialist because you can’t figure out what’s wrong, but thanks for not killing me!”

Electricity meter-reader leaving a gratuity envelope: “Really appreciate that you left 4 of the 6 rose bushes intact while getting to the box.”

I could go on, but you get the picture. Want to change the future? It’s up to us.

And there you have it.