Thursday, January 24, 2013

COLUMN: Tipping


I'm pretty sure that, once upon a time, everyone on Earth held a meeting to decide exactly how the world should work -- but I wasn't invited. Or maybe I was too busy watching a "Monk" marathon on Netflix. Either way, sometimes I feel entirely unqualified to live an unsupervised life.

It's not that I'm wholly inept or anything, but so many scenarios in life seem to involve a set of protocols that other people know like instinct while I stand in hopeless confusion and go, "Uhhhh...?" That's when the eyes lose contact, the stammering begins, and instead of WATCHING reruns of "Monk," I start acting like Monk instead. Never was there a clearer example than last weekend.

You've heard the phrase "Lazy Sunday," but no one lives the dream quite like me. Thanks to a DJ gig the night before, I was up and raring to go at the crack of noon. And by "go," I refer to leaning over, clicking the remote, and spending the next three hours watching 43 cars turn left at Talladega. After rooting for about ten different drivers and then watching all ten of them crash into each other on the very last lap, there was nothing left to do but sigh and start thinking about food.  

I was flying solo that afternoon, but I still wanted a decent dinner, so I called one of my favorite restaurants and placed a carry-out order. I sauntered up to the to-go counter and handed the smiling employee my debit card. But as I went to sign the receipt, it all went to heck... because despite placing a carry-out order, and despite being at a counter reserved exclusively for carry-out orders, the receipt I was signing had a blank spot for the tip.

Umm... what does one DO in this scenario? Am I supposed to leave a tip? And if so, how much? It's not like the guy had to do a whole lot of work. In fact, I'm pretty sure his entire role in this process was to walk three steps to get my food and walk three steps to hand it to me. What's proper etiquette in this scenario? I KNEW I shouldn't have erased Miss Manners from my speed dial.

I could leave a small tip, but if etiquette is to leave 15%, wouldn't that make me out to be a jerk? I could leave 15%, but maybe you're not expected to tip a carry-out order? Would the guy make fun of me in the back room like, "Look! Some idiot tipped me for a carry-out order!"

Ergo, I should just not tip at all -- but what if you're SUPPOSED to? Why else have the line on the receipt? The kid might only have to walk six steps to get me my food, but I'm sure a disgruntled food service employee could get a whole lot of spittle into my food in those six steps. Argh. What should I have done? (For the record, I tipped 15%. I'd rather be called an idiot than have a garnish of spit in my food -- an act which probably NEVER happens, but thanks to MY brain, requires constant vigilance to avoid.)

I hate leaving tips. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not some miserly penny-pincher. If anything, I'm usually guilty of OVER-tipping. But what I hate is that, thanks to the rules of etiquette, we've forgotten the point of leaving a gratuity in the first place.

I'm a firm believer in rewarding a job well done. In a perfect world, a gratuity should be just that -- a sign of gratitude and recognition for exemplary customer service. A tip should NOT be something determined by an etiquette rule that mandates you should leave 15% at all times always. Who came up with 15% anyways? As far as I'm concerned, a relaxing dinner should NEVER involve math.

When I go out to eat, I play it by ear. If I receive good service, I leave a good tip. If I receive great service, I leave a great tip. If I receive great service AND the waitress is cute, sometimes I leave an embarassingly high tip -- because, as we all know, the best way to woo a girl out of your league is to give her an extra six dollars. (Note to self: avoid Hooters.)

Some things, though, immediately leave a bad taste in your mouth. Like when you pay for an $13 meal with a $20 and the waitress gives you back seven $1 bills. Worse yet are the restaurants that come complete with "cute" incentives to tip.

There's a sub shop in Davenport that keeps a tip jar next to the register. But instead of saying "tips," the jar says, "Beer Money." And whenever someone contributes, the employee at the register has to yell, "Hey, beer money, guys!" to the other employees, who then all have to loudly express their gratitude. It's cute, I suppose, except for the fact that most of the employees look to be about 17 years old. If I'm truly giving them "beer money," I'm pretty sure that's technically contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and I prefer my pastrami without a side order of a Class A misdemeanor, thanks much.

It doesn't take a therapist to get to the bottom of my neurotic obsession with tipping. I know exactly how it started. Until I went off to college, I led a fairly sheltered life. A life in which my mom would take me to the hair salon and pay for it herself. When I was finally on my own, I found a stylist I liked and went to her for years -- until one day when I paid with a credit card and saw that fateful blank space for a tip on the receipt. Until that moment, I had NO clue it was customary to tip your hair stylist. I'd gone to her for YEARS and had left her nothing. I was mortified. It's a wonder she never shaved "JERK" into the back of my head. Sorry, Kathy.

That's why I live in constant fear of NOT tipping when I should. I don't ever want to discover that I should have been tipping the clerk at the drugstore for the past thirty years. Of course, by admitting this, now ANYONE who helps me with ANYTHING could stand in front of me, cough, and hold out their hand -- and I'd probably start apologizing profusingly while handing them money.

Clearly I need help -- so if any of you have an international book of protocol for all public interactions and occasions, I'd love to borrow it. I'll probably even tip you for the effort.

1 comment:

thescoundrel said...

Tipping conundrums: sounds like a chance for an interesting article for an enterprising reporter. Maybe an editor at the Dispatch/Argus could assign that task to an ambitious reporter on their staff.

Tipping should only be expected by employees at eating businesses where the wait staff are full service. They explain the food/menu, listen to you requests and expectations, they take the order, they serve the order tableside and they continually check back with you throughout the meal, finally leaving you your bill with a smile. But tipping is an elective in most cases - though some restaurants and hotels may automatically require a tip in some instances. That is especially true for holiday and special occasion banquets. The reason for this is they often pay the waitstaff less than minimum wages. Servers are much like retail commission sales people. A waiter/waitress is often expected to make most of their pay through tips. Their base pay before tips could be as little as 40% of whatever minimum wage is. Say if minimum wages were $5.85 their base pay "could" start as low as $2.34 an hour. Now if the tips plus base wages do not add up to minimum wages then the company is expected to make up the difference. Though busy restaurants will likely let a server go if they are not regularly making their extra wages with tips because in a busy restaurant a hustling server can pull in some big checks. The current rule of thumb is a 20% tip of the check total. The servers are expected to tip the busboys from their pay. If the service is bad you adjust your tip accordingly. Their are also two different tipping styles depending on restaurants. Most places I am familiar with use a standard tipping format - your table, your tip. Others use a pool style of tipping where all the servers put their tips into a jar and at the end of the shift split the tips. Cashiers -if that is their only job- at a takeout are not normally considered a tip employee as they usually make minimum wage or more as base pay. Many cashiers are actually hosts or management and have a higher base pay - though in a busy place a hustling server can usually outpace a floor managers wages. Fastfood and self-serve buffets are usually excluded from the list of should tip restaurants. Though if the buffet server is helpful and attentive I usually tip them at least 10%. Which is what the normal tip ratio at full-serve restaurants was when I was a kid.