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Should you ever snip that tip?

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Our last review for Clancy’s got me thinking.. was I a real jerk for leaving our waitress what amounted to a tip of less than 8%? Sure, I had crumola service, but hey, she brought the food out pretty quickly and didn’t tell us off or anything. On that regard, maybe she deserved something a little more. On the other hand, spending precious dough eating out isn’t to be taken lightly with mega-high unemployment, entire states on the brink of bankruptcy, and personal debt near all-time highs. If I’m going to pay an extra few bucks that might pinch me later, I don’t want to do so out of pure habit and obligation, but rather out of true gratitude because I received exceptional service. I decided to take a look around the web and see what some others thought.

This ‘Dear Helena’ feature on Chow (which is an excellent site, by the way) outlined a situation where the reader stiffed her waiter on a $50 meal because of a very poor experience. The response from Helena suggested she should have tipped 10% anyway, and then explained why to the waiter. Without explanation, she argued, the diner risks looking ‘cheap’, ‘european’, or perhaps even a ‘drunk.. that can’t handle the math’. I guess for the self-conscious this is really good advice, but honestly I don’t care what someone thinks of me. Ultimately, when the waiter gets hit with a little-or-none tip, they’re going to look inward, and probably figure out where they went wrong. Think about it.. even teenagers, who are historically lousy tippers, still drop a few bucks on the table. To get nothing at all has to be so outside of the realm of normalcy that a waiter can’t help but blame themselves. This isn’t suggesting that everyone leaves a tip – certainly that’s not the case – but we have to concede that most of us do, even when the service is ho-hum. I’m also not sold on discussing the tip with the waiter, doesn’t that just create unnecessary confrontation?

How do the waiters feel about the subject? I found an opinion on a message board that seemed fairly argued. The jist of it reminds us that most waiters make significantly below minimum wage and rely on tips, so we need to be mindful that we’re effectively docking someone’s pay. Good point, but if someone is in a service industry, isn’t their pay contingent upon the quality of service they provide? No one likes to take money out of someone’s pockets, but all that running around and stuff is part of the job. I’m not going to tip generously just because someone is a waitress, I’m going to tip because they’re a good waitress. Sites like this CNN guide tell you exactly how much to tip, but I guess I’m at a loss of why we ‘establish rates’ like we do. The guide agrees with the notion that you never tip less than 10%. DavisWiki seems to be in my court, suggesting guidelines of 5% for ‘bad’ service, and nothing for ‘terrible’ service.

Gentleman’s Guide lists four good reasons to tip, of which I generally agree. The points are split between reactive than proactive: If the person went ‘above and beyond’ (reactive), to show gratitude (reactive), to ensure great service (proactive), and because a livelihood depends on it (proactive). In my case where I tipped less than 8%, the waitress clearly went ‘below and beyond’ and I certainly had no gratitude for her, so I feel a bit vindicated. On the concept of ensuring great future service, it does make me wonder if I actually made it harder for a future customer to get better service from this waitress. If they think they’re just going to get stiffed again, why bother? Sure, they likely won’t last long at her job with this outlook, but I can definitely see the connection. And finally, regarding supporting someone’s livelihood, a proactive approach for sure, does deserve consideration. If an extra dollar or two consistently makes a difference in someone’s life – and I can spare it – why not?

Of course, there’s an extra little dilemma when the tip is included in the bill. Lots of places include a fixed gratuity for large groups or for large bills, which I imagine is an incentive to recruit the best wait staff. Working at a high-end place where you’re guaranteed a tip based on the average bill offers good protection from the fickleness of the consuming public. In that situation, is it socially acceptable to just use the ‘default’ tip? This tips blog surprisingly had more comments suggesting that, indeed, the fixed gratuity was fine unless you received absolutely exemplary service. At least we’ve not been conditioned to tip on top of tips now.

What does it all mean? From my little google adventure, and in a completely unscientific process, it appears more people (that typically tip in the first place) do not feel comfortable with the kind of tip I left our waitress at Clancy’s. That said, there certainly is a chunk of restaurant-goers out there who aren’t tipping to support a livelihood or because they feel they should, but rather strictly reactive to the service that was offered and how they felt about the experience. There’s nothing wrong with either side, of course, and I want to think such a discussion will ultimately produce better service if wait staff knows that tips aren’t ‘automatic’ by any means.

What’s your take?
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