Does Tipping “Insure Promptitude”?
Last night my husband and I went to one of our favourite restaurants, anticipating the usual good service, generous portions, and tasty fare (all at a reasonable price) that we’ve come to expect from this particular establishment. Unfortunately, the service was slow (the restaurant was not busy, so why did it take almost ten minutes for the waitress to deliver two bottles of beers?), the servings were much smaller than usual (as were the plates the food was on), and the meal was sub-par (we both ordered something we’ve had many times in the past, so we knew what to expect).
When I commented on the disappointing food quality and quantity when the waitress came by to inquire, she said she would pass my comments along to the kitchen (we did ask if they had a new cook; she said ‘No’). When our bill was delivered, it was accompanied by two ‘chits’ for free appetizers on our next visit, and an apology (of sorts) from the waitress for the poor quality of our meals (portion size wasn’t mentioned) – apparently the kitchen had run out of the particular cut of butcher-supplied meat they usually serve and had resorted to having someone ‘pop out to the local grocery store’ to buy (a clearly lower quality) substitute. Since this has been a favourite restaurant for almost ten years, we’ll certainly give them another go, but I struggled with determining how much I should leave as a tip. The service was adequate, I suppose, the waitress did take our complaints seriously and offered an explanation, and we will get two free appetizers (a $15 value) on our next visit – but how much should I have tipped when I was clearly dissatisfied with the overall experience?
As with most things, my quandary (I finally left somewhere between 10% and 15%) led me to wondering where the whole idea of tipping came from, why we tip for some ‘services’ and not others, and why people feel compelled to tip (even when the service they receive isn’t exceptional).
The most commonly accepted theory is that tipping began in 18th century British coffeehouses and pubs, where containers labelled ‘To Insure Promptitude’ were placed on tables for patrons to drop coins into if they wanted ‘exceptional service’ (this is also where the word ‘tip’ appears to have come from). Those who tossed something in did, indeed, receive better service, and tipping in the food services industry soon became a mark of one’s social status (i.e., if you could afford to tip, you got better service than those who couldn’t afford the extra).
Around the same time, guests staying in another person’s house would present ‘vails’ (small amounts of money) to the servants in their hosts’ homes. Originally these were given for good service but vails soon became ‘expected’. Clearly this was the dawn of the notion that people working in the travel and tourism industry should receive ‘something extra’ (beyond their regular wages) for providing services to visitors.
Apparently, tipping wasn’t common practice in North America until sometime after the American Civil War (it has been suggested that most households had ‘slaves’ rather than ‘servants’, and that the people who ‘served’ others for money saw themselves as employees, not ‘servants’), but the Europeans brought the custom across the Atlantic (tipping was a show of wealth and cosmopolitan ideals), and by the early 20th century, it had become a routine practice. (There was actually an anti-tipping movement in the early part of the 1900s and several U.S. states declared it an illegal practice; however, employers who wanted to keep wages low – and workers who saw tips as a ‘bonus’ – soon had the bans overturned).
If the idea of tipping originally was to ensure better service, why do we now tip at the END of the meal or hotel stay? (It is interesting to note that most cruise lines now tack on a $10 – $12 per person per day ‘gratuity’ to all fares – they distribute the amount among the crew members, rather than leaving the prospect of tipping to the discretion of passengers, as was the norm in the past). Tipping now seems to be more of an expected acknowledgement of services rendered, rather than as an enticement to provide ‘better’ service.
I find it particularly interesting that most people admit they tip whether the service is good or not – because they either feel embarrassed if they don’t, they worry that they won’t get good service the next time they visit the establishment (assuming a staff member actually remembers them), or because they want to feel good about meeting ‘societal expectations’.
Personally, in a restaurant I tip according to the quality of the service I receive: Below par? 5% perhaps. Mediocre? 10%. As expected: 15%. Exceptional: 20%. And I have never felt ‘mandated’ to leave a tip if I’m not entirely satisfied (if you do that, you’re simply encouraging repeated poor behaviour on the part of the server.) Same goes for travelling (I usually carry my own bag and I only leave something for the ‘maid’ if she does, indeed, take care of the room – I’ve stayed in hotels where the bed hasn’t been made up and wet towels haven’t been replaced for days!)
The real problem I have with tipping, though, is the question of why we tip for certain services and not for others. In the food services and travel/tourism industry, employers often pay lower wages because employees can ‘top up’ their salaries with tips – why not just pay them a reasonable wage in the first place? Additionally, while the ‘front line’ workers earn tips, the people ‘in the back’ don’t. For example, the cook who prepares your meal (to your specifications) in the ‘average’ family restaurant makes the same hourly wage as the server and the bartender, but receives no tips for a ‘job well done’; the maintenance person, gardener, pool cleaner and others at a hotel don’t earn any more than the bellhop or maid, yet their work is just as important to the comfort of your stay – and they don’t get tips.
We’re even seeing ‘tip jars’ popping up in coffee shops and other establishments where servers do little more than pour a hot drink or select a pre-packaged snack or sandwich from a display cabinet and hand it to you – and people drop as much as a dollar in the jar when buying a couple of dollars worth of food or drink (that’s a tip of 25% or more).
Why do we tip the pizza delivery guy but not the UPS driver? Why would a cab driver expect a gratuity for getting you where you paid to go, but not the local bus driver? Why don’t we tip the grocery store clerk, the librarian, the bank teller, the snowplow operator? And please don’t suggest that recommendations for tipping are based on salary … most ‘lists’ of who to tip include jobs like the letter carrier – mine is a government employee who earns $22 an hour (plus benefits and a generous pension), and she regularly delivers the wrong mail to my house (despite repeated complaints about her ineptitude, she’s still on the job!) (“The Complete Guide to Tips and Gratuities” by Sharon Fullen – designed for both employees who receive tips and employers who hire them – offers a list of over 50 people who should ‘expect’ to receive tips; my favourite? Clowns!)
Personally, I think the idea of tipping has gotten completely out of hand – and I don’t expect I’m the only one who feels this way. Perhaps my view on things is somewhat ‘old fashioned’ but I like to think I’ve gotten where I am today by doing what I was paid to do, executing the tasks to the very best of my ability, and going ‘above and beyond’ whenever and however I could. I took pride in ‘a job well done’ and the only ‘tips’ I received were positive comments and hearty ‘thanks’ from people I helped along the way. And you know what? That’s all the ‘extra’ I need to show for a life well lived – all the way to … the other side of 55.