Tip Well or Eat Spit

Tipping, like pulling out chairs and tastefully wearing pantaloons, is a bit of a lost art for most people in the world.

Some have a valid excuse: maybe it’s not common practice in their country, or they consistently get such horrendous service that they are actively trying to put every restaurant they go to out of business.

For the majority of lackluster tippers, however, it’s more an issue of worldview and a lack of perspective that are the root causes of their penny-pincherness.

This is really a shame for everyone involved. Not only is proactive and generous tipping good for the person receiving the tip, but it’s also VERY good for the person leaving it.

Consider this: when you tip well, you are telling, nay, voting with your money that the person who has served you is doing their job and doing it well. It’s a up-front compliment to someone you don’t know (or barely know, depending on how personable you both were while you were being served) and there are few people in the world who don’t appreciate a good compliment, and fewer still that won’t subconsciously reciprocate with better service, positive vibes and a smile.

Unless the service is just horrible, give 20% minimum, and 25% or even 30% if it’s really great. If the bill is small, round up. An extra 30- or 40-cents extra on a 3-dollar check are not going to kill you, but it will make the tip that much larger, percent-wise.

‘But Colin,’ you’re very likely mumbling under your breath (as if I can hear you), ‘these people are already being paid. I’ll give them 10% if they do a really good job, but otherwise why should I have to pay their salary when I’m not employing them?’

That’s a really good point. Why should the customer have to cover the cost of employing a server at a restaurant, a barista at a coffeeshop, or a massage therapist at a spa? You’re already paying for the product or service…why should you have to pay more?

The fact of the matter is this: these people are paid very little for what they do. So little, in fact, that if they didn’t have tips, most wouldn’t be able to make a living off of what they get paid (when I waited tables for a semester in college, I made a whole $2.19 per hour plus tips. Many servers that I’ve spoken to about this can’t believe I was paid so much!).

Needless to say, if people can’t make a living wage off a profession, that profession will very quickly cease to exist. With the way things currently operate in most restaurants and coffeeshops (etc), the overhead is such that the restaurant couldn’t stay in business long if they had to pay full salaries to all of their serving staff in addition to paying for the building, food, cooks, and all of the other hard costs that go into such an establishment. It’s not ideal, but it’s a reality, and one that we all have to deal with.

One alternative, of course, is only spending your money at places that pay full wages to their employees, but that’s a mixed bag as well, since those kinds of establishments are few and far between, and the servers there tend to make a lot less overall (and therefore don’t always provide the same level of service).

You could also just complain about it and philosophically decide that you’re against tipping, declaring war on the practice and not doing it. The only results you’ll see from this is 1) lots of irate servers, 2) a few extras bucks in your pocket, and 3) probably lots of spit in your food if you ever go back to the same place more than once.

This is a situation where we run into a conflict of philosophy versus practical reality. When I lived in Missouri in high school, I didn’t philosophically agree with everything that Wal-Mart did, but they had run every other comparable company out of business in the area, so my options were to go without or buy from Wal-Mart. If I wanted to be very ivory tower about it all I could have stuck to my guns and lived accordingly, but I prefer to enjoy life, and there are some battles that are either not worth fighting, or not worth fighting NOW. Maybe someday the planets will align and we’ll be able to adjust or remove the practice of tipping, replacing it with something much better for everyone, but right now I don’t know what that would be, and we don’t have a movement large and influential enough to make that change even if I did.

So for now, be sure to tip well. You’ll be making someone’s day, establishing yourself as a good customer (and one that deserves special attention) wherever you go, building a positive rapport with service industry folk (who may have connections! or end up being friends! or at the very least won’t spit in your food!), and you’ll be in a great position to use the establishment as a home base of sorts for business meetings, daily coffee breaks or even just hanging out. Everyone needs to just hang out sometimes.

Update: May 15, 2016

I think I was trying to make two main points with this essay: first, that treating people well typically results in you getting the same in return, and second, understanding the difference theoretical and practical stands against things you don’t believe in.

I remember some of the emails and comments I received about this from people who were upset that I would imply someone might spit in their food. It was meant to be an illustrative possibility rather than a firm declaration, but subtext is very often lost with these sorts of things (and frankly, I didn’t do a great job at making that difference clear).

If I were going to rewrite this now (and I have covered these topics in different ways in the years since this was published) I would focus on something other than tipping, since it’s tied up in so many other conflicts and concepts, and distracts from those two main points.

It’s also interesting to note that there are several big-name restaurants that have gone sans-tipping in recent years, and have consequently seen some stellar results for their bank balances and the satisfaction of their servers and customers. Apparently it’s not a short-term gain (it takes a while for people to become accustomed to the slightly higher prices and idea that the servers aren’t being nice to them to extract a higher tip), but over time the numbers make a solid argument in favor of such a transition.