TT: Tipping — The Really Confusing Parts

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and join in as we take a look at why “light” fiction is not necessarily either fluffy or without value.  Then come and help me explain to Alan the greater complexities of tipping.

JANE: Well, Alan, last time I attempted to explain tipping to you and apparently only confused you.  I should warn you, this part isn’t going to get any better.  Sure you want me to go on?

Buffy's Christmas Tip List

Buffy’s Christmas Tip List

ALAN: Yes please. Explain it to me as you would if I was only five years old…

JANE: Ah, the way you’ve explained some computer weirdness to me!  Got it.

Here we go…  Other places a traveler in the U.S. would encounter routinely expected tips are taxi cabs and hotels.  Now, this is where my resistance level starts going up.  If a cabbie handles heavy luggage or something, I don’t mind giving a bonus, but why should I tip for the cabbie simply sitting behind the wheel of a car and driving me from point A to point B?  Especially since these days, with GPS, they don’t even need to know the complexities of the city.

ALAN: Exactly. Why should you? Here I pay what’s on the meter, no more and no less. And the taxi drivers are perfectly happy with that.

JANE: Makes sense to me.  However, it’s not only cabbies who expect to be compensated for just doing their job.

In hotels, especially the more expensive ones, the number of people with their hands out is astonishing.  If someone moves your luggage for you, he expects a tip.  If someone helps make a restaurant reservation, she expects a tip.  If someone brings a room service meal to your room (a meal which is already highly overpriced), they expect a tip.  If they park your car for you (even if that’s hotel policy), ditto.  When they retrieve it, ditto, ditto.

ALAN: Again, that simply doesn’t happen here. No hotel staff ever expect to be given a tip. They are always pleased and appreciative if you do give them one, but it’s never expected and no pressure is brought to bear.

JANE:  It’s getting worse.  There’s increasing pressure to leave money for whoever has “done” the room – even though these days the service is much decreased because linens and towels are not changed daily, in order to save water and energy.  (A trend I approve of, by the by.)

Again, unless I’m asking for something out of the ordinary, I balk.  I particularly balk at leaving an envelope of cash in my room for some member of the cleaning staff since I have no assurance that it will go to the person who has been “taking care” of me.

ALAN: It would never even occur to me to leave an envelope of cash. And neither would it occur to me to tip the cleaning staff.

Since my habit is never to tip anybody for anything, how would I get on if I came to America? Would I get into any trouble? Would the people I didn’t tip take their revenge on me?

JANE: I think your accent would be your protection.  Or maybe not.  I checked the web and several sites have detailed lists of what sort of tipping is expected in a wide variety of nations.  Ignorance may no longer be bliss.

Frankly, and I’m bracing myself to be told why I’m wrong by people who know more, I feel that tipping in the U.S. has increasingly taken on the aura of a bribe.  There are all sorts of stories – I hope most are urban legends – about wait staff spitting in the meals of habitually bad tippers, of luggage handlers deliberately scratching or denting bags, and the like.  This reminds me of what you said about your father leaving Christmas boxes, not because he was grateful – which to me is what the term “gratuity” should mean – but to avoid the potential of malicious mischief.

ALAN: That’s verging on the nasty, and it sounds rather like being required to pay protection money to the local mob!

JANE: I like the comparison.  There’s an even worse aspect, a situation where, frankly, the “tip” cannot be taken as anything other than a bribe.  That’s when special services are provided to those who know how much and to whom to give extra money.

ALAN: Sorry – I’m not sure what you mean by that. Can you give an example?

JANE: Sure!  Some friends of Jim’s and mine went to a city famous for its nightlife.  There they met up with a friend who was a resident.  My friends were very impressed that their contact got them into something – I forget if it was a show or a trendy restaurant – that was ostensibly full because he “knew how things worked” and handed wads of money to the right people.

I wasn’t impressed.  I thought it sounded very seamy.

ALAN: And it has aspects of showing off again – look at me, I’m important, I can do things that normal people can’t do. It makes me cringe.

JANE: Yeah.  Me, too.

Let’s see…  If you and Robin were traveling in the U.S., you wouldn’t need to worry about many of the other places where tipping is increasingly routine.  Still, I might as well mention them, just to be complete.  Golf courses, casinos, and beauty salons all expect tips.  I have no idea what one would tip for at a golf course, since I don’t play.  Same with casinos.  As for beauty salons, I only tip if I’m really happy with service.  However, I can see why someone who wants to establish a relationship with a particular stylist might reward exceptional artistry.

ALAN: Robin and I are already beautiful; we have no need for salons. We don’t play golf because that’s exercise and we’re geeks. Geeks don’t do exercise. And we’ve both studied mathematics to advanced enough levels that we are very familiar with the odds involved in gambling. So we don’t go to casinos either. Consequently I think we’d be quite safe…

JANE: That’s a relief!

We got off on this topic because of the subject of Christmas Boxes, so it’s only fair I fill out how the custom works here.  Just like in your father’s day, the letter carrier is eligible for either a gratuity or a small gift.  Jim and I really like our regular letter carrier, Gilbert.  He routinely carries packages up to the door and keeps an eye on people along his route.  One day he rang my bell and asked if I knew if the elderly lady next door was all right because she hadn’t been picking up her mail and didn’t answer her door.  (Turns out she was traveling and had forgotten to have her mail stopped.)

However, I don’t give Gilbert a tip at Christmas.  Instead I fill out cards for the post office making sure they know he’s doing a great job.  Also, if I happen to catch him, I’ll give him homemade cookies.

ALAN: Oh that’s nice. I hope his supervisors take note of what you say.

JANE: I do, too.  Gilbert is a gem.

A lot of the other “service personnel” who are “traditionally” tipped don’t really apply to my life.  I don’t have a building superintendent, a doorman, or someone who delivers a newspaper.  I don’t have a relationship with a hair stylist (who is apparently supposed to get an extra tip this time of year).  I don’t have someone who walks my dog (probably because I don’t have a dog), cares for or teaches my children (ditto).

ALAN: Half the fun of having a dog is walking it yourself. And you wouldn’t tip yourself. So why should you tip someone else who is getting the fun? Fun is its own reward.

JANE: I agree.  I used to walk my neighbor’s dog just for the fun of it.  We both enjoyed it immensely.

 As I look at this list, one thing that strikes me is how it reflects two things: affluence (living in a building with a doorman) and a relatively urban existence.  Nor am I certain that these holiday tips are uniformly observed throughout the U.S.  When I lived in New York a usual feature of grocery stores was a little container where you were supposed to toss a tip for the person who was bagging groceries.

When I moved to Virginia and, later, to New Mexico, these little containers were not in evidence and no one has ever seemed to expect me to tip them for bagging my groceries.  It’s possible that many of the tipping customs I’ve mentioned are regional.  That’s one part of this discussion where our readers can help us out.

ALAN: Well, thanks for clearing all that up. I think I understand what’s expected of me now. Mind you, I really don’t think I’d be any good at it – I’d resent the expectation, and I’d always be afraid that I was doing it wrong and perhaps over- or under-tipping. Oh! The embarrassment!

JANE: I know how you feel…

ALAN: On another tangent, I bought a couple of DVDs recently and stumbled across an enormous cultural difference between the ways that the Americans and the British approach the problem of piracy. Can we chat about that next time?

JANE: I’d like that.  It sounds fascinating.

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10 Responses to “TT: Tipping — The Really Confusing Parts”

  1. Peter Says:

    I find it interesting that tipping the bagger at the supermarket isn’t The Done Thing in New Mexico – when I lived in (unoccupied) Mexico tipping the bag boy (and it was always a boy) was absolutely de riguer. Then again they generally weren’t actually paid, and the tip generally included having your groceries carried out to your car (if you had one.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      I think that they weren’t paid probably explains it. In the grocery store I frequent most, baggers often suffer from some minor impairment. I suspect that the store works with a program to provide work for those who want to work but can’t do anything too complex or unsupervised.

      It’s very nice and one of the reasons that I support the store.

  2. Sally Says:

    Having been both a cabbie (in Albuquerque) and a chambertron (in Provincetown, MA), I have to say tips were uncommon but highly appreciated in both situations. Both jobs were badly paid on the theory that we would get tips–though not quite as badly paid as waitstaff. Albuquerque cabbies were also required to add tax to the amount shown on the meter. Customers made it clear they thought this was a ruse for forcing them to pay us a tip, and were even less inclined to tip on that basis. (And then of course there were the customers who just threw open the car door and ran for it, leaving us to beg the dispatcher not to charge their fares to us.)

    In memory of that I do tip on the rare occasions I stay in a hotel. (I’ve never had occasion to take a cab).

    Tips are not required in either situation, but if you’ve got a little to spare and want to bring a smile to the face of a downtrodden worker (whether you get to see it or not), tipping is a nice thing to do.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      I find it so hard to understand how employers are allowed to get away with grotesquely underpaying their staff. I suspect that one reason why tipping has never really taken off in NZ is that it’s a situation that simply doesn’t occur here.

      But having said that, while I’ve never tipped anybody in NZ, I do on occasion give tips when I’m overseas, but only if the service justifies it. I remember once I took a taxi in Fiji and when we arrived at the destination the taxi driver said, quite blatantly, “Have you got a tip for me?”

      So I didn’t give him one.


      -Alan

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    I’ve actually stayed at hotels where they give you an envelope to fill, with the chamber-maid’s name on it! and, yes, they make darned sure they’re the first one into the room after you leave :)

    I’m not sure when or how tipping got so out of hand.

    It’s roots, I think, lie in the behaviour of the British gentry, who routinely tipped the servants of their hosts when staying as guests in the country [not unreasonably, since the presence of guests could easily double the work-load of the staff]. The same gentry would behave in the same way to those who waited on them in paid accommodation as they traveled – noblesse oblige, after all.

    I imagine the next step was the rest of the population becoming more prosperous, starting to travel, and copying the manners of the gentry – and wanting to show that they were even more prosperous and more deserving of service by tipping even better. Now that just about everybody is nouveau-riche things have gone completely over the top. Worse, the trend has been noticed by management, which brings us to the darker part of my suspicions. In many cases, a surprisingly small portion of the sticker price for services actually ends up in the pocket of the person providing the service, by the time they pay vehicle or chair rental, license rental. operating costs, maintenance, etc. etc, etc. Tips, in many localities, have become a significant portion of their take-home pay – in good part because management figures that’s a great way to keep that pay off their own books [it's called 'reducing costs'] It doesn’t mean you pay any less, but the accounts look much more impressive. And, of course, the actual worker is at the mercy of your evaluation of their value.

    I’m finding that it’s an attitude that’s spreading into other areas – people are quite aware that full value isn’t being paid for time and skills/muscles/whatever, and are deciding that that means they should get to decide what you will be paid for your product/service, based on what they happen to feel like paying. You finish a job at an agreed price and terms and tell the customer ‘OK. You have $7456.19 outstanding'; about 1/2 the time, the answer is ‘I don’t have all of it. I’ll pay you $3000 now and get you the rest in x weeks.’ Sometimes they do [because they really did bite off more than they could chew, or something totally unplanned has come up, and they do need the time to get it all together. I don't mind those], sometimes whenever you chase them hard enough they come up with a bit more until what’s left isn’t worth the effort. Far too often, however, it’s ‘Here’s $6000. What’re you going to do about it?’, and stuff the fact that the missing $1456 is most of your margin on the job.

    Hmm… I do go on sometimes. Apologies to anyone who’s eyes just crossed.

  4. Paul Says:

    I would bet that the cookies you went to the trouble to personally prepare and give to your letter carrier, while maybe not technically a tip, were appreciated a lot more than impersonally tossing a few bucks into an envelope. (And the endorsements of his work to his bosses even more so.)

  5. winbdwin Says:

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