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THE TIPPING PLAGUE

ANDREW COYNE March 31 2008
THE BACK PAGES

THE TIPPING PLAGUE

ANDREW COYNE March 31 2008

THE TIPPING PLAGUE

THE BACK PAGES

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Suddenly everyone from the Starbucks barista to the dog walker has his hand out. Blame the decline in shame

ANDREW COYNE

Starbucks barista: $1.50

Pizza delivery guy:

Sommelier: $15

Waitress: $25

Surly waitress: $25

Manicurist: $4.50

Hair stylist: $10

Gas ^.attendant:

It is the same way every time. I get up from the chair, thank the lady who Cuts my hair, run my hand appreciatively over myhead, turn, and walk, churn-

ing with dread, toward the cashier. The girl behind the counter cheerily rings up the bill, then nods toward my stylist, now mercifully out of earshot.

“Do you want to add anything to that?” “No,” I say, despairingly. But firmly.

I am not a cheapskate. Well, yes I am, but the proof of this is not my refusal to succumb to this unsub tie bit of emotional blackmail. The quality of the haircut is not in question. The stylist and I are good friends. But the price of the haircut was known to us both in advance. I judged it worth paying, and paid it. If the salon thinks the price too low, they should have the decency to raise it. Put the question to me up front, and I’ll consider it. Don’t sidle up to me afterwards with your hand out, playing upon my sense of guilt.

I wouldn’t mention it, were this same ritual not being played out in one form or another across a wider and wider swath of economic life. It used to be you tipped the waiter, and

the cab driver, and that was about it. If you were a high roller, you tipped the bellhop, if only because you stayed in the kind of place that employed bellhops. Perhaps men always tipped their barbers. Or perhaps it began when men started going to “stylists.”

But lately, the practice has spread to hitherto unknown corners of the economy. Did you know you were supposed to tip your masseuse? Also your manicurist, your tattoo artist, and your personal trainer. Not only can babysitters expect to find a little extra in their pay nowadays, but also dog walkers. And that’s just the start. Tour guides. Disc jockeys. Tow-truck drivers. Deliverymen of all persuasions. Some credulous souls tip the parking attendant. And, everywhere you turn, the ubiquitous tip cup: a Starbucks invention, it is now a fixture of every falafel hut and doughnut shop, no matter how perfunctory the service. There are even reports of tip jars at drive-throughs.

Once a vanishing artifact of a gilded age, like the iceman or the lamplighter, tipping is now a multi-billion-dollar industry. Whole books are given over to the practice. Tourist guides devote page after page to educating

the uninitiated in the customary tips for various trades, lest travellers disgrace themselves by failing to pay the going rates. It is unhelpful that no two of them seem to agree on what these are. Is it still proper to leave 15 per cent for your waiter, or have we somehow graduated to 20 per cent? Should you tip the pump jockey at the gas station? (Really? When was the last time you saw one?) Nearly a century ago, an era of intricate class etiquette and acute status anxiety, Emily Post set the standard. Each first-class passenger on boarding ship, she wrote, should give “ten shillings to the room steward or stewardess, ten shillings to the dining-room steward, ten shillings to the deck steward, ten shillings to the lounge steward,” and so on. (“Or if you have eaten your meals on deck, you give 20 shillings to the deck steward, and ten to his assistant, and you give five to the bath steward.” What, and have nothing left to blow on canasta?) It seems we have need of her again.

Among the many annoying qualities of this peculiar snobbish holdover is its arbitrariness. If the Starbucks barista qualifies for a tip just for pouring a half-caff foaming whatever, why not the kid who makes your Slurpee

at the 7-Eleven? Why pizza I drivers but not couriers? Why

‘■'jjj the shoe shiner, but not the dry cleaner? Why the hairstyl™ ist, but not the person who washes your hair? (Er, maybe that’s just me again.) Why not shop clerks, or mechanics, or dentists? Why not flight attendants, if personal service is the issue? Why not? Let me suggest a reason. Maybe it’s because it’s beneath them.

A moment’s thought reveals the essential tawdriness of the business. Equal parts begging and bribery, with a strong admixture of extortion, tipping rarely engages any of the higher sentiments,

The big tipper may hope to impress his date, or the waitress, or ideally both; or he may be seeking, via a discreet C-note to the maître d’, to jump \ the queue, or some other preferential treatment. More usually, he does it out of fear of being thought cheap, or to avoid nasty stares. If generosity ever creeps into it, it quickly dissolves into self-congratulation.

The tippee, for his part, accepts the reward not out of gratitude, but of entitlement, if it is a large tip, or resentment, if it is not. Actually, more like resentment either way, since the big tip carries with it an implicit assertion of class superiority: “There’s for your pains, and see that those horses are watered.” Nor is that the only unspoken agenda in the air. Everyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows that the prettiest, most flirtatious waitresses get the biggest tips, at least from male customers, since at the back of his mind every man thinks if he throws down big he improves his chances of scoring—maybe not with her, but in some cosmic reckoning, with womankind— and at the back of her mind every waitress knows it. So toss in a whiff of prostitution, for good measure.

It isn’t because waiters (or manicurists, or concierges, or...) are ill-paid that we tip them: if anything, they are ill-paid because of the prevalence of tipping—because both they and their employers know that part of their compensation will be defrayed by this strange, informal subsidy. In places where tipping is forbidden, or unusual, such as Australia, or Argentina, or Japan, or much of western Europe, there is no shortage of wait staff at the going wage.

Certainly there is little evidence that tipping is related to the quality of service (McDonald’s, upon whose gleaming counters no tip jar obtrudes, arguably has the best service in the business). Michael Flynn of the Cor-

nell School of Hotel Administration—with dozens of peer-reviewed papers to his name, including “Effect of Server Posture on Restaurant Tipping” and “Neuroticism and the Prevalence of Tipping: A Cross-Country Study,” he is the acknowledged Will and Ariel Durant of tipping studies—has found tipping to be more closely correlated with a range of server behaviours, all having the effect, if not the intent, of making the patron feel the server likes him. Some, such as smiling or saying the patron’s name, are fairly obvious. Others are less so. That friendly waiter who squats by your table to take your order? Flynn’s studies show an average to 25 per cent increase in tips from that one, slightly awkward ges . Tell a joke, another 40 per cent. Touch the customer, draw a “smiley face” on the bill, leave a

Much of the ‘service’ we don’t even want: like the perky ‘how’s everything?’ just as you've filled your face

candy on the tip tray: same thing. Oddly enough, even repeating the customer’s order back to them seems to have a strongly positive effect, as does a forecast of good weather.

Tipping might provide more of an incentive for good service if customers actually applied the principle in both directions. But be honest: if the food was lousy, and the service worse, does anyone actually omit the tip? Do you even reduce it? Or do you slink sullenly from the place, feeling abused and exploited, yet angriest at yourself for being such a milquetoast? For that matter, much of the “service” we pay for many of us might prefer to do without: that strange insistence on performing the specials, rather than just printing them up on a piece of paper (is it because they’re all unemployed actors?); the sudden, perky “how’s everything?” just as you’ve filled your face; or that ghastly phase when waiters were placing your napkin on

your lap for you (seemingly discarded, perhaps on account of fisticuffs).

So if it serves no useful purpose, if it is motivated mostly by vice, if it demeans both parties to the transaction, why does tipping persist? Why has it, in fact, spread? Tipping was, after all, supposed to have been on the way out. For much of the last century, it had seemed to be in decline, along with many of the menial service jobs that went with it— liverymen, floorwalkers, men’s room attendants— to be replaced -) by machinery, or by the consumer’s own labour. Capitalist efficiency seemed, in its own way, to be making for a kind of social equality: the captain of industry, as much as the shipper-receiver, must pump his own gas. Tipping, outside of its traditional preserves (the practice originated in 17thcentury English pubs, as a means of keeping the waiters from attacking the patrons), came to be regarded as something rather exotic, the sort of thing reserved either to luxury hotels or Third World backwaters.

To be sure, the rapid growth in incomes at the upper end of the scale has brought with it a revival of personal service jobs. But that is not enough to explain the current outbreak of tipping. Rather, I think it has more to do with the decline of shame as a social regulator. Indeed, these days an absence of shame is one of the surest ingredients of success: it would explain the entire career of Richard Simmons, for example. Most people, in most occupations, would think it an insult to be offered a “little something extra” for the service they normally perform, still less think to ask for it. That is, until the offer was actually made—until the practice became widespread—until it was “customary.” Thus, by degrees, is panhandling made genteel.

Tipping should perhaps be seen as a sort of social epidemic, like squeegee kids—who are, after all, only asking to be tipped for the service they perform. It exists because we tolerate it; it spreads because it can. It does not exist in every society, and it need not exist in ours. Is it not time we all said “No”? M