11 November 2017

Don't stiff people who live from tips

I don't normally blog just because a tweet annoyed me (otherwise I'd be writing several dozen blog posts per day), but this tweet and its ensuing thread touched a nerve.
From his profile and recent tweets, the author seems like the kind of person with whom I probably share a very sizeable percentage of my political and social attitudes.  He follows me on Twitter; I would follow him back, except that I ration my follows simply to try and slow down the firehose of information.  In short, I'm sure he's a nice guy with progressive values.  But it seems that he and some of his followers have a rather different attitude to tipping to mine.

Consider the situation.  You're(*) standing outside a restaurant at a US airport, looking at the menu.  The airline has messed up your connection, so maybe a nice meal will help you feel a little better.  You fancy half a dozen oysters (maybe $15) and then perhaps the steak (maybe $28) and a beer ($7), so that'll be $50 in total.  Plus you'll need to add $5 for tax and $10 for a 20% tip.  So that will cost a total of $65.  Can you afford that?  Yes?  OK, let's go.  Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to afford to eat in restaurants might make similar decisions many times per year (give or take the tax and tip calculations, depending on where we spend most of our time.)

Then the meal happens.  I encourage you to read the Twitter thread (it's quite short) to see what happened.  The situation is not entirely black and white, and the details of the author's experience are not especially relevant to my point here, but to sum up, he was not very impressed with the overall level of the service he received. That's OK; disappointment is a normal part of the human condition and experience, especially in consumer and travel situations.

After a while, the check arrives.  It's for $50 plus $5 tax, and it may or may not have "Thank you" written on it by hand, perhaps even with a little smiley face, because scientific research that was totally not underpowered or p-hacked in any way has shown that when female (but not male, as hypothesised in advance by the remarkably prescient authors of that study) servers do this, they get bigger tips.  Remember, you have already budgeted $10 for the tip, but because you were unhappy with the service, you are thinking twice about whether to give it.  For support in that decision, you go on Twitter to ask people how much of that amount they think you should give or withhold.  And, because Twitter solidarity with your friends while they're travelling is a genuinely rather nice thing about the 21st century, within just a few minutes you have several replies:
So, the consensus was that the author should tip 10%, instead of the now-conventional (for the US) 20%.  A couple of people even suggested that he tip 0%, but he settled on 10%.  Under the reasonable (I think) assumptions about his meal that I made earlier, that means he left the waitress about $5 instead of $10.

Had I been watching the proceedings during the 17 minutes between the first tweet and the verdict, my answer would have been: you should withhold nothing.  Tip the 20%.  Give the waitress the full $10 that you presumably budgeted for from the start.  After all, once you decided to walk into the restaurant it was basically a sunk cost anyway.  You can't know all of the reasons why the service was slow, and even if you could somehow establish that it was entirely her personal fault (rather than that of other staff, or the restaurant, none of whom will be affected by your tipping decision), it doesn't matter anyway. Within five minutes of leaving the restaurant the bad service you got will be forgotten forever (not least because you will shortly be waiting in line at the boarding gate, or back on the phone to American Airlines about your connection, dealing with people who do not have the incentive of possibly losing a tip to encourage them to give you better service, ha ha).

There seems to be a pervasive idea in certain parts of the world (mostly North America and the UK) that serving in a restaurant is like being one of those street entertainers who juggle things in front of the cars at red lights.  Indeed, something to reassure you that it's OK to think that way is usually written on the menu in some form: "We do not impose a service charge, as we believe that our customers have the right to reward good service personally".  Well, I've got news for all you people who like to imagine that you are normally skeptical of capitalism: that is pure marketing bullshit.  What it means is, "If our menu prices were 10/15/20% higher, people would be less likely to come inside.  So we make the posted prices lower in order to entice you in, at no risk to us, and we let the staff play a kind of roulette with their income based, essentially, on your mood".  (However, for parties of 6 or more, the restaurant has to add a service charge because waitstaff know that groups are terrible tippers and so would otherwise try to avoid having them seated in their area of the restaurant.)

Think about this: if you were eating at a restaurant in a country where the pricing structure of restaurants is such that tipping is not expected (in some cases, it might even be regarded as slightly offensive), you would probably not go to the manager and request, say, an 8% reduction in the bill because the service was a bit sloppy.  And a big part of the reason why you wouldn't do that is because it would require you to actively do something to justify your claim, versus the far simpler act of not placing the second $5 bill on the plate.  As a result of this (entirely natural) behaviour by customers, waitstaff in countries with a tip-based wage model are essentially incentivised to be both happy-looking and efficient, every minute of their working day.  That is, frankly, an inhuman requirement (try it in your office job for, say, fifteen minutes).

Actually, I can think of a certain kind of person who I would expect to stiff people in these circumstances.  The current archetype of this kind of person has strange blond hair and a fake tan and plays a lot of golf and mouths off a lot about how bad almost everyone else in the world is.  If we were to learn that he tweeted his buddies and told them how much he was going to stiff a waitress, we wouldn't bother spending the energy on rolling our eyes.  There are endless stories about how this individual didn't pay bills sent to himself or his companies, because he decided he didn't like the service he received.

Don't be that person.  Don't, in effect, put working people on piecework rates ("$0.30 per smile") by deciding how much you will tip them based on how perfectly they do their not-particularly-desirable job, simply because the formal rules say that you legally can because the tip is optional.  Be a mensch, as I believe the expression goes.  Eat your oysters, add the going rate for the tip, pay the bill, get on your plane, and don't punish the waitress for working in a messed-up system that pits her against both you and her employer.  If you are the kind of person who can afford to dine on oysters at an airport restaurant prior to getting on a plane, then pretty much by definition $5 means more to the waitress than it does to you.

Here's my personal benchmark (your mileage may vary): I wouldn't withhold a tip unless the situation was sufficiently serious that I would be prepared to complain to the restaurant manager about it.  (For what it's worth, I have never been in a restaurant situation that was so bad that I felt the need to complain to the manager.)  If the server were to, say, cough violently into my food and then carry on in the hope that I didn't notice, then that's not a tipping matter.  But I don't like the idea of micro-managing the ups and downs of other people's workdays through small (to me) sums of money.  It just doesn't feel like something we ought to be doing on the way to building a nicer society.

If you still have a few minutes, please watch this video, where someone a lot more erudite than me makes a far better job of explaining the point I wanted to make here. If you're in a hurry, skip to 09:30.

(*) All references to "you" are intended to be to a generic restaurant customer, although obviously the example from the quoted tweets will be salient. I hope Malcolm von Schantz will forgive me for choosing the occasion of his Twitter thread as a reminder that this issue has bothered me for some time and was in a far corner of my "blog ideas back burner".


  1. Nicely put. Most of the time servers are at the mercy of bartenders and the kitchen.

  2. I like the rule of thumb "Don't stiff the waitstaff unless it would also be appropriate to complain to the manager." Unlike you, I have seen such situations a few times. The most egregious case I recall is the one where we eventually got a menu, but the black couple next to us did not. They complained, and eventually got a menu, but their order was not taken. At that point they walked out, and so did we; but if we had placed an order and thus had to stay, certainly we wouldn't have tipped the offending waitstaff. (Amazingly, this was Denny's, and just after they had lost a large lawsuit over racially discriminatory behavior. This particular branch closed down a few weeks later, and good riddance.)

    Most things that go really wrong at a restaurant seem, from where I'm sitting, to be due to the kitchen, not the waitstaff--missing dishes, dishes with allergens included despite requests to leave them out. We do send things back, or strike missing items from the bill, but we don't hassle waitstaff over this because there's very little they can do about it.