The Tip Line of Guilt, Revisited

12 years ago I wrote an article for my website called “the tip line of guilt.” The tip line of guilt, as I put it, is the tip line that appears on a receipt for a purchase that does not customarily require tipping, such as take-out service or counter person. In this article I wrote things like:

“Counter persons don’t earn/deserve tips”


“People who make at least the minimum wage who don’t have tips figured into their salary shouldn’t get tips.”

At least in theory, I have come to see things a little differently, and I have learned a few things since I wrote that article. For instance, in some places like those ice cream stands on which everyone waits on long lines for the summer, some owners can get away with paying employees the same as restaurant servers, thereby expecting that tips will bring them at least to the minimum wage. Perhaps in some ways they are actually being servers, and usually if the change is 50 cents or more I’ll drop it in their tip jar, or else I’ll give them a dollar.

Secondly, I wouldn’t these days make a blanket statement that anyone doesn’t deserve or earn tips. Everyone who works hard deserves/earns at least a living wage, no matter what their job is. Unfortunately, society has determined that some jobs should not be expected to provide a living wage, and there’s really nothing you can do about that except for not to get a job in that industry. So while I would say that everyone who works hard deserves/has earned a living wage, I am still adamant on whose burden it is to provide a living wage to people who work hard: not mine.

In practice, however, I realized that even though I reserved my right not to tip when I carry out, I usually did. Most of the time, that had to do with the tip line of guilt or the expectation that accompanies the presence of a tip cup/jar. That doesn’t mean that when I genuinely appreciate someone going the extra mile I wouldn’t tip them even if the tip jar did not exist. But I noticed that as soon as Starbucks started adding the ability to tip to the app with which I pay, I stopped tipping them. The guilt feeling associated with not tipping baristas is mitigated by the anonymity provided by using the app – as far as they know, maybe I did tip. So I guess what has changed is the realization that if the tip line of guilt were to go away, or the tip jars disappear, I would seldom tip where it is not customary.

Some things have not changed, however. For instance, I still feel that the presence of tip jars at counters is inappropriate, as are tip lines appearing on receipts where I am getting a carry out order. However, I recognize that in most cases, the receipt prints out with a tip line because somewhere in that establishment a service is provided where tipping is customary, so it would be cumbersome to print out receipts with a tip line for some orders, not others. My beef is with these places that ask for tips where they provide no services anywhere that customarily receive tips. I’ve run into three of these in my lifetime: Wings to go in Fairless Hills, PA, mentioned in the previous article, which has neither delivery no sit-down service. The cafeteria at the Mystic Aquarium prints out a receipt with a tip line even though they have no servers and you have to come up and get everything yourself and bring it to the cashier. And the last one was my most recent experience, at the Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor. With the exception of the Gold Class Cinema in Melbourne, Australia, where they have servers bring you shit, in my 43 years, I have NEVER seen a tip jar in a movie theatre or seen a tip line print out on a movie theatre receipt. And it’s not just for the concession – the ticket office prints a tip line as well. Now I gotta tip in movie theatres also? What kinda bullshit is that? Bad enough you have to pay $4.50 for a box of Dots you could get at Walgreens for $.99, now you gotta throw money on top of that because they opened a drawer and handed it to you? Why then are tips not solicited in any other movie theatre I have ever been in anywhere in the US and that includes New York City where the poor schmuck behind the counter could probably use the money because rent is so freakin high?

Look, I’m not against tipping anyone on principle. In the grand scheme of things, an extra buck or two won’t make or break me. But there are times when tipping is customary and times when it isn’t. That said, I will never tell a person that they did nothing to deserve or earn a tip. In fact, when it comes to tipping outside of the customarily accepted tipping scenarios (server/delivery driver, hairstylist/other aestheticians, housekeeping, porters/bellhops, taxi/livery drivers, movers, etc) I don’t make it about the other person at all. It’s about me; am I participating in an exchange where tips are customary? If the answer is no, then I don’t have to tip. As soon as we start talking about the other person, now you are dignifying any of their reasons why they should be receiving tips. Sorry, tips are not customary in this instance, so I shouldn’t feel the need to tip. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it – I just feel I shouldn’t be EXPECTED to do it, and no matter what they say – that tips are appreciated not expected – the presence of a tip line on a receipt or a tip jar at the counter is inferred by customers as an expectation.

In essence, if you think the reason I should tip you where tips are not customary is because you “need” more money to get by, or because you work hard to earn them, then you need to ask the person in charge of evaluating your work – your manager – for more money. If they do not give it to you, then you need a skill that will provide more money. What you need is none of my concern. When I go somewhere to get something, it is about my needs, and the needs of my family, not your needs. I’m not going to get take out because I am interested in visiting you because I have nothing better to do with my life. I am not there to be discussing you and what you need. I am there to get food for my family. So if tipping is customary, you will get a nice tip. And if it is not customary, you still might get a tip. But if you don’t, it’s not because I’m cheap, it’s because it is not customary. End of discussion.

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