The Tip Line of Guilt, Part III

A little over a year and a half ago, I added to this ongoing posting about tips by re-affirming my position on tips on take-out; that it is not customary, and therefore should not be expected. It seems as though whenever I go to take food out, I feel guilty when I don’t leave a tip. Part of this is due to the “tip line of guilt,” that tip line that appears on a credit card receipt even when you participate in a transaction that does not customarily receive tips. You see it. The person printing up the receipt knows you see it. Even if the tipping isn’t customary, there is a great deal of guilt and pressure associated with this moment. If I put a line through that and don’t tip, I feel like the biggest asshole, and I can usually see it on the face of the person who handed me the receipt, despite the fact that they wouldn’t dare express it verbally (at least until I am out the door.) The other night, for my wife’s birthday, she wasn’t feeling very well and did not want to go out for dinner, so I did a take out at the only Italian restaurant within like 100 miles. The bill came out to $52 and change. As luck would have it, i had just enough cash to pay for it without having to use my credit card – so I would never see that tip line, right? But there was a catch – the printed, unpaid receipt (which you could liken to an invoice) had tip percentages on it, as if to say “we realize this isn’t a transaction that customarily receives tips, but we want you to tip anyway.” The smallest tip percentage is 15%, as if to indicate that if you go below that, you’re a cheapskate asshole. But this was a take-out order, and even if I were to leave a tip, 15% I feel is too much for a single, one-pass transaction like take-out. So I didn’t leave a tip at all. The person who bagged and brought the food was an actual server – and I felt like a piece of shit for not leaving a tip. She was very nice and if she was vexed at the fact that I didn’t leave a tip, it didn’t show. But what is making me feel guilty about it? Is it my perception that she may think me a cheap asshole? Was it my taking out on the server my rejection of the restaurant’s expectation that I tip on take-out, something I feel no obligation to do (but I often do anyway because of the tip line and the high-pressure moment?) Was it some other reason? Why am I feeling guilty about not doing something that I should not be expected to do in the first place?

In moments like these I take to the worldwide web and google “tipping on take-out” to see what others say. I did this as well before I wrote that last article ( The Tip-Line of Guilt, Revisited). I honestly didn’t do it to justify my position, but I am wondering if the custom has changed since I wrote the last article. It doesn’t seem as though it has, as I read opinions that run the gamut from “I give nothing to the take-out person” to “I tip them just as I would a regular server.” After reading many opinions, I came to the conclusion that these opinions are so disparate because nobody seems to know why they have to tip in the first place. Some people seem to think the tip is to make sure they get good service from their server. Some even parrot this oft-repeated yet seemingly mistaken acronym that TIPS stands for “To Insure Prompt/Proper Service.” OK, side note: First, you’re not “insuring” anything. To insure something is to give money to buy insurance. Do you honestly think giving tips gets you “insurance?” Insurance is protection in the event of loss or damage, like auto or homeowners insurance or trip protection insurance, not something you can hold over someone’s head to get them to do your bidding. The word you are looking for is ENSURE. But we’re not here to discuss TEPS, are we? Second, you’re not ENSURING anything either by tipping. If you alter the tip amount based on the service, then what you are doing is reactive. Ensuring prompt service is proactive. It doesn’t work if the justification for good service is given at the end. If the service sucks and you don’t tip, then you did not ensure the prompt service, did you? You got shitty service and you tipped accordingly. That didn’t ensure prompt service. That ensured you being a passive-aggressive cock by not bringing it to the server’s attention that you are dissatisfied with the service and instead, in a cowardly fashion, stiffing them. No, the only way to ensure prompt service is to start the server off saying they’re getting 20%, and each unsatisfactory thing they do, take away some money. Does anyone actually DO that? Finally, TIPS is plural. So this only works if you leave several people multiple tips. What are you “insuring” if we’re talking about a tip in the singular form? To “insure” proper what? Nothing, that’s what. Eat Me. I read somewhere (I can’t even remember where) that this expression was started in 18th century England when someone wrote that expression on a bowl that collected the tips, but I think that is revisionist history at best. If that’s the case, I declare that the word “Gratuity” was invented to stand for “Give Remuneration Additionally To Underpin Income, Thank You.” You heard it here first! So with that out of the way, statistics show that most people don’t change the tip they give their server based on their performance, and if they do, and leave the server a bad tip, the server just assumes they’re cheap. Ergo, nothing changes, and the tip doesn’t really ensure anything most of the time. Besides, is this really the only way to ensure people are doing their jobs well? I don’t have to tip the guy who rotates my tires at BJs, because if he doesn’t rotate my tires properly, he’ll just have to do it over again. So the “ensuring proper service” doesn’t hold much water as a reason to tip. Many others seem to believe they’re leaving tips because they are being served – they’re sitting down in the restaurant, having a server take their order, bring it to them, clear plates, refill beverages, etc., and people are pretty adamant about not tipping takeout because “all they did was hand me a bag.” But tips for a bartender are expected, and sometimes all they do is “hand you a bottle” of your favorite beer. So being served as a reason really isn’t a spectacular one, especially when some functions of some jobs you don’t do that much more than someone who handed you a bag.

The only reason I figure we tip is because the restaurant margins are too slim to pay server a full wage without having to charge prices for food that nobody would want to pay. In essence, restaurateurs will do what they can to keep the costs down, and if that means giving someone a server’s wage to man the takeout in hopes that the tip-line pressure will supplement the take-out person’s salary enough to bring them at least to minimum wage, then that’s what they will do. If they can use a server to do it, then they’ll do that.

Perhaps for this reason, tipping on take-out may soon become custom. That argument alone represents biggest argument I see for tipping take-out orders – that servers, who make less than minimum wage, and are counting on tips to bring their salary into respectability, are sometimes responsible for the preparation for the take-out package. They have to get the dinners, pack them up, put the silverware in it, make sure the order is correct, and ring it up. Some people think that warrants a tip because of the server’s wage. Unfortunately, it is just as easy to poke holes in this logic as are common conceptions about why we tip in the first place. For starters, why should it even matter to the customer who prepared the order? By this logic, if a person who is generally not tipped, such as a host, did the exact same thing, then tips are not appropriate. Therefore it boils down to a matter of how that particular restaurant operates. In the Italian restaurant I carried-out from the other night, the server handled the take-out order (maybe just because it was 3:45 in the afternoon). In the Chinese restaurant across the street, the host does it. As the customer, the operation of your restaurant is immaterial; Are you expecting that the customer should behave differently depending upon how the restaurant organizes and divides the labor? Does that sound like a reasonable expectation to you? Do your customers actually care about your operations? No, they just want their food prepared to their liking, not the specifics of the way the restaurant is run. I don’t give a happy hunk of horseshit who packs up my order, as long as it is done. I understand that if you work in the restaurant, you have a restaurant-centric view of how things should be done. But from the point of view of the customer, it shouldn’t even matter. Because the restaurant is predicated on serving the customer, and not the other way around, the view should be customer-centric. Therefore, the wage status of the person who prepares the take out order is of no relevance to the customer.

Then there are people who feel that tips should be presented because the person handling your take-out order is providing a service. Consider the fast food restaurant called Chick-fil-a. At chick-fil-a, when they’re not providing unwelcome opinions on marriage, people actually perform a service. Even though you order it yourself, they bring your order out to your table, yet tipping is not even allowed at that restaurant. A long time ago, I actually tried to tip someone in Chick-fil-a couple of times because the process of serving you food at your seat I’ve come to understand as customary to tip. The associate told me that they were compensated adequately and the only tip required was gratitude. The point is, there are many services provided where tips are not expected. My accountant provides a service. I don’t tip her 20% on her $410 bill to prepare my taxes. So “they provide a service” as an argument in favor of tipping when taking-out is not a particularly strong one.

When it all boils down to it there is no right answer to this question. It’s still not customary to tip on take-out orders and therefore I should not feel pressure to do it. So if your argument is against it, when engaging in a debate with someone over whether you should provide a tip on a take-out order, don’t ever engage somebody in a conversation about what they do to prepare your order. As soon as you say “all you did was hand me a bag,” you will get a laundry list of things they did in preparation for you to receive that order. Now you’ve justified that in fact you should be tipping them. If you want to win this argument, keep it about you. “I am getting take out service. Is it customary to tip when taking out? No, it is not. End of argument.” I don’t care what your salary is. I don’t care if you needed to create origami serving containers to pack up my order. I don’t care if you needed to wait for Gunga Din to pour the beverages. None of that is my concern. What is my concern is that I am not participating in an exchange where tips are customary, therefore it is not appropriate to treat a person with disdain for not giving a tip in that instance.

But my resentment of this whole tipping debate is not with restaurants that offer sit-down service and have to find a way to make take-out a viable part of that business. In fact, under some circumstances, I think tipping SHOULD happen at the take out – if it’s a restaurant that offers actual sit-down service, during a busy time (between 4:30 and 8), and a server is running around between his/her tables and your take-out order, and you have placed an order to serve more than 2 people, then I think 5-10% is an appropriate gratuity in that instance, especially when your annoying order could result in lost tips for the server whose patrons feel they are being neglected. But in a restaurant that does not provide a service at all where tipping is customary, like Jupiter’s Donuts in Florida? You’ve got some serious stones making tipping part of that deal. And I find more often than not I don’t get a speck of gratitude for tipping these cashiers. That’s right – they’re mere cashiers, and tipping, which goes above and beyond my duty as a customer (which is, let’s face it, pay for my shit and don’t be an asshole) in a take-out situation for an establishment that does not offer customarily tipped services should be rewarded with the utmost in gratitude. I feel “I really appreciate your generosity,” is both recognition for doing something I didn’t even have to do and likely to make sure that behavior is repeated. But here’s the thing – seldom do I ever get anything beyond the same thank you I get for any services that wouldn’t dare ask for a tip, like the person who performs oil changes and the cashier at the home depot. So why am I tipping there again?

Look, like I said, I’m not against tipping these people on principle. If I was a person with limited means and a nearly depleted bank account who was 10 days away from the next paycheck, I wouldn’t. Can I spare a few bucks to make someone else’s day a little brighter? Sure I can. But there are just times when I feel that asking for tips is inappropriate. To the question of whether you should, I don’t know the answer to that question. For me, much of the time it comes down to what I am feeling at that very moment. In that restaurant, if the tip amounts didn’t appear on the bill, I might have thrown a few bucks down. Maybe I see that someone is having a bad day, so I throw a few dollars where I normally wouldn’t have. But overall, I feel that food service businesses that offer no sit down/delivery or bar service should have no tip cups or tip lines on the receipt. I’m looking at you Criterion theater and Reel Pizza Cinerama in Bar Harbor! (Although Reel Pizza serves alcohol, so if you buy alcohol, you should tip!) I’m talking to you, “Wings to go!” I’m calling you out, Starbucks! That’s right, I’m referencing your shit, Jupiter’s Donuts! And I especially direct this sentiment to you, cafeteria at Mystic Aquarium! You need to remove tip cups from the counter and the tip line from the receipt and stop pressuring me to do something that should not be expected. And if for whatever reason I do, out of the goodness of my heart, extend a little extra cash your way, a smile and a warm appreciation for my generosity is a small price to pay.

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