'Tipping Is Good,' or So a Reader Claims

When money can be "the sincerest form of appreciation."

This morning I mentioned (approvingly) a recent Quartz story arguing that a tipping culture, in addition to being demeaning, didn't even accomplish its supposed end of producing better service. A reader disagrees.

What he says doesn't change my mind, but in the interest of healthy debate, here goes:

Sorry, but I can stand it no longer...  You have it all wrong when it comes to tipping. Maybe not "wrong", since it's a question of philosophy, but certainly missing out on one of life's pleasures. So is Jay Porter [the Quartz writer, whom the reader quotes several times below]:

"Restaurant customers like tipping because it puts them in the driver's seat. As a diner, you control your experience, using the power of your tip to make sure your server works hard for you."

Ummm, bullshit. I like tipping because it gives me an opportunity to show some appreciation to the various members of the 47%, who as a rule work longer hours than I do for way less money and generally live closer to the edge of survival in every way. I don't like their situation, but this is one small thing I can do to help and which is dignified for both of us. It has nothing to do with control or punishment.

When I tip, I do it like this: (1) I figure an amount: 20-25% in a restaurant (not 18% by the way), in other situations sometimes 50% or more of the bill. (2) I hand it to the person who served me. (3) I say "Thank you." And I mean it. I recognize that my own life is vastly more comfortable thanks to the many who slog away (generally very cheerfully) for long hours at hard labor. I am glad for the opportunity to express that appreciation. And it's hardly as if I can't afford it. If cost were an issue, I would simply go out less often.

"Restaurant owners like tipping because it means they don't have to pay for managers to closely supervise their servers. With customers using tips to enforce good service, owners can be confident that servers will do their best work."

This may be true--not owning a restaurant, I couldn't say. But if is true, surely the fault lies with the restaurant owner who seizes on a gesture of appreciation as an excuse to shirk his/her duties rather than the gesture itself. Did you notice, by the way, that Porter doesn't specify what happens to the 18% service charge he collects? I wonder whether part of the appeal of his system is that he maintains control of the money. And I question whether that 18% lifted his wait staff very many rungs above the bottom of the social ladder.

Porter's calculation that an employee maximizes income by giving poor service to a large number of customers may have some validity for table servers. I'm not sure how it applies to a taxi driver, a masseur, a parking attendant, a furniture mover, a bellhop, or a Starbucks barista. Indeed, in some cases good service is largely synonymous with rapid service.
  
Finally, I always experience some dissonance when you describe tipping as an "America-centric" custom. Decades ago, on a visit to Morocco, I took pride in gritting my teeth and not paying a cent of baksheesh to anyone. But my attitudes have changed, and if I go back, I will most likely pay out cheerfully. Moreover--and I can see how this would surprise you--I think of tipping as closely related to the Asian practice of using money as a token of affection and esteem (as opposed the general American view of money gifts as lazy and crass, like Jerry giving Elaine $182 for her birthday). Tipping is one situation where money is the sincerest form of appreciation.

I know that an "Australian solution" -- very high minimum wage and service-sector pay, frowned-upon tipping culture -- is not going to happen in America. Given our recent Gilded Age momentum, a more likely outcome is something even worse than we have now: stagnant service-sector wages, a minimum wage that keeps falling in real terms, and no offset via tips. Even though I don't like the tipping culture, I know it's reality, and my standard restaurant tip is 20% or more -- and comparably for doormen, parking-lot attendants, and so on. Still, I view this as an unfortunate reality rather than a positive good.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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