The New Class War at the Tip Jar

The world is divided between makers and takers: those who tip and those who demand to be tipped, and the two sides are at odds. Is 25 percent the new 47 percent?

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Despite all the talk of half of the United States being a bunch of entitled victims who only want handouts and don't even pay income tax, we were struggling to hang our hats on who these people were, exactly, to put a face on them, to parse what that claim of not paying income tax truly meant (they are elderly, they are unemployed, they don't make enough money). Others may be right in front of our eyes, toiling away at the various dining establishments and coffeeshops and salons around town where people work to serve other people and, in ever increasing degrees, expect money for it. Even if technically not "THE 47%," perhaps these in spirit are the people representing that "entitled victimhood" Romney revealed his distaste for in a speech to wealthy donors. (Digression: Can you really be a victim and entitled? Discuss!). So, how entitled are they, exactly? They want your tips.

The New York Post's piece on the business of tipping (always a fraught enterprise; marriages and friendships have ended over no less) asks "Is 25 percent the new 20 percent?" Note: This is a rhetorical question. (Subhed: "New York waiters think so. Here’s how the service industry is trying to take bigger tips off you than ever.") Yep, the world is divided between those who tip and those who demand to be tipped, and the two are at odds. Is 25 percent the new 47 percent? Chris Erikson writes in the Post,

As a former waiter at an Upper East Side diner, Brian Moore considers himself a generous tipper. But he’s set off by the increasing number of people with their hands out, and a “sense of entitlement” that skips over the time-honored equation whereby a generous tip is considered a reward for a job well done.

“It’s just expected no matter what,” 48-year-old Moore says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going through life like Robert De Niro going through the nightclub in ‘GoodFellas,’ tipping people right and left just for smiling at me.”

He is not alone in sharing this dreadful burden, feeling like you're supposed to hand someone (who's working for a living as you enjoy yourself) your hard-earned dollar bills. Gratuities are going up, running "to 25 or even 30 percent"! (These are suggested gratuities, so you can choose to ignore them, but still.) Tip jars are everywhere. (You can ignore them, but still, they are an affront to your eyes.) Credit-card tipping devices have risen and are making it even easier for these people to take your money! There's even a name for it, "tip creep," as dubbed by author Steve Dublanica, who wrote Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest To Become the Guru of the Gratuity. What is a person to do?

Here's where it gets psychological. We know that one thing the rich really hate is to be made to feel guilty for being rich. Also hated: To be made to feel as if someone is expecting something of you, a handout, or whatnot. In terms of entitlement and victimhood, we are all assigned a role: The tippers think they don't HAVE to tip if they don't want to, and shouldn't even be asked, they are just the victims here. They shouldn't have to bother with this petty stuff, get manicured nails chipped by digging into handbags, and to ask one's servant to do it is another kind of indignity. Tip jars should be banned outright. There should be no tipping. We should all move to Europe and live in a giant villa together and be wafted by palm fronds and served skinless grapes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, except that sounds altogether too socialist (and hungry-making) a plan. And that was my fantasy, not yours. I deserve a tip for it! Meanwhile, yes, those who work hard for what they do in a system which pays them minimum wage buttressed by a system of tips, well, they want said tips. That's the way we do things here: hard work to make money, harder work to make more. But if you can make more money with less work, well, now you've got the stuff of American dreams. Don't we all deserve that?

Back to Erikson. All the tip jars everywhere are so very offputting. "In New York City, those angling for a handout include bodega cashiers, grocery baggers, dry cleaners and hardware clerks," he writes. Meanwhile, gratuities are trending upward, as even the tipping academics acknowledge—the 20 percent tip, once a windfall, is rather expected. (Grandmother's hugest rebuke to a server was to leave a penny in the water. My hugest rebuke is leaving an 18 percent tip, rounded up so it's really more like 20.)

But much like the income tax debate raging in the lead-up to the presidential election, this article reveals a nation divided into two tipping camps—and they're both entitled. After all, it's America. On one hand, there are the waiters, always on the make for more cash in their pockets, at least according to Dublanica: “In Manhattan, when I talk to waiters they tell me, ‘No, we want 25 percent now.’ I don’t know how often they’re getting it, but within the past couple years, I’ve heard that mumbled," writes Erikson. On the other hand are those who mumble, or speak quite loudly and clearly, that they're not going to take it. This tipping is out of control! How dare we be asked for that which we do not necessarily want to give; how dare we be made out as cheap. How dare the costs go up, and tips follow with them? And when will it end!?

Of course, unless tipping is required, one need only have the wherewithal to sashay out the door, head held high, knowing that she has tipped for what she felt the server was due, even if it's a penny left in a water glass and your whole family is following you out the door in shame, your grandchildren lingering behind to pass the waiter a $20. It's our own fault that we get so worked up about tipping:

Part of the reason we get so incensed about running an endless gauntlet of tip jars, Dublanica believes, is that most people like to think of themselves as generous — and when they pass one by, it creates “cognitive dissonance,” sending the message that “maybe we’re not as nice as we think we are.”

The alternative is worse, though, for example, adopting a European system in which service is built in. That would make us so much madder than we already are! What incentives would there be for lazy service people to come over and clear our places and give us our bills? And we have places to go and things to see and we're going to dock your tip for this terrible service except, oh, damn, there's no tipping here in the first place.

Read this not just about tipping, however. It's a statement about where we are in America, about our dueling values systems, about the Republicans versus the Democrats, about the so-called entitled 47% versus the remaining 53% who are equally but differently entitled. Replace "tipping" with "income tax" in the piece and it reads as political analysis, even:

So the slow shift toward ever higher tips taxation will continue, begging the question: Where will it end? Ten percent was the norm back in Eisenhower’s day, and it’s taken 50 years to reach the point where 25 percent isn’t unthinkable. How much longer before we’re seeing a suggested gratuity tax of 40 or even 50 percent?

Or do that with Romney's description of the 47 percent of Americans "who are dependent upon government, customers, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government customer has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it tips, more and more tips!"

Still, as American citizens, we can all make our own individual decisions about tipping, which is not quite the same story with our income tax.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.