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Take This Tip and Shove It

A complaint about complaints about bad service

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You can tell a lot about people from their gripes. And some gripes mean more than people think they do. Our national obsession with service workers, for example.

Americans spend an awful lot of time and energy worrying about the quality of service our minimum wage minions provide -- food servers, in particular. It's possible I'm simply more sensitive to it because I was one, off and on, for years. More likely, though, it has to do with the job itself. Along with their brethren -- bellhops, cab drivers, hairdressers -- servers get a huge chunk of their compensation in tips, wages paid entirely at the discretion of the person being served.

For a long time, it was said that the word "tip" dated from the 18th century, when patrons at English taverns would drop coins into a container labeled T.I.P., for "To Insure Promptitude." This jibes nicely with economists' tendency to view all transactions in terms of market efficiency and monetary self-interest; tipping guarantees that servers will try harder because trying harder will be rewarded by higher tips.

The problem with this theory is that it probably isn't true. Acronyms weren't common in English until the 1920s.

Even if the etymology did play out, though, the logic wouldn't. After all, people tip after the service has been rendered. If tipping were a matter of simple, straightforward self-interest, stiffing would be the norm, even among the most satisfied customers. And don't suppose that people leave good tips just to ensure extra attention on return visits. Research shows that people with no plans to return to a restaurant tip about the same as regulars.

In fact, according to the work of Cornell prof and one-time waiter Michael Lynn, it's not even clear that people really tip based on service quality. Tip size often has less to do with a server's performance than, oh, the size of the bill (people tend to tip a larger percentage, the bigger the bill is), whether or not the server touches the patron (people like to be touched -- within limits), and how extroverted ("Hey waiter, look at me!") or insecure ("Here's 20 percent, don't hate me") a customer is.

More generally, people tip for the same reason they wear pants in public -- the power of cultural norms. As anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows, though, there's a difference between wearing pants -- as in, hiding your privates -- and wearing the pants. It's all about power, and in this country, the consumer rules.

Wanna be a master? Go get a table at IHOP. You say "I want," and your serv(ant)er says "I will" -- tipping makes it so.

The fact that tipping creates a power imbalance has never been a secret to people who get tips. And that's the crux of the issue. If you work for tips, your earning power lies almost entirely with the people you serve because your actual wages are generally a pittance -- and legally so. Employers are only obligated to pay tipped employees $2.13 an hour after deducting a "tip credit" of $3.02 an hour. Of course, restaurants could jettison the whole tipping system and simply pay servers more -- but few do. The costs would have to be passed on to customers, and according to most restaurant owners, customers would rebel. Considering that the higher prices would simply be a swap for tipping, this is a curious assertion -- but probably an accurate one.

The truth is, Americans must like the tipping system. After all, when you are presented with a check in most other countries now, the gratuity is already on it; but in this country, we still tip -- a strange, almost anachronistic custom.

Tipping fits us. Many -- maybe most -- Americans don't like the unskilled to believe they are owed anything. Guaranteed largesse is an inducement to shirk. But make payment a gift, or better yet an act of charity, and the gravy train is sure to run on time. The value of tipping, says Jeffrey Gedmin in the conservative American Spectator, is evident to anyone who's ever eaten out in Europe, where "gratting" is the rule. Here you get service with a smile; there you get "service with a snarl." How bad is it over there? "Imagine a world," Gedmin says, "where waiters and sales clerks behave like tenured professors." That bad.

Not being a jet setter, I can't say how Europe's service compares to ours -- although I've worked in enough restaurants in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere to tell you that tip incentives don't shake every server's stick.

What's more, as someone who moonlighted as a waiter while earning a master's and worked (alas, to no avail) on a Ph.D., I can imagine waiters who behave like tenured professors. I was one. And I never got any complaints.

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