I greatly enjoyed The Seattle Times’ five-part series on tipping, and have already used its advice and wisdom multiple times while staring down one of those iPad tip screens.
But we should talk about why there needed to be a five-part newspaper series on tipping in the first place. Just our “brief guide” on gratuity etiquette featured 20 different scenarios, all with their own conditional tip percentages or amounts. Figuring out how much to leave after a meal or a latte is not supposed to be as complex and ethically fraught as, say, the Hanford nuclear cleanup.
Yet even all that didn’t prepare for me two tipping conundrums I had in just the past few weeks.
The first was at a bar out on the Olympic Peninsula. It was a stand-up order kind of place, where you make your request at the bar and return to fetch the food when it’s ready. In other words, they cooked, but I was my own waiter.
I ordered a couple burgers and salads, gave my credit card, and when the bartender flipped the tablet screen my way, I would have been knocked out of my seat had I been sitting in one.
“Add a tip,” it said: “25% 30% 35%.”
My finger froze in mid-air. Those were the three options? The order hadn’t been made yet. Yet the admonition swirled in my head from a server featured in the Times’ series, who spoke of side-eyeing any customers who didn’t follow the tip-screen prompts: “I see you pressing the custom tip,” she had said.
I glanced behind me at the line. Are they watching me? Should I pay a 25% premium to skirt even the possibility of shame? Too late. Only later did I wonder whether I was being extorted.
The seminal book on tipping in America was written more than a century ago, titled “The Itching Palm.” It was an anti-tipping polemic, wildly outdated now, that led a number of states to ban the practice. Whether that was the right course or not, the author, William R. Scott, nailed the psychological somersaults gratuity culture can induce in customers.
“The psychology of tipping may be stated in the following formula,” he wrote: “To one-quarter part of generosity, add two parts of pride and one part of fear.”
Bullseye, at least for this conflicted tipster. The generosity part is controversial, then as now. Scott felt it was misguided; customers had been duped into paying the owner’s labor costs, he argued. But it’s also true that every little bit of generosity helps, especially in pricey places like Seattle. So tipping in our gilded, guilty city has become a sort of civic religion, like recycling.
Some of this was supposed to be addressed by dramatically raising the minimum wage. Remember when the fight for $15 was predicted to reduce tipping?
Tip expectations, as the Times’ series documented, have risen instead. My bar story may be an outlier, but in New York, there was a restaurant whose pay screen allegedly suggested tips of 25%-35%-40%. Maybe tipping markets are signaling that $15 is still too low?
At the same time, technology is radically changing tipping, making it omnipresent.
A few days after my bar shock, I was at a small grocery, a convenience store, picking up cat food and a six-pack (you know, the usual). The cashier turned the iPad to me, and it suggested a tip of 15%-20%-25%. Those are more earthly percentages, but … to tack onto a grocery bill?
Economics researchers say “preservice tipping” — requesting a tip prior to the delivery of any service — is an exploding trend. As is no-service tipping, in which, as with the convenience store, the tip is completely divorced from any service, and so serves more as a “good-feelings” tax simply for the store being there.
Disconnecting the service from the tip like this may not bode well for tipping.
“Post-service tipping provides customers with increased feelings of fairness, generosity, and freedom, while also reducing feelings of guilt,” University of Oregon researchers noted in a 2020 study. But tip requests before anything has happened end up darkening the mood, they found, “leading customers to infer that service providers have manipulative intentions.”
It’d be great at a minimum to know where the generosity goes.
Back at the bar, I had more pressing concerns — namely, pride and shame. I fumbled with the custom tip button as the crowd grew impatient and judgmental behind me (or so I imagined). In the end I left about 18%, after tax — and sat down feeling horrible.
The convenience store was a tipping point, though. For the first time, I took a deep breath and pressed “No Tip” on the screen. The clerk side-eyed. I left feeling like I’d shoplifted the cat food and beer.
“The Itching Palm,” a century ago, called for some sort of national association to address tipping. The author wanted it banned. As a former waiter who long ago survived on it, I do not. I am suggesting, though, that this is all now racing past custom, past economics even, into the realm of the technological and psychological unknown.
Maybe we need a Tipping Commission — to suggest some guidelines, some best practices, some unifying tipping principle in this new era?
Before artificial intelligence decides it for us, anyway. Or at least before we do another five-part newspaper series.