Hot Investment Tip: Put All Your Savings into Gratuities

Posted on January 19, 2016


Some people take restaurant service very seriously. You may have noticed these are also the people who take themselves very seriously. If you’ve ever spent the evening in the company of a self-appointed service industry critic, you quickly realize the dressing down of a 19-year-old waitress is a much greater strain on the evening than a missing side order. I always give the waitress a look I hope conveys: ‘Nobody would miss him if you poisoned his food.’

I’ve never once complained about service because I find bad service to be a tremendous relief: Oh, good, other people are terrible at their jobs, too. It makes the world less intimidating. I like to believe everyone is faking competence.

I have a hard time calling people on incompetence because being bad at their job makes me worry they’re unlikely to get a job anywhere else. While working in China I once came back late to the office and the cleaning lady was having sex with her boyfriend in my office, and I still gave her a bonus at Chinese New Year.

I will always give a bonus or tip slightly higher than what the social custom requires, no matter how bad the service and even if I have no comprehension of the service provided. And anyone who argues this rewards bad service, I would argue we’re not actually tipping to reward good service. We’re tipping to avoid an awkward social interaction in which someone will think we’re a cheapskate.

woman tipping hotel worker

I recently stayed at a hotel in Chicago and ordered something from room service. The menu included a note that all orders would include an 18.5% service charge. When the server brought the food, the 18.5% had been included, but when I went to sign the bill it also included a blank line: Tip_______

Was I supposed to add a 15% tip on top of the 18.5% tip? That means I’d be tipping the tip. If the original menu price was multiplied by 18.5% and now I multiplied that total by the standard 15%, the original service charge would be earning significant compound interest in only 30 minutes. Forget stocks and bonds, it’s time to invest in gratuities.

I paid the 15%. Not for the service, but as the price to avoid an awkward social interaction.

How often do you actually get good service at a restaurant? And what does good service even look like? I rarely ask a question about the wine list or make a special request. I look at the menu, point, and the waitress brings it to me. My complaint is that because servers work for tips, and opportunities to provide real service are limited, they’re motivated to ingratiate themselves to the point of being rude—and that should qualify as bad service. If I’m at dinner visiting with a friend, and a waitress interrupts conversation 11 times—I counted—to ask how everything tastes or if I need anything, that’s bad service no matter how much she smiles. If I were eating a sandwich alone in a park and a man tapped me on the shoulder and asked, ‘How does your sandwich taste?’ I wouldn’t answer, ‘Fine. Thanks for asking. Here’s three dollars.’

And just like that Chicago room service bill, gratuities are growing. More and more cafes and delis have tip jars on the counter. Every person working in a hotel stands and smiles until you pay them to go away. Bartenders expect a dollar a beer. Hairdressers expect a tip even though the haircuts never last. Taxis in New York have a credit card screen that says ‘Tip: 20%, 25%, 30%, or Other,’ and I’m sure a certain percentage of riders press 20% just to avoid doing the math on 15%. Before long we’ll be tipping doctors, pilots, and tipping consultants. Where will it end?

I’ve been all over the world and nobody rivals the US in terms of tipping customs, not only in the percentage paid but also in the jobs expecting a tip. Why has this custom become so ingrained in the American psyche?

Posted in: Columns