Tips are for those who earn them, not bullies

July 03, 2000|By William Noble

ISLAND HEIGHTS, N.J. -- The other evening my wife and I had an after-theater supper at a well-known restaurant. When the check came, it included the usual tip line for service, plus another tip line for the headwaiter.

I'm not a babe-in-the-woods when it comes to tipping, but a second tip blandishment for the headwaiter strikes me as interest on my already-paid tax bill, to say nothing about blatant hard sell. Whatever happened to discreet acknowledgement and a quick nod of understanding?

Subtle atta-boys seem gone. Reward has now become entitlement. The unspoken understanding that put a burden on the headwaiter to establish the level of tip has shifted; now the burden is on the dinner guest to appease the headwaiter's expectation, and that's underscored by the in-your-face reminder on the check.

The "tip-culture" is on the cusp of being a tail wagging the restaurant dog. It could be a reflection of society that demands "be somebody!" "don't give in to victimization!' `don't relinquish control over your life!'" But there's a downside, and it can present an ugly picture.

Such as unvarnished greed.

Last week I walked into a downtown coffee shop and ordered the simplest of items: a bagel and a cup of coffee. They were put on a tray along with a cream cheese container, a plastic knife for spreading and a napkin. As I handed over my money I noticed, right by the cash register, a large plastic cup with a protruding tab: "TIPS." Inside were a couple of dollars and some loose coins. As the server handed back my change, she caught my eye, then dropped hers to the tip jar.

No way, I thought. "Thank you," I said.

"For what?" she said, keeping her eye on the tip jar.

I resisted the urge to respond, "For pouring coffee and handing me a tray."

The ugly picture has still another side, and some would call it intimidation. The ultimate goal is to solidify "tip-culture" dominance.

I've been in pubs and lounges where an oversized brass container sits on a pedestal, an icon for who will be controlling what. Right beside the container is a metal mallet, and when a patron leaves an "appropriate" tip, the duty bartender walks to the brass container and bangs it loudly with the mallet. The resonance of metal on metal vibrates far and wide.

And the message? Good tips are expected in this place.

Nearly 100 years ago "tip-culture" attitudes must have been as they are today because there was the Anti-Tipping Society of America with more than 100,000 members. They managed to get tipping abolished in seven states, though, of course, things eventually changed.

We don't need to go that far, but we need to see tipping as it once was -- an act of graciousness and kindness, a reward for service, not entitlement turning perfectly nice people into bullies.

William Noble is a writer with 16 published books and more than 100 short pieces in print. He always tips his waiter.

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