Tuesday, July 12, 2005

You are how you tip

Your restaurant meal is over and you're about to leave. Now comes the hard part: How much do you tip?

Almost without exception, Amy, my wife, casts a disapproving glance when I add 20% or more to the check. But that's fine, because I express similar dismay at her parsimony when the tipping is in her court -- like the time she offered the pizza-delivery boy all of 50 cents for his effort.

OK, it's true that tipping isn't the most pressing money matter that people deal with. Yet it's sometimes one of the most contentious.

On one level, the disagreement is simple: We all place a different value on the services we receive. Your definition of appropriate may be my definition of stinginess.

But the tipping controversy goes beyond that: It's also about appearance and ego, a litmus test for the kind of person we're perceived to be, and the kind of person we perceive others to be. We want to come across as fair though not excessive, prudent yet not cheap.

It's a balancing act that, while it might not always be conscious, shapes the way we dole out gratuities. And when you and your dining companion are on different ends of the spectrum, the size of the tip can leave a bitter taste in your mouth after every meal.

I don't have a rule as to an ammount and never use the bill to calculate it. If the service is bad I decrease the tip, and if it is really bad, I'll admit, I might not leave a tip at all. After all, I don't think that tipping should be some obligatory thing that one feels they must do after every meal. You already pay for the meal, why should you tip even if the service was poor. The tip should be a bonus, a reward for a job well-done, not a customary thing that you do because it's what a person does.

Maybe I'm just cheap and justifying it, but I've left tips that were as high as half the bill before as well, but not because it's what I do, but because I felt that it was deserved.

Down the obligatory tipping I say, tip on merit.

"Nobody docks my pay if I'm particularly grumpy at work or if I make a mistake," she says. "I just find it a little unseemly to lower a person's pay by $5 because they didn't bring me my meal fast enough.

It's not docking their pay due to bad service, but not giving them a bonus that they didn't earn. If you are average at your job do you get a 20% tip at the end of the year? Not usually.