Leave the tip on the table

By W. W. Matteson | Apr 08, 2021

In the spring of my senior year of high school I went on a school trip to Greece. One morning, in the city of Nafplion, my friend Matt and I had breakfast at an outdoor café overlooking the Gulf of Argolis. I don’t remember how the breakfast tasted, or what we discussed during our meal, but I will never forget the awkward moment when we tried to tip the server as we settled our bill. She did not speak much English, nor we any Greek. But she was clearly uncomfortable with the extra money we were trying to give her, handing it back to us with a look that was somehow both offended and amused.

I understood even then that tipping was a uniquely American custom, but I had recently begun waiting tables myself and I just couldn’t stomach the idea of walking away without leaving her something over the price on the bill. She had given us good service, and I felt that even if she was being paid a full wage by the restaurant, she still deserved something extra for suffering the weird power imbalance between the one who orders and the one who serves. There is no other business transaction in the world where one party is expected to smile and be grateful when the other is rude or abusive, where it can be blithely assumed that the customer is always right. I was still getting used to this element of the profession myself, so I insisted on offending her by leaving a few extra Euros on the table.

Later, after graduating as an English major into the Great Recession of 2008, I realized the power of the tip. Here was a tidy living if you were reliable and friendly. I had thick enough skin to put up with the subtle rudeness and microaggressions of the meaner clientele and that was all it took to make three or four hundred dollars a day carrying dishes from one place to another.

I hope that doesn’t sound too glib because I really did love it. Serving tables allowed me to pursue writing while still making a good living. It taught me a thousand small lessons about empathy and interpersonal relations that have helped me in both my professional career and my private life. But there was something that always bugged me about the structure of service. Just how was it that my employer was getting away with rolling the cost of my labor over onto the customer?

Now, for those of you who are gathering pitchforks and lighting torches, please know that I fully understand the importance of tipping to our local economy, how good a living it can be for so many Mainers, and how it makes possible the business-model of so many small restaurants in our area. I’m not saying let’s outlaw tipping tomorrow. (I have tried that, in haughtier times of my life, at ill-chosen moments in the fog of ale, and I barely escaped un-scuffled.) But I think it is important to talk about what the institution of tipping is, not only because it is already being talked about all over the country, but because it might ultimately be better for the economy, for individuals, and for businesses, if we simply got rid of it.

The NPR podcast, “Throughline,” recently produced an excellent history of tipping that I recommend to anyone who is interested in this topic. There isn’t space here to do the story justice, but the important takeaway is that tipping is a carryover from medieval Europe when serfs and peasants were not paid for their labor but might be tipped for their services, mostly as a way for the nobles to shield themselves from cheeky pranks or being poisoned.

Later, tipping came to America as a way for robber barons to save money, and it was considered deeply unamerican and antidemocratic, until it became a tool for Jim Crow racism. Pullman car workers, mostly Black, were among the first American workers to be tipped regularly, and this was considered okay only because they were Black. Slowly, over time, it became the norm for people who provide intimate services, such as haircutting and food bringing, to receive most of their pay from the customer and not their employer.

Aside from this racist and classist structuring, the institution of tipping has a number of underrecognized impacts on the economy of a restaurant. For one thing, it divides the loyalty of the server from the house. Many diners are unashamed to lean in, much too close, and ask their server for free stuff in exchange for a bigger tip. Many servers are unafraid to oblige them. Rather than optimizing for teamwork and common goals, tipping fosters an every-server-for-themselves dynamic. Forget about cost control so long as bartenders can get better tips for stronger drinks.

Only the most successful restaurants could afford to pay their servers a full wage without increasing prices. Heaven forfend! The truth is that the price “increase” is already here, unless you are a jerk who doesn’t tip. Most of us always do tip anyway, regardless of the quality of service. We just for some reason feel better about it because we know we could withhold the money if we wanted to, that we might leverage that small power so deliciously if the server looks at us the wrong way! Having your food cooked for you and carried over to you while being treated like royalty always was a luxury item and people who understand that and want it anyway won’t quibble about the price.

If the price of the tip is built in and mandatory for the guest, servers can go on getting paid in much the same way they did before, except that it will be guaranteed by their employer. Restaurants might lose a few cheapskate patrons, but they will retain a stronger, more committed workforce and a clientele that recognizes happy service.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine's coast and mountains.

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