Can I be honest and convict myself?
I was on the side of the sliding-scale crowd. I tip, always. However, I hate the tipping system in America because it’s not about rewarding someone for superior service. It’s about guilt-tripping patrons to pay up.
Employers — either to increase their profit margins or out of concern they will lose business because of higher prices — force customers to supplement their employees’ wages with tips.
But the price of my meal should include what it takes for the company to make a fair profit and pay its workers a living wage.
I’d rather pay more for my meal than deal with the discomfort of having to decide how much to tip based on my opinion of a job well done — or not.
When people do not tip appropriately, they can be skewered publicly, which is what happened recently when a New Jersey lawmaker went on Twitter to humiliate a customer who left a 74-cent tip on a $119.26 tab. In his defense, the customer said the service was awful.
I discussed this in a previous column, which garnered so much response that I asked Washington Post food reporter and columnist Tim Carman what he thought about gauging gratuity based on the service you receive.
Q: How should diners tip when they get poor service for whatever reason?
Carman: I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding about tipping in America. Diners have been led to believe that tipping should be based on the quality of the service. But this is not the reason we tip. We tip because restaurateurs in America have shifted the burden of paying for some of their labor costs to diners. So when you don’t tip, it affects the wages of servers.
Q: Really, you shouldn’t deduct from the tip when you’ve received subpar service?
Carman: I think diners need to ask themselves a basic question: Do you get paid when you’re having an off day? When you’re not at your best? When you’re in a bad mood?
What’s more, waiting tables is hard work, and servers are only human. They may be having troubles at home, or they may be worried about a loved one. Or maybe they’re just spacing out. Who among us has not done that at our desks?
Q: Why should customers have to correct bad service?
Carman: It’s a tough situation. People want to feel indulged when they’re dining out. That’s part of the reason we go out to eat, to feel pampered for a while, to live in a world where everyone caters to our needs for an hour or two.
I think part of the problem is that diners don’t always realize they can exercise more control at the table. If the server is doing something that they don’t like — or not doing something they want — they should just break the spell at the table and tell the server. Just say, politely, “I would like my water glass filled regularly.” Or, “These entrees came out at the same time as our appetizers, can you send them back to the kitchen so we can enjoy a coursed-out meal?” Or whatever the problem is.
Most servers, I think, will respond better to a kind request at the table than a complaint behind their back.
I know it’s hard. Many people don’t like to be confrontational or even be perceived as confrontational. Plus, they think servers should just know what to do, at all times. But they get busy and distracted, and diners can help them get back on track with a gentle request.
But if the service doesn’t get better, I would ask the manager to switch out servers. A good restaurant will do that.
Q: So, once and for all, what is the appropriate tip at the table — for now at least?
Carman: Bottom line: Diners should always tip 20 percent. Always.
If the service is terrific, you should add more to the tip. But never subtract from the 20 percent.
Like it or not, tipping isn’t about me — or you. It’s simply a responsibility placed on all diners in this country. And you need to factor that in as the full cost of dining out.
Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary
@washpost.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.