The Tipping Point

A lifetime of eating Chinese food and I still don't know how to use these.

A lifetime of eating Chinese food and I still don’t know how to use these.

I picked up Chinese take-out the other night and after I signed the bottom of the credit card receipt, the cashier paused before taking the slip of paper back from me.

I had left the little dotted line between AMOUNT and TOTAL, the one marked TIP, blank.

She waited long enough to allow my brain to register what she expected.

With the pen, I slashed a line through the TIP and transcribed the dollars and cents from AMOUNT down into the TOTAL.

“When did we start tipping for take-out Chinese?” I asked when I got home with the C7 (beef) and the E4 (hot! spicy!) combinations.

And by “we” I mean Americans, and by “Americans” I mean everyone else in these United States except me, because I’m not tipping for take-out Chinese.

Long ago, I heard that tipping is a uniquely American custom, foreign to, um, foreigners. How long ago? Way back when I spent several miserable months waitressing serving at  Ruby Tuesday, one of several jobs I cobbled together so that I could afford my share of the rent in off-campus housing.

Yeah, I'm gonna spend the whole night playing Final Fantasy IX and forget to pick up Kelly again.

Yeah, I’m gonna spend the whole night playing Final Fantasy IX and forget to pick up Kelly again.

I spent my first night working alongside a more experienced waitress server named Kelly. Five or so years older than me, Kelly had a toddler at home that her mother watched while she worked and dated a string of unreliable men who could not be counted on to pick her up after her shift.

In addition to all that I learned about her personal life that first night, she also shared the wisdom she had accumulated during her years working in the profession I had so recently chosen. A lot of what I heard from Kelly sounded racist, sexist, or ageist, and oftentimes a combination of all three.

“Don’t kill yourself with the foreign tourists,” she said. I wanted to ask her how any tourist, let alone actual Europeans or Canadians or Martians, would ever find themselves in the Ruby Tuesday at the Springfield Mall eating from the Endless Garden Bar. It was my first day, and I was afraid to say anything, so I didn’t ask. “They don’t tip, so don’t knock yourself out.” She smoothed the front of my apron and then tugged at the collar of my shirt in a futile effort to expose just a hint of my (non-existent) bosom. “I guess that’s the best we can do,” she said before urging me out onto the dining room floor alongside her.

Kelly whispered other helpful nuggets of advice as we filled sodas or waited for the bartender to mix drinks, her voice low enough so that nearby patrons could not hear.

  • A Wonderbra would be a good investment for me.
  • Don’t date Nelson, the Guatemalan line cook.
  • White is Right. (This is how Kelly told me to remember to put the salt shaker on the right, and the pepper on the left, when setting a table. I told her that I didn’t think I needed a mnemonic device for that and she shrugged and said, “Suit yourself.”)
  • Old people all think it’s still 1955 and leave their spare change as a tip.
  • Young people will run out on the check, you gotta watch them.
  • Foreigners, women, and black people don’t tip. If you can, try to get the hostess to seat them in someone else’s section.

Mercifully, my tenure at Ruby Tuesday ended when I secured a very sweet gig working as a receptionist at a local non-profit. My new job involved doing next to nothing and getting paid for it, whereas at Ruby Tuesday, I had worked my ass off and got paid $2.83 an hour. I guess there are people who can make a living working in restaurants, and I’ll admit I’m mostly to blame for my failure: I kinda sucked at being a waitress, and I didn’t stick around long enough to get better.

This rather torturous trip through the Work Experience section of my resumé leads us back to the Chinese restaurant where I’m picking up take out.

Am I supposed to tip there? Because it seems that I’m now expected to tip at a lot of places where I don’t remember tipping before.

And I do tip other places, which are sort of like the Chinese take-out place, and still not at all like Ruby Tuesday. There’s the little bagel shop in town where my family walks each Sunday morning, and on our walk, we discuss whether or not this will be the day we’re brave enough to order lox. Our courage falters as soon as we cross over the threshold into the shop. My husband is friends with the owner, Dave, they play basketball together, and Dave works behind the counter with a crew of college-aged kids who keep a plastic deli cup on the counter marked “Gas” or “Pizza”or “Beer.”

I always toss a dollar into that cup.

Bait, when you find yourself out there angling for a tip.

Tip bait.

At the Dunkin Donuts near my office, there’s an oversized coffee mug that hangs out in front of the cash registers.  I’ve struck up a sort of friendship with one of the young men who works behind the counter there. It says “Nikhil” on his name tag, but he insists I call him “Nick.” Nick used to sneak a couple of donut holes into my bag until I told him to stop, I didn’t eat them, they just wound up in the trash. I figured this was his way to ensure I’d drop a little something into the tip cup, the Dunkin Donuts  version of Kelly’s advice to refill soda glasses before the customer asked.

I always drop a little something into that oversized coffee mug.

Given the way tipping has spread beyond pizza delivery, and restaurants, and hair salons, I’ve got to think it’s only a matter of time before we’ll all have Tip Lines showing up on our pay stubs.

Gross Pay

Net Pay

Tip Amount 

The New York Times claims there’s a movement afoot at fancy restaurants to end tipping and instead raise the wages of the staff. We’ll see if it catches on. Meanwhile, a New Jersey waitress posted on Facebook a photo of the credit card receipt from a customer who wrote “LOL” on the tip line, the latest in a series of angry servers using social media to shame customers. Initially, I react to that story like I’m the inept waitress I was fifteen years ago, angry at every asshole I had to wait on and clean up after, but the more I think about it, I have to wonder why the server’s anger isn’t directed at a compensation system that makes her rely on the random generosity of strangers rather than fair pay from the business that’s benefitting from her labor.

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34 thoughts on “The Tipping Point

  1. tdkaak says:

    I understand tipping for great service, but when all the person did was ring me up for the pizza or what not I just don’t get it. They’re just doing what they’re being paid to do anyway. Some would call me ignorant but I stand by it.


    • Karen says:

      I don’t think anyone is going to call you ignorant–certainly not me, because I really agree with you.

      Without sounding too much like a Marxist, tipping–whatever the custom originally started out as–has become a way for the customer to subsidize the employee’s low wages, rather than the business owner paying their employees fair compensation. Which is why we see these tip cups showing up all over the place in places where they never were before–wages have stagnated while profits have set records. The employee is attracted to the job not by the wage or benefits but by the nebulous promise from the employer, “You’ll make tips!” Meanwhile, all too often, the tips don’t amount to very much.

      Ah, fuck it. I really do sound like a Marxist. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Trent Lewin says:

    Please God make the tipping stop! It’s a horrible tradition. As you note is the trend, let’s just pay people more, shall we? Sometimes, I think the Europeans are incredibly advanced space aliens who got it all right.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. SD Gates says:

    I agree. Expecting tips at food establishments and pretty much everywhere else has become completely out of hand. And now the 15% which used to be given for superb service is actually the starting point for calculating tips. I think the restaurants owners should pay their employees the standard going rate and not expect us to routinely subsidize their servers’ salaries unless the service was just stupendous. Just add it into the cost of the meal. But being forced to tip everywhere I go makes me kind of angry, but then I feel bad for feeling angry because I know these people have families they have to support, so then to avoid these feelings of conflict I just don’t go out at all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Karen says:

      I’m with you. As I researched (hah!) this piece, I read an article that jogged an old memory of mine. When I was very little, I remember my Dad making me figure out the 10% tip on a restaurant check. My father did not have a lot of money, but he liked for people to think he did, so I’m pretty sure 10% was considered a good tip back then. I don’t remember it ever being less than 15% since I’ve been paying checks, but you’re right, the tipping percentage has escalated in recent years.

      I always leave at least 20% because I still hear Kelly’s voice in my head saying, “Women don’t tip!” and I need to prove her wrong. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Allie P. says:

    I will tip for take out if they have driven it to my door, but won’t if I am picking it up at the register and the only work (outside of what was done by the kitchen staff) was to tie it in a nice plastic bag for me. You have to have burnt at least 15 calories to merit 15%. I do much prefer the everywhere-but-US method: Just tell me what I owe you.

    I worked in a casual dining restaurant for all of two weeks. I couldn’t take the thought of working off the clock for closing duties just so I didn’t hit overtime on the assumption that I would make more in tips during that time than what the restaurant paid.


    • Karen says:

      Low wage workers in all fields get taken advantage of all the time, but it can be especially outrageous for tipped workers. Skipping over that totally illegal bit about working off the clock there that you mentioned, it’s completely legal to have servers perform various cleaning tasks that don’t offer the opportunity of tips, and yet they’re paid the tipped wage while they do that sort of stuff.


      • Allie P. says:

        Yes, let’s gloss over that point. I made better base wages working behind a counter at a bagel shop than waiting tables and yet I was expected to sing the custom happy birthday song on demand and memorize ten pages of standard menu items and their sides. Restaurant workers truly aren’t paid enough.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. rossmurray1 says:

    I don’t know if this is a universal, but here in Quebec, the minimum wage for servers is lower than civilian minimum wage, based on the assumption that the servers will earn tips (which they are supposed to declare on their taxes — HA!). So I will always tip a server at a restaurant because the girl’s gotta make a living, right? I’ll do 15%, but recently I see the norm creeping up to 20%. Why? Subject for another rant.

    Speaking of rants, I have a friend who gets irate about the takeout tip. I have to agree. If you are handing me a bag of food, you have earned whatever minimum wage you’re paid plus maybe the 35 cents you gave me back in change. Count yourself lucky, chump.

    To do next: Cash register donations. “Would you like to make a $2 donation to the Children’s Chump Fund?” “NO!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Belladonna Took says:

      It gets worse … In the US, servers are taxed on a presumed 10% tip of whatever they serve. This is why the tip rate has gone up – we’re now compensating for their taxes. Because yeah, they get paid way too little.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Karen says:

      I can’t express how surprised I am that this barbaric ritual of tipping exists in Canada. I thought you people were more civilized.

      Anyway, yeah, I’m definitely not giving those Chinese take-out people a tip. They’re not even particularly nice to me. They need to pretend they are my friend, at least, like the Dunkin Donuts guy does, if they want a tip from me.

      I think we’ve ranted about charities before. 😉

      A couple of other things: Here in the US, the IRS does this thing where it allocates tips to workers classified as Tipped Employees whether you tell them or not. They use some formula that calculates tip income based upon restaurant sales and the number of hours you work. Really, there’s no escaping the tax man unless you’ve got accountants working all the angles for you.

      And I don’t have a good explanation for why the tipped percentage has crept up. As prices rise, the amount of the tip as a percent of the bill will go up, so it doesn’t really make sense that we’re now expected to tip twice the amount we used to. Here’s something to think about, though: I was paid the cash wage of $2.83 an hour as a tipped employee when I worked at Ruby Tuesday in 2001. You want to guess what the cash wage for tipped employees in Pennsylvania is today, nearly fifteen years later? It’s still $2.83. And let me tell you, Ruby’s is not charging the 2001 price for that Endless Garden Bar here in 2015.


  6. Dylan Hearn says:

    We do tip here in Europe but it’s the ratio to work out what’s appropriate that causes problems. Most people I know use 10% because it’s easier to work out but this seems stingy compared to the 15% plus used in the US.
    As for paying a tip for take-out? That’s crazy! You should ask a tip for how promptly you turn up and pay as it’s you who is providing the service!


    • Karen says:

      You know, don’t you people eat kebabs all the time and stuff? And fish and chips. You probably eat way more take-out than we do. And no tips for any of those folks?


  7. Belladonna Took says:

    And then there are people like hairdressers and dog groomers. I have found myself feeling compelled to add a 15-20% tip to the cost of my hair cut-and-color … yet I go to the stylist’s home, where she has minimal overheads, and she’s self-employed. This is nuts and I’m not going to do it any more! And if she thinks I’m tacky … well, I’ll care about that the day my hair all falls out… :/


    • Karen says:

      Everyone has their hand out! I made a joke that we should put a tip jar in our office, which is sort of what inspired this piece.

      But I’m expecting you to show up with your hair dyed orange “accidentally” any day now, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be spitting in my next order of Kung Pao Chicken.


    • Karen says:

      I know! And they didn’t deliver it! They just handed me the bag over the counter.

      The right side of the table as you’re facing it. I’m not sure why that mattered so much, except I guess it looks neater if all the tables are set the same? Who knows. It’s all a mystery to me.

      Thanks for commenting!


  8. Eric Klingenberg says:

    In the UK we do tip. In should be away of show appreciation for good service not to subsidise wages. In London we were asked for a tip when ordering food rather than after eating.


  9. Nicky L says:

    The thing to remember about tipping in the UK – or the rest of Europe – is that whatever percentage you tip is based on the price including tax. Whereas, most Americans I’ve met tip on the cost before tax. In the UK there is a 20% sales tax – it’s called VAT – so you are also tipping on the tax as well.

    The big thing in the UK now is that restaurants in London are starting to charge a compulsory 12.5% ”service charge.”

    To make matters worse, it has recently been reported in the press in the last week that they then don’t pass this on to the servers or only pass a portion of it on to the servers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Karen says:

      We also have sales tax here in the US, it varies by state, but yes, my understanding has always been that the tip is calculated before tax. Service charges are uncommon here (some restaurants charge a delivery fee, some a corkage fee, I’m sure there are others) and probably not understood well by the consumers who pay them. There is no legal obligation to share these fees with employees.


      • Nicky L says:

        ”Service charges are uncommon here ”

        ”Service charge” is just another term for tipping – it is essentially a compulsory tip. Which is why people were getting annoyed when they realised that it wasn’t actually going to the serving staff


  10. Adele Archer says:

    Us English don’t understand tipping really. We tip the hairdresser, the taxi and the waiter (only if service is good). Some restaurants incorporate it into the bill which I’d prefer because I hate working it out. We generally do 10% here. I’m going to look like an idiot if I ever come to the U.S because tipping is still a bit alien to us… (but yes, tipping for takeaway is ridiculous).


    • Karen says:

      Oh, don’t worry about it. Just make sure they seat you in Kelly’s section–she won’t expect you to tip. 😉

      I’m pleased this post attracted comments from folks living outside the US. Unfortunately, it’s revealed that this awful practice is spreading to other countries, while I’m hoping we Americans would be able to stamp it out here.

      Liked by 1 person

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