About 10 years ago, I waited tables and worked as a bartender for a while. A lot has changed in the tipping world since then, mostly due to technology. Back then, I’d set my little black book, a pen and check inside, down on the table. Then I’d make eye contact with the person picking it up, perhaps give them a little wink, and then turn my back, walk away, and hope for the best. It was the same when I was bartending, or when I helped with the occasional to-go order. It seemed like there was this unwritten rule where I’d drop off the check, and then turn my back, allowing the customer just a moment or two alone to make a tipping decision.
Now, things are a little different. Last time I went to a bakery, I bought a dozen doughnuts. (For my family, not just me. Although I could eat a dozen doughnuts myself. Just to be clear.) The clerk put my dozen doughnuts on the counter and then turned her little iPad register around after sliding my card, and I was given a few options below my signature line: 18%, 20%, 25%, a custom amount, or “no tip.”
Then the clerk stared at me with these longing eyes, one hand on her hip, the other on the table, her shoulders slightly sagging… everything about her seemed to say, “Are you gonna tip me or what?” To make it worse, there were people in line behind me — many from my small community, some even from my local church — all of them silently judging me based on what I tipped.
I must say, that moment of privacy when it comes to tipping was pretty important. It gave customers a moment to look up at the heavens and decide if tipping was really something they wanted to get involved with. It also gave them time to decide if the service was actually worth a decent, good, or great tip.
But now, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Tipping is a much more social activity where the tip receiver and the tip giver are, more or less, making eye contact. In fact, The Wall Street Journal wrote a really interesting article about this recently. They interviewed a number of people who felt like they were getting the social shaft because of iPad tipping. Many described it a “awkward.” One person even said, “It guilts you into it.”
But as a former server, I can’t help but ask: Guilt you into what, exactly?
While the technology of tipping has changed since those days when I was living off tips (and yes, I lived off them), I don’t think those benefiting from a tipping job has. At the time, I was a young 20-something college student, with a wife and one son, working just shy of full time waiting tables to make ends meet while I finished my college degree. My father had died a few years earlier, and my mother didn’t have the means to help me stay afloat. Nor did my in-laws. And I didn’t feel comfortable asking for them to help anyway. Serving provided me the flexibility I needed to attend classes, and the tips gave me a wage my family could survive on.
Naturally, I wasn’t the only parent going to college and waiting tables. I was one of several. I’d say the people I worked with typically fell into one of two categories: working college student (many with children), and single mothers/fathers. Naturally, there were a few outliers, but that was the majority.
All of us — every single one of us — needed tips to make ends meet. At the time, I was in Utah, where the minimum wage for servers was $2.13 an hour. That was back in 2004, and according to The U.S. Department of Labor, it is still the federal minimum wage for servers. Some states have passed laws raising the minimum wage above the federal requirement, but only five states require tipped employees to be paid at the full state minimum wage before tips. The rest come in far shy of the full state minimum wage.
Like most servers, I survived on tips, and it wasn’t a glorious living. According to DATAUSA, the average 2018 median income for servers in the United States is $16,678. According to a recent article published by the Economic Policy Institute, “18.5 percent of waiters, waitresses, and bartenders are [living] in poverty.” Bottom line: those in the service industry are unpaid and the customers are often benefiting from that.
I made enough to pay for rent, groceries, and diapers. I paid for school with student loans. It was a paycheck-to-paycheck sort of thing, and a bad night of tips could really put me into a bind. But a good night, a nice collection of generous people, could make my life — and the lives of my family — just that much more livable.
There’s a lot of discussion online about tipping etiquette. I see it all the time. People complain about it, if it’s worth it or not, saying things like “she carried my muffin to the counter? Is that really tip worthy?” But we don’t often discuss the people working in the tipping industry and those who rely on tipping, and it’s time we start.
Back to my trip to the doughnut store. The clerk was a woman in her early 20s. She was wearing a wedding band and a university T-shirt. The store was a stone’s throw from that same university. There was a good chance that she was a working college student. Sure, she just stared at me. And yes, it was a little awkward, but hey, she did give me very good service. She was friendly. She told a joke or two. But the really important part was, she reminded me a great deal of some of the servers I worked with back in the day.
Listen, I wasn’t being forced to tip. No one is. I was given the opportunity to help someone make ends meet. So I hit the 25% button, which came out to around $2.40 (big money, I know…), which I felt confident would go to a hard-working person trying to better their situation.
So you know what, let’s stop talking about feeling guilty, or feeling cheated, or feeling like your arm is twisted when it comes to tipping, and think about how a good tip can help someone who really, honestly, and truly, could use it.
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