Friday, February 21, 2014

On Tipping

Not cows, of course. That's a cruel thing to do! I speak of tipping for services, especially at restaurants. It seems an ingenious system: part of the price of your experience is reserved for your judgment. You can decide just how good everything was and vote with your wallet. What could be wrong with such a system?

First, the gratuity is ostensibly for service, yet every aspect of the meal falls under the umbrella of service. In some cases tips are split among various staff, but it's inevitably the waiter who bears the burden for any mishaps in the meal, whether or not anything is his fault.

Second, the quantity of the tip seems to me invariably arbitrary. What is service worth? Why is 15-20% customary? First, the percentages are contingent on the prices of the foods, yet that has nothing to do with the quality of the service. Second, those percentages might not be the same in all markets at all times. Besides that, all gratuity is arbitrary, subject to the vicissitudes of the mood, temperament, expectation, and resources of the patron.

Most importantly, though, we have a problem of definitions. A gratuity is either: 1) a gift of money, over and above payment due for service or 2) a gift or reward. . . for services rendered. So is it for the service or is it a special thanks beyond the objective cost of the service? If it's over and above the cost, then the tips arbitrary quantity is not so relevant. If the tip is part of the service, then the variation is relevant. In such cases, our above two points work to the detriment of the server and the patron: the server may get less money than his service warrants, since his tip is going to supplement his wage, and the patron either gets worse service because with servers receiving less, the quality of the service goes down, or overpays. For example, if $15 of my $20 tip goes to what the waiter expects as his wage, then it's a more expensive meal which might not be worth so much to me were I to tip on top of that amount.

Obviously there's no non-arbitrary way of delineating what the server expects as his wage and what he makes in total. Surely he feels he deserves as much, if not more, than he receives. The server no doubt, though, is content with his average intake or he'd not keep the job. It is that average which I refer to as his "expected wage."

Now I'm not suggesting any chicanery is afoot, though that's possible. The employer considers as the server's wage what the employer can afford and when the server takes and keeps the job, the employer knows that's the right price. Now I'm not arguing the server salary is too low. Maybe it is and maybe it's not. The server is not entitled to have one job which gives him all the resources he needs. I'm arguing the two points above: that the gratuity system 1) makes the server's tip contingent on factors outside his control, and when used as part of the server's wage, the tip 2) obscures the cost of the service, affecting the quantity and efficacy of my payment as tip (which ought to be used to gauge customer satisfaction) and as wage. Together, servers often get less of the money they earn and the value of the service goes down for the patron.

It would seem easier for the patron and more consistent for the server, though, for the employer simply to raise the cost of the meal, making the tip a pure gratuity over the cost of the service. The employer would have do more to adjust all of his prices according to the demand for their establishment at the new rate and for the supply of servers, but that's business.

As a customer figuring a tip I feel like the task of calculating the cost of the service has been offloaded onto me. That cost should be part of the cost of the meal, if only because I can't know what the cost of service is. How can I? I don't run a restaurant. I know what I'm willing to pay, but that's a spectrum. They should offer a product at a definite price. If I don't like the product then I don't return and when that happens enough, the owner has to figure out what's right and wrong in his business.

Seems preferable to inviting this conversation after every meal.

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