Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"I Tip Profusely"

In one of life's little coincidences, I was still musing over Mrs. Volare's mention of tipping in her comment on a recent post when I listened to a lengthy discussion of tipping. In a recent episode of The Talk Show, tech writer John Gruber* and host Dan Benjamin discussed, among other things, tipping, including why and how much they tip for various services.

Gruber notes that he tips generously in almost every instance where tips are expected: wait staff, of course, but also hotel maids, curbside check-in at the airport, bellboys, cab drivers, and so on. He offers several reasons why he does so: first, the tips are part of the income that these workers rely on; second, the loss of a few dollars to him is less than the benefit of the few dollars to those he tips; third, those jobs are, by and large, unpleasant ones, and it's his acknowledgement that he's been fortunate in having avoided that kind of career; and, fourth, he likes to buy a little insurance against bad things happening - such baggage being misdirected - that a tip might help with. I put that one last because, with the exception of the Sky Caps, most tips are given after the service has been performed, so the tip isn't to get better service, unless you're a repeat customer with the same person. You tip your hairdresser, among other things, because she has a pair of scissors and the power to make you look horrible for the next three months. But tipping the waitress in the diner in the town you're passing through is unlikely to be for the purpose of getting better service somewhere down the road.

I agreed wholeheartedly with his analysis. I try to be generous without being outrageous. (One reads stories about celebrities leaving hugely disproportionate tips - the $100 tip on the $10 drink, say - and I always wonder what the message being conveyed is supposed to be. Sure, it's nice to have the $100, but isn't the message, "I'm so rich that a hundred dollars is nothing to me"?) However, like many people I know, I have a certain amount of apprehension when it comes to tipping. Gruber and Benjamin didn't seem to be as sure of themselves about why people hesitate to tip as they were about why people do tip, so let me take a stab at it.

Just as there are two basic reasons to tip - the generous impulse and the desire for better service - there are two basic reasons why some people are uncomfortable with tipping culture. First, I can't help think that there's an undercurrent of... not exactly resentment, but an unease about why this job earns tips but that job doesn't. The Sky Cap's job is to get my luggage from Point A to Point B. Someone else - someone I don't see and can't tip - has the job of getting it from Point B to Point C, and still others are responsible for getting the bag on the luggage carousel at the end of the flight. They all have the same job, but only one gets tipped? That seems arbitrary. I go into work in the morning and have wide discretion over what I'm doing at any moment. Surely a generous tip from my boss would induce me to spend more time reviewing a report and less time checking news headlines on the Web, but I never see a tip from him. So for some jobs, the salary is considered sufficient, but others require tips?

Don't get me wrong - waitressing, which was Mrs. V's example, is a job where everyone understands the social contract: the waitress is paid a minimal hourly wage and expects to make it up in tips. When the bill reads $50, I know it's really a $60 meal, and I budget accordingly. Other arrangements are possible - restaurants could pay a more reasonable wage and incorporate that added cost onto the bill, so the waitress might earn, say, $12 an hour and my bill would come to $60. This isn't merely hypothetical; I'm told Japan is a country where tipping is nonexistent. But the custom is well-established here, and I'll do my part.

The second reason people are uncomfortable is that tipping is part of the social contract, and people are, by and large, conformists. No one wants to be berated by a cab driver for unwittingly giving him an insultingly low tip. Travel is especially tricky, because one interacts with so many people in service jobs. God help the middle class businesswoman whose company puts her up in an upscale hotel. Do the maids get tipped more at the Waldorf than at the Holiday Inn? Does that woman handing you a towel in the rest room get a tip? When taking in a show in Vegas, do you still tip the maitre d' when he seats you? All very confusing.

Second Life - to get back to this Journal's main topic for just a moment - provides an excellent example of this second issue. Many people enjoy in-world music or performance events. When Mr. Pearse spends several hours with his Victrola and record collection at a Breakfast in Babbage event (plus however long it takes him to prepare), many people feel that tipping is the right thing to do. Similarly, the speakers at the Aether Salon clearly put substantial work into their presentations, and tips are a way of both acknowledging that work and compensating them for the work. But how much should one tip? At some level that's a personal issue, of course - how much can I afford, how much seems reasonable - but it's also a social issue. These are your friends, and no one wants to seem cheap in front of her friends. What's the right metric? A lot of Linden dollars equates to very little real world money, so is a L$500 tip insulting? "Hey, you gave me a little under two bucks. Thanks, big spender!" Or should it be relative to other prices in SL - L$500 might be a new outfit, or a pair of shoes? Those tip jars that say the amount tipped are helpful in letting everyone know what the median tip is, but that's a mixed blessing.

Gruber may tip profusely. I tip nervously.


* I love reading Gruber's blog Daring Fireball, and I love listening to him on The Talk Show (including that slacker "Yeah, whatever" tone of voice he employs 90% of the time), and I even enjoy his Twitter feed, even though he's a hopeless Yankees fan. But John - may I call you John? I think I've listened to you enough that we should be on a first name basis - for the love of God, think before you do those political posts. It's not that I disagree with the stuff you link to, it's that some of the people you link to are so disconnected from reality that it's painful to read. Stick to your strengths, of which there are many.

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