It has taken a while for me to realize that my usual 20 percent tip no longer elicits the warm thanks it used to prompt from wait staff at restaurants. At least not in these United States.
And let me explain that my standard 20 percent tip, provided for anything but the most unacceptable service, is always a bit more than 20 percent. I tip on the total, including tax, and I round up. At inexpensive restaurants, I round up considerably. I also add on for truly exceptional service.
This has been a point of pride with me, regardless of my wildly fluctuating income over the years. If I can’t afford to tip well, then I can’t afford to eat out. And it was my understanding that 20 percent was tipping well, 15 percent was standard and 10 percent was pretty damned cheap or a sign of serious dissatisfaction.
My generosity, or so I considered it, was prompted by appreciation for the hard work that floor staff in restaurants put in. My first job was as a dishwasher. I wasn’t nearly quick enough on my feet to wait tables.
Further, I have been offended by the stereotype that women are poor tippers. It seemed to perpetuate a circle of inattentive service — a waiter who expects me to tip poorly won’t provide the best service. And then if I feel ignored by the waiter (or waitress), I won’t tip well, reinforcing the idea that women are cheap. Especially when I dine with one or more other women, I tend to overlook small problems with service so as to break the cycle, as it were.
Turns out, though, that I’ll have to up my game if I want to reclaim the idea that I’m particularly generous. A little online research turns up debate going back three or four years on whether the 20 percent standard is passe. According to some sources, 25 percent is becoming the new standard, especially in New York. Some restaurants supposedly suggest up to 30 percent.
Christopher Elliott, in a recent piece for USA Today, argued in favor of a 25 percent tip as long as restaurants are allowed to pay substandard wages, forcing wait staff to rely on tips. He suggests the tipping system should be abolished and meal prices adjusted to provide adequate wages to the wait staff.
I might be inclined to agree but I’m not quite sure how it would work out in practice.
It’s been my experience, admittedly highly anecdotal, that in places where servers don’t get tips, the quality of service falls below standard. Money is an excellent motivator.
When my husband and I were in Barcelona, we found a small neighborhood cafe near our hotel. The waitress was clearly unhappy to see us. She was curt and unfriendly but served us reasonably well, and so we left a tip that was, apparently, quite impressive by Spanish standards. She was thereafter delighted to see us.
As to whether 25 percent should be the new standard, I don’t know about that, either. As meal prices have increased, the size of the tips I leave has increased proportionately. Certainly both have increased more rapidly than my own salary has risen.
Yet I believe that restaurant workers deserve to earn a decent wage and I recognize that standards change.
For now, I guess I’ll stick pretty much to my established tipping guidelines, with some extra generosity at low-priced restaurants where the staff seem to struggle more. It might take a little more evidence for me to believe that the generally accepted standard really has changed decisively, and that a 20 percent tip makes me look like a stingy old crank.
Meanwhile, I’ll get used to less gratitude. And I’d sure like to hear what other people think about it.