Tipping should be reward for service, not obligation

There has been a of talk lately about the custom of tipping and about the possibilities for altering the current paradigm. I think it’s high time for this conversation to happen and for changes to be made, for a variety of reasons.

For one, gratuities are supposed to be a bonus given by the patron for outstanding service. But the practice is so widespread in this country in certain situations, such as restaurants, that it is seen as obligatory. And certainly everyone knows that servers do not make minimum wage, and therefore, most people want to do the right thing, knowing that food service is difficult work.

But the problem is that wait staff should be paid enough by their employers so that tipping can become obsolete, or rendered to show appreciation in an unusual situation such as a large birthday party, which requires extra work for the server. I don’t like the idea of a service charge as that is essentially a mandatory tip; a gratuity is meant to be voluntary.

I do realize that many will argue that, for restaurants to continue to make a profit and increase the wage of employees without the extra service, they will need to raise the prices on their menus. But at least that seems more direct and straightforward than the current system.

From what I understand, tipping arose within the class system of England. When guests would visit the estates of wealthy landowners, they were expected to give gratuities to the servants of the manor. As I’ve just written this, I realize that with the use of “expected,” it does sound that from the outset tipping hasn’t been as voluntary as I had hoped.

So then we could look at it from the class perspective. If gratuities were given from the upper classes to those in the lower, then this would appear to be inconsistent with our (hopefully) egalitarian American society. Not to mention that it seems to be an outdated system that perhaps served a function at one time but that has now outlived its usefulness.

The practice of tipping is inconsistent, even within our current culture. Why are we expected to tip in restaurants, and servers are paid lower hourly wages, but in coffee shops, employees are paid at least minimum wage?

I get frustrated when coffee places have tip jars or otherwise encourage tips, as then I feel like a cheapskate for not contributing, even though I know they are not relying on gratuities like those in food service.

Also, why is the amount of a tip in a restaurant calculated on the overall bill, rather than the quality or quantity of service?

I imagine it has to do with the amount that is expected to be claimed as income for tax purposes. If so, then that would be another chicken-or-egg dilemma — do we tip based on the overall bill because that is how the server is taxed, or are they taxed in that way because tipping on the overall bill is the prevailing custom?

As credit and debit cards have become more common, I imagine an increasing number of tips are left in this manner. Those tips would show up on an employee’s paycheck as taxable income.

It seems that many people still prefer to leave cash tips, perhaps assuming the server would rather not have a written record of what was left for them.

Maybe I’m naive, but doesn’t that encourage dishonesty in reporting income for tax purposes? When I have received tips, I’ve always preferred card tips so that everything is on one paycheck, and I don’t have to keep track of two different streams of income. I realize I’m probably in the minority.

I would never want to discourage someone from showing appreciation to someone who has performed a service. I enjoy thanking those who have gone above and beyond what was required, and it has meant a lot to me when others have taken the time to do this for me.

But this should be truly voluntary, initiated by the donor and not arising from a feeling of obligation.

I think we need to work to change our current system to ensure everyone is paid fairly for their work. Encourage restaurant owners to change their payment system and market their place as a non-tipping establishment. This could encourage those who are weary of the tipping system to patronize the business. This may inspire other restaurants to do the same, slowly making obligatory gratuities obsolete.

Stephanie Haines is a writer from Greenfield who now lives in Bloomington. She can be contacted through her website, www.stephaniehaines.com.