A Thought or Three on Restaurant Tipping: Duty or Gratuity?

I read an article today that got me (and a great many people, no doubt) thinking about the restaurant-going experience.  I  consider myself a good tipper.  I generally tip 20% standard for having had an enjoyable restaurant meal.  Over the years, 20% has become my reflexive baseline amount, that figure I leave behind in gratitude for a mediocre-to-good dining experience.  Even for somewhat lacking-to-mediocre experiences, the lowest I’ll typically go is 15%, since said mediocrity is rarely attributable to my server.   I don’t take negative impressions of the food itself out on my server since he or she is not the one cooking.  If my steak arrives underdone or overdone or my vegetables are cold, I don’t assume it’s my server’s fault.  If the plate took a few minutes longer than expected to reach the table, I’ll generally give the server the benefit of the doubt based on how busy the establishment is, as I understand I’m not their only patron and they cannot be everywhere at once.  I don’t get riled by server mistakes or accidents, because we all make them and we all have them.  What I’m saying is that it would take quite a lot (I dare say that a server would have to put a conscious effort into treating me poorly) for me to not leave them a decent to generous tip.


I have to take issue with a notion expressed in a recent Jezebel article given the succinctly classy title of “Fuck You if You Don’t Tip Your Server.”  I reject the idea that there is never, under any circumstance, any justification for refusing to tip.  I empathize with service industry workers, and I do understand that it’s damn near impossible to maintain a shiny, smiling disposition every single moment of the day when we all have things going on in our personal lives that can range from not-so-good to positively tragic.  Believe me, I understand that, and realize to what degree they depend on monetary gratuities to supplement a pretty despicable restaurant standard minimum wage.  Be that as it may, I feel that a job is a job.  I may not work in the service industry, but I know that if I come to my place of employment and project enough of a negative image to my employer or my employer’s clients for it to be noticeable and unmistakable, I will most certainly be penalized for it, and if my offense is egregious enough, dismissed for it.  There have to be precious few professional industries wherein an employee can be openly rude, dismissive, or just exude a general air of disinterest in how they or their actions are perceived, without having to answer for it in some form at some point.  I and others like me who aren’t employed in that industry might not be obligated to engage every visitor/client with a smile on our lips and a song in our hearts (as is often unfairly expected of servers), but we damned well do have to conduct ourselves in a manner pleasing to certain individuals around us and refrain from certain expressions if we want to remain employed.  I see no reason why it should be different for servers who have in no means been forced into their work situations and are free to pursue other opportunities that demand less of them both physically and spiritually.

In expressing the above opinion, I’m not forgetting that restaurant patrons can be opportunistic jerks.  The recent backlash surrounding a snide scrawling left upon a restaurant receipt by a patron who is also a pastor is evidence enough that they can.  There is a certain contingent in our society composed of low-/non-tipping cheapskates and people who actively seek out the most minuscule things to complain about as justification for not tipping.  I know that, and I don’t pretend for one moment that these idiots don’t exist.  They certainly do, and frankly, they give a bad name to generous people who love to dine out.  However, I also will not pretend that every server I’ve ever observed has been a shining example of humanity at its best, or that no server in the history of the world has ever greeted a well-meaning customer with unjustified rudeness, apathy, or otherwise put forth a sullen, negative impression for no discernible reason.  I’ve witnessed more than a few instances of servers treating patrons or potential patrons poorly without provocation.  Some will suggest that just because said server didn’t perform well in a given moment, a diner would have to be an ogre to penalize them for it. I respectfully disagree for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that a dissatisfied patron may never return to give you another chance or catch you on a better day.  This means that for all the server knows, that moment may be the only one they ever get with said patron, so if that’s not the time to bring one’s best work ethic to the forefront, then I don’t know what is.

There will also be those who’ll still argue that perhaps a server’s shortcoming is rooted less in bad personal work ethics than in some internal or personal conflict, that perhaps it was due, as mentioned in the article above, to any number of things going on in the personal lives of servers who were dissatisfied with some aspect of working and living. I do not ignore this possibility.  But you know what? We ALL have bad days.  Having a bad day is not a license to be an asshole or to perform at a substandard level.  For all I (as your server who is having a bad day) know, you (the customer) may also be having a bad day.  The difference between us then is that while you the customer have plenty of options for where to spend your money on a meal, I your server depend on your payment to properly manage my life, so the onus is on me to make your experience the best it can be, rather than on you to tip me (despite my half-assed effort and dismissive attitude toward serving you) because my bills are piling up.  My bills are not your responsibility.  However for the time you spend in the establishment at which I’ve chosen to work, doing everything I can to make your eating experience pleasant is very much my responsibility.

All I’m saying here is that while I enjoy dining out as often as possible, and while I can’t even remember the last time I tipped a server less than 20%, I reject the premise that it is my obligation to do so regardless of the level of service I receive.  To suggest that it is smacks of a sense of entitlement that feels unwarranted, given that there are other, better employment situations to be found.  Being a server can be grueling, thankless work, and those who choose it as a career have been blessed with stronger constitutions and higher levels of patience with fools than I could ever hope to have, so I can’t help but respect anyone who would even think about doing it.  I cannot abide the notion, however, that I as a restaurant patron somehow inherit responsibility for paying my server’s bills the instant I sit down, and that by refusing to gratify poor service, I am somehow failing to uphold my end of an unspoken social contract to which I never agreed.

Will I continue to tip after a restaurant meal?  Of course I will, because I genuinely enjoy showing my appreciation for good service, and even for service that is merely decent or satisfactory.  In all my years of dining out, I have never experienced feeling so mistreated by a server that I left no tip at all.  But the key to tipping, at least for me, is reciprocity.  Something I will never do is tip one penny to anyone whom I truly feel does not deserve it.  That is my right, just as it is the right of the above-linked article’s author to feel that because restaurants pay a poor base rate, a gratuity is some sort of birthright due every server regardless of the effort he or she puts forth.  So no, I’m not against withholding a tip under unpleasant circumstances, however the magnitude of my server’s offense would have to be of such Biblical proportions for me to do so that I can’t even offer up an example that feels real enough to type.

In all seriousness, though, tip your servers.  Unless they are directly and unapologetically responsible for some cataclysmic turn of events during your meal, please tip them.  They work hard for long stretches, and more often than not, they really are trying their best to give you a pleasurable dining experience.

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