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Please stop making tipping more awkward

Howard Chua-Eoan, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Variety Menu

I live with tipping trauma.

After I received my first paycheck at my first full-time job — back in New York in 1984 — I treated my parents to dinner in Flushing, Queens, where we lived. That Cantonese banquet hall — buzzy, clattering parties scattered among lazy-susan tables — is long gone, replaced by a succession of other Asian eateries. I’ve even forgotten the restaurant’s name. But the aftermath of the dinner is indelible.

In my nervousness over spending my hard-earned money, I skimped on the tip. Just as we were out the door, a furious man ran after us, yelling in Cantonese (which I don’t speak) and waving the itemized bill. I was flustered but soon got the point (my mother understood Cantonese). So I pulled out some cash and made him less furious. I was abashed: I was celebrating my livelihood by diminishing someone else’s take-home pay.

A few years later and fully initiated into the guilt that comes from undertipping, I joined some friends on an excursion to New York City’s Russian immigrant enclave, Brighton Beach. Toward the end of the night at an enormous vodka den, I gathered the cash from my companions — I was the least sloshed — and took care of the bill with a big wad of cash, gratified that the management had worked in a service charge so I didn’t need to calculate a tip. But as I was leaving, the boss-lady of the joint came up with the young woman who’d been our server, blocking my exit. The manager glared at me and said, “How can you not leave anything for the girl? Look she’s crying.” And indeed, her eyes were moist. I said I’d paid the service charge. The boss said, “That’s different.” I pulled out more cash and handed it to the girl. In some languages, you might think the word for “tip” has the sound “bribe.”

I’m sure you have your own tipping nightmares. They can be comic (the little izakayas in Japan where waiters chase after you because they cannot accept anything extra, even the embarrassing pittance you’ve left them) or sneering (the Parisian server who pushes back your tip because, well, the amount is beneath him). But they all contribute to the worst part of dining out: calculating the appropriate amount of gratuity to express your gratitude. After a wonderful meal, the last thing I want for dessert is math.

London provided a blissful solution when I moved here from New York. Service — usually 12.5% — was worked into the restaurant bill. You take note of it as you examine the tab and pay. There are no angry managers and bereft servers demanding extra extras. If you are feeling particularly pleased with the fare, you can leave a little more behind. Or simply decide to return again and again to reward the business with your custom, as they say here.

That’s changing, alas. Tipping has reached a tipping point as the black hole of the American hospitality industry — spelling out ever higher suggestions of 15%, 20% or 25% on the bill or those wireless payment modules — sucks in the last refuges of civility. Even pubs in the UK are adopting the practice, where once a couple of coins on the bar would suffice.


I understand the temptation to squeeze more money out of customers. Retaining good servers in the front of the house isn’t cheap. In the U.S., the industry has even come up with tips, so to speak, for waiters to coax bigger tips from diners, including those little mints or sweets you might have gotten with your bill. Surveys show that those gifts actually lead to perceptibly larger gratuities.

But bigger tips aren’t the solution to the inequities of the sector. In New York, servers are almost completely dependent on gratuities for their living. Furthermore, tips usually provide only for people who work in the front of the house; the kitchen staff that sweats over the food you eat doesn’t get a share. While cooks are salaried, their pay can be dwarfed by the money received by waiters on a good night. In fact, when bonanzas occur, FOH staff in the more lucrative joints have the option of tipping out their BOH comrades. It’s a mutual tipping ecosystem.

I’m not advocating the end of tipping. But what’s the point of ruining the customer’s experience at the very end? It’ll just discourage diners from returning. Find a way to make the transaction less obtrusive and obnoxious. I want a good time at your restaurant, not an evening in your Excel spreadsheet.


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Howard Chua-Eoan is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering culture and business. He previously served as Bloomberg Opinion's international editor and is a former news director at Time magazine.

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