The Tipping Point

Pursuant to the article on the Quebec pilgrimage, I have to vent a little on the topic of tipping.  When I travel solo, I tend to go light, with a tent, eating from grocery stores, walking; I rarely, if ever, stay in hotels and, if I can, I try to avoid restaurants.   I have a number of reasons for that, only some of them financial, but that need not detain us now.


When one is with company, one must do what the Romans do, and join in.  So, with my students, I had a pint in a pub, and went to a local eatery.  There was one other incident with a squeegee man on the street, which does pertain, so allow me to begin with that.


We were waiting for a red light in downtown Montreal, when out of our periphery a blondish-red-haired and somewhat scruffy man appeared of indiscriminate age, perhaps later twenties, who began squeegeeing our front windshield.  We locked the doors and continued our conversation.  When we did not open the windows and offer him some a ‘tip’, he berated us with a ‘Get back to Ontario’, in a guttural Quebecois accent.  Nice welcome to la Belle Provence.


Driving away, I wondered how many people actually give him something, two dollars, perhaps even a fiver.  They would do this partly out of pity (poor guy, trying to scrape out a living), partly out of fear (what if he dents the car, honey, or tries to break a window?).  That got me thinking how much he could make per hour.  It took our scruffy friend about 30 seconds or so to ‘clean’ our already-clean window; a brief calculation, and I came to the conclusion that, if even a minority of people offer him something, he could quite easily make forty dollars an hour for doing a menial job that no one needs done, and no one asked him to do.   These squeegee people must be making some incentive, for they keep coming back (the guy in the photo is not the same guy, but the cleanest and most modest stock photo of a squeegee ‘kid’ I could find…).


An analogous case, although not as bad and more pleasant, is waitressing (at least she is providing as service that I have asked for!):  At a pub in Quebec City, I bought a pitcher of local brew for our table; the beer itself was somewhat flat and rather insipid (I had better fortune in the hostel with another local ale).   When I went to pay afterward, the price was $17.50, steep for any pitcher, but especially for what we were served.  I handed the waitress a twenty, and she slowly, inexorably, deliberately and painfully, drew out of her apron two quarters, clearly not wanting to reach in for that other two dollars.  I took the quarters, and walked away, unable to endure anymore.


But, again, I got to thinking:  How many pitchers and drinks did she serve that night in that packed bar?  One hundred?  Three hundred?  Did she make $2.50 on each one?  To understate the case, that’s quite a bit of extra income.


My point is not about the 2 bucks, or that waitresses should not make a good living, but that, if they are underpaid, it is the owner of the pub who should pay them, not me.  Why should I be forced to supplement the income of his staff?  I must presume he is already making a very tidy profit on the beer itself (the pitcher of their less-than-Stellar-Artois draft could not have cost him more than a few dollars), to say nothing of all the other drinks and food.  So he pays her a pittance, and we, the already fleeced customer sitting at a sticky table listening to over-loud music, are supposed to make up the difference.  (You might see why I try to avoid modern bars).  If I had left no tip, she would have considered me a cheapskate, even though I was already overpaying for my beverage.  A tip that is no longer a ‘tip’ becomes a service charge, and should be declared as such in the price of food and drink.


This practise of tipping is endemic to our supine society, so given to idiotic ‘customs’ that we are afraid to change (and I refer not the custom of tipping cows, dangerous and inhumane at the best of times).


Remuneration for work done, I agree, is a complex topic, relative to the virtue of justice, about which the Church and many thinkers have written much, but we as everyday citizens have to put these teachings into practice in a concrete way in what we pay for goods and services.

tipping bill

Why are some professions tipped, and others not?  Should we feel constrained to tip in every circumstance, like we now stand in ovation for performances, however grand or mediocre?  Should the amount be relative to service received?  Does this not lead to obsequious service, forced smiles, and a ‘how y’all doin’ today’ of pretty young things, whose forced gaiety is primarily to make your wallet a little lighter?  The same young woman would in all likelihood not recognize you outside the restaurant.

silent waiter

Give me back the days of the silent waiter or bartender, who was paid well for his job, and did not expect a tip (a custom that I have heard still prevails in my native Scotland, where a bartender will be offended if you try to tip him).


Can we not return to the days of a fair price for a fair service?  Tell me what I owe, and I will pay, but do not make it dependent on some vague and ill-defined ‘tipping’ customs, with the consequent glare of an over-worked bartendress, or disgruntled squeegee ‘kid’ who is approaching early middle-age.


Let’s get back to simple justice, and we can all do the math.


November 19, 2014