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Tipping Points

Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page D03

For a moment there, Miss Manners thought she saw a chance to give the custom of tipping some serious analysis. Maybe a 15 to 18 percent chance. Who, besides tax-dodgers and bill-dodgers, wouldn't like to see the tipping system exposed for the farce that it is?

Others, on both sides of the tip, are wary of being cheated. In all the transactions in which tipping is customary -- transportation, public accommodations, personal services -- there is someone thinking "Are they going to stiff me?" if not "How much more can I make them give me?" and someone else thinking "Am I being a sucker?" if not "How little can I get away with?"

With the addition of holiday tipping, it just gets worse, with one side afraid of being overlooked and the other of being bilked. Then there is the uncertainty about who is within or above the tipping line, and the confusion between tips and presents.

What might have been the catalyst for reform was a case earlier this fall, when a customer in an Upstate New York grill was arrested after leaving a 10 percent tip on the pizza bill that he and eight others had run up. The restaurant had stated that an 18 percent tip was mandatory for parties of six people or more.

The charge for the food was $77.43. The charge for failing to leave a larger tip was theft of services. So the case hinged on whether tipping is voluntary, as an expression of approval or disapproval on the part of the tipper, or mandatory, as a portion of the server's wages for services rendered -- a part to be paid directly by the customer instead of through the employer.

The accused maintained the former, claiming to be generally a good tipper who found the service bad. The restaurateur claimed the latter, stating that he was standing up for "the hard-working people who worked for me" and who work "strictly for tips."

The judge ruled in favor of the defendant. Miss Manners does not disagree with this verdict, as society does make a hair-splitting distinction between an added-on "service charge," which is part of the bill, and a tip, which is understood to be voluntary.

But she wishes there had been some way to recognize that the restaurateur was also justified in his assertion that society also recognizes that restaurant servers do work largely, if not entirely, on the expectation of tips. Knowing this, polite people leave at least the conventional tip (a 15 percent minimum before tax is added) regardless of the quality of the service. (If it is bad, they should complain, as in other cases when people do not perform adequately what they are hired to do.)

The fact is that what we have here is an incoherent system. In what sense do the servers work for the restaurateur if he does not pay them wages? Is it that he provides a venue and situation in which the servers can try to impress -- or press -- the customers into giving them handouts? And is that a dignified way to do business?

The just solution is to have employers pay the employees, passing on the cost to customers frankly, by building the amount into the cost of the dishes ordered.

Dear Miss Manners:

When is it appropriate or inappropriate to have a housewarming party? I am recently divorced and am buying my first home. As with many divorces we split most everything, and I cannot afford to replace many needed items at this time. What is the protocol? Am I supposed to register for items that I need or ask for gift cards or just take what I can get?

What exactly is warm about this plan? Miss Manners seems to have missed the part about how eager you are to welcome your friends to your new home. You have gotten right down to the business of whether you can make them help furnish your house.

Not politely -- and not reliably, even if you are willing to be so impolite as to indicate that your welcome is dependent on their not showing up empty-handed. Some may want to give you presents, others may feel they have to do so, but the last time Miss Manners checked, presents were voluntary, not some sort of tax that a host can levy on guests.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

© 2004, Judith Martin

© 2004 The Washington Post Company