Gratuities 101

(Shakirov - Getty Images)
By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Tipping is one of life's great mysteries. Like love and religion, it can be a source of endless befuddlement and deep philosophical pondering. Oh, all right, it's nothing like love or religion. But it can be confusing to know who, when and, most important, how much you should tip. After all, the line between gratuity and gratuitous is a fine one. As no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin once observed, "To overtip is to appear an ass: To undertip is to appear an even greater ass."

Hoping not to appear an ass at all, we usually revert to socially accepted standards -- ranging from 15 to 20 percent for waiters to a dollar or two per drink for bartenders (stiff your bartender and you'll be amazed by how long it takes that second beer to appear). But some tipping situations aren't quite as clear. Should you tip when you order takeout? Leave money for the maid who straightens up your room at your hotel? Slip two bucks to the doorman who hails a taxi for you? Drop your change in the guilt jar at the local Starbucks?

"Most people don't like tipping, and they do it to avoid embarrassment," says Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell University's hotel school. Having studied tipping habits for years and written numerous scholarly papers on the subject, he says the biggest reason people tip is not for great service, but for social approval. While Lynn has calculated that more than $26 billion a year is spent on gratuities in the United States alone, he also points out that various surveys show approximately one third of respondents in the United States aren't aware of how much they should tip.

"Everyone has an opinion about tipping, and everyone gets emotional about it," says Stacie Krajchir, the co-author of "The Itty Bitty Guide to Tipping," (Chronicle Books, $6.95). "People have a hard time admitting that it is the one thing they just don't understand."

Krajchir's overall approach is to reward "your immediate team first." By that she means the people who help make your life run more smoothly and easily: hair stylists or barbers, house cleaners, lawn care workers, nannies and delivery people. Think of tipping as an insurance policy, she says, and remember that it doesn't always have to take the form of cash. Presumably you know something about the people who work for you, so basketball tickets for a hoops fan or a special vintage for a wine lover will be greatly appreciated.

Stacey Garrett, who works at Murky Coffee on Capitol Hill, says that most customers do tip every time and that it is a "little disheartening" when they don't drop their change in the jar. "We work really hard to give great service and be friendly," she says. "When people don't tip, it feels like a reflection of the service."

But Krajchir isn't a big fan of tipping in coffee shops any more than in fast-food restaurants. "If you tip the guy at McDonald's or Burger King, then tip the guy at Starbucks," she says. "Otherwise, forget it."

Still, Krajchir admits that regular customers might make an exception if the same person remembers, prepares and serves your drink every day -- with a smile, of course. She also says you should tip 5 to 10 percent when you order takeout from a restaurant, because the person at the counter still has to prepare your order and remember to include everything you requested.

Both tippers and tippees agree that friendly service is often the deciding factor in whether extra money changes hands. Lynn even has data showing that smiling, kneeling down next to the customer and generally personalizing the interaction vastly improves tips. One study revealed that female servers were tipped more if they drew a smiley face on the check, while male servers who did the same received a smaller tip.

Washington taxi driver Tadesse Yones, who averages $1.50 to $2 in tips for local fares in the city, says the tip "all depends on how you treat people." He won't soon forget the bonus one customer gave him for a $30 fare. At the end of a ride, during which they discussed Yones's native Ethiopia and the plight of his family that remained there, the passenger handed him a $100 bill and told him to keep the change.

While many in the service industry depend on tips, they can be surprisingly forgiving when they go unrewarded for their efforts.

"Most people are nice, so even if sometimes they don't give a tip, we understand," says Yones. Or as one Dupont hair stylist put it, "It's not like I'm going to stab someone in the neck with my scissors if they don't tip."

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