How Much Is Right? Let Your Goodwill Be Your Guide.

By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Throughout the year, Tommy Jacomo, wisecracking executive director of the Palm restaurant downtown, takes very good care of his powerful regulars, giving them favored seating, squeezing them in when the joint is jammed.

Now, with the approach of holiday tipping season, it's reciprocity time -- "if they want to get a table" next year, Jacomo chortles.

Holiday tipping is meant to thank those who have already made our lives easier. But let's get real here. It also helps ensure continued good service from the folks who mind our kids, cut our hair, collect the trash, deliver the mail or put us through our Pilates paces. Call it relationship-building or call it enlightened self-interest.

"Generosity begets generosity. It might not be intentional, but it happens that way," says Tony Curtis of Colonial Parking, who spent 25 years retrieving customers' cars in garages and lots around town before he became a senior operations manager in 2005.

"Our motto at Colonial is, 'We don't work for tips,' " says Curtis, "but it's only human" for the company's lower-paid workers to exert extra effort -- "maybe putting the car in a favorable space . . . holding the door a little longer" -- for patrons who show appreciation at year's end.

"You take care of anyone who renders a service to you over and above their normal position, who is very cordial to you, or who you expect to be doing business with next year," counsels Ann Marie Sabath, author of "One Minute Manners." "If you have a high-maintenance dog, or a husband who is a pig, make sure you take care of the dog walker and the cleaning lady."

Of course, tipping depends on what we can afford and what we think is expected, although we often haven't a clue about the latter.

"In restaurants, you know to tip 15 to 20 percent, but a third of the country doesn't even know that," says Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. "For holidays, the norms aren't so clear-cut. There is a lot of anxiety."

Geography influences some giving patterns, says Greg Daugherty, executive editor of Consumer Reports, which published a holiday survey based on the 2006 tipping habits of 1,800 Americans in the December issue of the magazine.

"The Northeast seems to be home of cash tips, in large amounts. Apparently in the South, money is not as common" as gift items, he says. "If you're new to an area, it doesn't hurt to ask your neighbors. You don't want to give too little and insult someone, or give too much, because we can't afford to, especially at this time of year."

In the face of general confusion, we went into the field for guidance. Many in the service sector say they give the same cheery service with or without holiday largess.

Apartment house staff

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