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

A holiday fund, condo or co-op fees and individual acts of kindness finance employee tips in many buildings. "Some residents are extremely generous, some can't afford to give, some are just curmudgeons and some give individually," says an employee of one Georgetown condo, requesting anonymity in exchange for candor. Donations ranging from $10 to $500 are pooled, and the money is apportioned by staff seniority. In a nearby rental building, one donor considers 10 percent of a month's rent -- about $150 -- an equitable gift to his building's staff fund.

Barbers, hairstylists, spa personnel

Makia Simmons normally gets as much as a $10 tip on a $23 haircut at Wall's Barber Shop near the White House, but December tips can jump to $20. "A good pair of clippers" was a particularly welcome gift one year, she says.

Hairstylist Jason Santiago of Fusion Day Spa in the District, who charges $35 to $40 for men's haircuts and $60 to $65 for women, says tips run $3 to $5 higher at holidays. "The real good clients tip $20," though some give him sweets. "I would rather have money. I can buy my own cookies."

Fusion's Carolyn Davis, who does facials, waxing and reflexology treatments costing $80 to $99, says "the regular tip is $20. At Christmas I may get $30, half the value of a service or a gift card to Borders because they know I like to read." Her best tip ever? Sapphire earrings.


Seven bucks buys a shoeshine at Lawrence Hilliard's stand in Wall's, so most patrons give him $8 to $10. "Sometimes there's an extra $10 at Christmas, or musical tapes," says Hilliard, who says he does not give better service to big tippers. "I like people, period. You will get laughter, conversation, just because of who I am."

House cleaners

"Some customers will give the price of one cleaning, and some will do much better," says Dennis Whitfield, owner of Maid to Order in Beltsville. Cleaning a small apartment averages $65, a three-bedroom house about $110. "When they call to ask, I say, 'Whatever you think they are worth.' "

Letter carriers

The U.S. Postal Service bans cash tips and allows only token gifts; edibles are expected to be shared with co-workers.

Nannies, full-time sitters

"There is no rule, but a week's salary for every year the nanny has been with you" is one guideline, says Barbara Kline, owner of White House Nannies in Bethesda. That can seem astronomical for a longtime nanny, she says, but "people need to look at this seriously because nannies are the people who make their lives work." Other ways to say thanks and "please stay with us" include a plane trip home or full health insurance.

Newspaper deliverers

"If elderly people say, 'I need the paper on the porch,' and the carrier

doesn't do that, they won't get much of a response in the little envelope they leave. If the carrier responds, customers are apt to be generous at Christmastime," says Spyros Loukas, a Washington Post circulation division manager, noting that holiday tips to these independent contractors can range from $10 to $30 or $50. And although carriers work 365 days a year in all weather, "we never try to tie service to any kind of financial inducement."

Parcel delivery

"Some but not all of my clients give $10 or $20 at the holidays, and I am very thankful," says a FedEx driver who would not give his name because he is not authorized to talk to reporters. Other clients "give gift cards for gasoline, minor stuff. It's nice."

Personal trainers

At the downtown YWCA, where Mia Rapier is fitness director, clients pay $45 to $60 a session; her private trainees pay up to $85. For both, tipping is age-driven. "The older ones tend to be more generous, usually $100 or $150 if I see them one or two times a week. The younger ones give me a holiday card. Maybe they see me as more of an equal or friend." A bachelor client recently offered to take her to dinner at an expensive restaurant "and I jokingly said, 'Why don't you give me the cash equivalent of dinner?' "

Trash collectors

Most municipalities bar their employees from accepting money and all but token gifts. However, people who frequently put out bulky items or excessive amounts of trash, or are just grateful for the service at all, sometimes give cash -- $10 to $20 -- sweets and libations.

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