Groucho Marx: Do they allow tipping on the boat?

Steward: Oh, yes, sir!

Groucho: Have you got two fives?

Steward: Yes, sir!

Groucho: Well then, you won't need the 10 cents I was going to give you. -- from "A Night at the Opera"

Few are as brave -- or, if you prefer, as arrogant -- as Groucho. For most of us, tipping is something we do, but try not to think about. It especially doesn't lend itself to weighty considerations at this time of year, when there are presents to buy and parties to attend. Yet this is also the month of the seasonal tip, and a time when many families dine out together. Herewith, some advice and background on the often-obscure subject of who should get what, and when.

Hand It Over!

Informal accounts of the word "tip" say it comes from 18th-century England, where the elite spent most of their time swilling coffee and raising a ruckus. At the door of each cafe' was a little box, with the slogan on the side: "To Insure Promptitude." The initials, TIP, quickly became an acronym.

One wonders, though, how the servers knew which customers had put in which coins. The story seems too neat to be true. A better theory holds that the word comes from the Dutch "tippen," meaning to tap and referring to the sound of a coin being clicked against a glass in order to get the waiter's attention.

A third conjecture is that "tip" derives from the Latin "stips," meaning gift. And cynics will love the conclusion offered by the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: The term tip, it says, is "rogues cant" or "medieval street talk" for "hand it over."

Another Reason to Hate New York

Letitia Baldrige, author of The Complete Guide to Executive Manners and the revised edition of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette, has plenty of ideas on whom and how to tip during the encroaching holiday season. But first, a warning: "This is how things are done in New York. Washingtonians should feel blessed that life in their city is simpler and less expensive."

Actually, listening to Baldrige would disillusion the most committed fan of Manhattan. "If you live in a cooperative or a condominium, you've had it," she says. "There's the doormen and the super and the back-elevator men ... When there are 25 people working in the building, you tip them all, even if you never see them. They're all working for the building, and they all deserve it. Their salaries are very low, and the Christmas tips mean a tremendous amount in how long they stay on the job. In a small apartment building, the minimum tip for the super is $25. In a nicer building, it's anywhere from $50 to $100."

Next up is the hairdresser. The holiday tip here, Baldrige says, is determined by the poshness of the establishment and how often you go. "If you have a strong personal relationship -- and by that I don't mean sexual -- but if they're your confidant, soothe you, and tell you you're wonderful when no one else does, they deserve to be tipped for it. Most women in New York give $25 to $50, or a nice handsome present. This is a mark of friendship, of appreciation."

At this point, you might want to go to the bank and get some more cash. Back with us? Okay, on to the parking lot. In New York, should you be so nervy as to have a car, it's customary to tip the lot attendants at both your job and your home. Otherwise, they might not have the incentive to protect your wheels.

Don't forget the newspaper deliverer and the garbage men. In fact, don't ignore anyone who makes your life easier. The receptionist who saves your messages. The plumber who kept you from being flooded out late one summer eve. If it seems too crude to hand over cash, Baldrige notes that a gift will often convey the idea -- a scarf, a tie, perfume, chocolates, wine.

How much does this add up to? For a middle-class couple -- say, $75,000 a year combined income -- she estimates $150 to $200 in seasonal tips. "And that's for a young couple with simple services. That's living modestly. I'd hate to tell you what we have to spend."

Tipping is a way of life in New York, and frequently it functions there as the fancy equivalent of a bribe. (An early use of tip was in the phrase, "He will stand the tip," meaning a corruptible person.) In the less stressed, less complicated climes of Washington, the dependency on services isn't as overwhelming -- not too many elevator men here -- and neither is the amount of seasonal tipping.

Nevertheless, Baldrige's final point bears considering: "Tipping keeps the wheels greased. It's recognition of good service, and hope that the service will continue. It's saying 'Thank you for making my life less complicated,' and 'Please continue. Don't stop.' "

Checks and Balances

A 1980 report in the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly offered one more piece of evidence that it's better to look like Fawn Hall than Tammy Faye Bakker. In "Looking for Tips: An Empirical Perspective," Joanne M. May analyzed more than 600 transactions at a large Midwestern eatery. A team of independent observers first divided the waitresses into two groups: attractive and not-so-attractive. (No waiters were considered.)

Then May analyzed their tips. The less-comely servers got 14.9 percent of the bill for good service, and only 11.9 percent for poor service. Makes sense. The pretty waitresses got 17.3 percent for good service, but, for poor service, even more: 20.3 percent. In some circles, this is known as the "cute but helpless" theory.

In other results, the study found the best tippers were solitary diners paying by credit card: They forked over 23.7 percent of the cost of their meal. This, of course, is the "ashamed to be here" theory.

There have been no follow-ups to May's pioneering work. However, the Quarterly has just printed in its November issue "Checking the Checks: A Survey of Guest Check Accuracy." This study, which was decidedly unscientific, analyzed 377 transactions at 288 different restaurants across the continent. (Since this total reflects all types of restaurants, including fast-food places, where no tipping is done, the following percentages are weighted downward.)

Check errors, the authors discovered, affected the tip level. When the check was accurate, the average tip was 13.3 percent. Overcharged customers, who were probably miffed, left a miserly 4.7 percent. However, even when customers found an error in their favor, they still under-tipped, leaving only 11.5 percent. (By the way, the study concluded that an average of one check in eight is wrong, and that 70 percent of the time it is wrong in the customers' favor.)

Tax-Exempt

A Gallup survey done earlier this year for the National Restaurant Association came to an astonishing conclusion: While 46 percent of those surveyed think employes who receive tips should pay taxes on them, another huge group -- 39 percent -- disagrees. And among the 18- to 24-year-old group, 61 percent don't think income taxes should be paid on tips. Perhaps, suggests the restaurant group, "they believe tips are gifts." Or perhaps, "they don't think any income should be taxed." America may be in more trouble than you thought.

Color-Coded Feedback

For every problem, there is an organization. John Schein, a Wisconsin salesman, developed a card system for his personal use. A tip alone didn't carry the message, he felt; so he also gave his waiters and waitresses a blue card if he was satisfied, a yellow if he wasn't. Schein distributed them to his purchasing agents, his buyers, and other salesman, and they all liked the idea. Eventually, the media got wind of it, and in 1968 Tippers International (P.O. Box 2351, Oshkosh, Wis. 54903) was formed.

"It's lack of communication that creates all the problems. If I have an opportunity, I tell them what I think -- good or bad," Schein says. "And I never go away from a restaurant without leaving something. A lot of times something happens that the waiter has no control over." Neither does he over-tip. He hardly ever leaves anything over 20 percent, "and that has to be exceptional."

Tippers International is a loosely run organization -- if you buy its book, The Art of Tipping: Customs & Controversies, its pocket calculator or some of its "three-way" (for good, fair or poor service) cards you become a member. If you're real shy, the club will get in touch with an unsatisfactory establishment and make your criticisms clear.

"A lot of people tend to leave 15 percent without even thinking," says Barbara Wohlfahrt, a Wisconsin businesswoman and one of Schein's coauthors on The Art of Tipping. "I will be more critical. If I felt the service to be particularly good or poor, I will verbalize it.

"Tipping was originally a bonus. Now I think it tends to be taken for granted ... It's important to tip properly, because you will encourage these serving people to provide good service, and will be letting those who provide poor service know that it was poor."

The Tip-Off

One of the most frustrating aspects of tipping is why you do it to some and not to others. Why a taxi driver and not a doctor, even if the first took you across three unnecessary zones and the second saved your life? Why the steward on a ship and not a flight attendant -- especially if the plane arrives safely, on time, and at the right airport?

"It can be confusing," concedes Wohlfahrt of Tippers International. "It's just the way it has developed. Those who work in restaurants are not paid that much. With a doctor or a dentist, the fee is high enough so you've more than compensated them. And you're paying them directly. At a restaurant, the bill is for the food, not the service."

Of course, you're not paying the flight attendants directly either. Still, Wohlfahrt advises against pursuing this line of thought too closely, or even thinking much about why we tip at all. "It's kind of a vicious cycle," she says. "It's not something that's going to change."

Unless, that is, some things really tick you off. Travel writer Eric Newby, for instance, has a little list of those he never will give money to:

"Waiters who hand you a huge and pretentious menu and then stand over you humming to themselves like bluebottles."

"Anyone in hotels or restaurants where there is a service charge added to the bill, unless some member of the staff has rendered you an extraordinary service beyond the common call of duty, such as carrying you upstairs and putting you to bed the right way up or cutting up your dinner for you if you have an arm in plaster."

"Waiters who, when asked what is the specialty of the house, say, 'Everything is good, Sir.' "