"Why not abolish tipping--then there would be no hassle with the IRA!!" exclaims Evelyn Roff of Downey in a recent colorfully decorated letter to this column. For just a second there, I started thinking that I'd better get Margaret Thatcher on the line mighty pronto and tell her that one of my readers had discovered the solution to her problems in Northern Ireland. Then, alas, I realized that what Roff meant was the "IRS" (an outfit that instills terror of a different kind)--and that she was referring to recent remarks in this column about IRS investigations of reported tips by the nation's waiters and waitresses.
What had been noted was that although restaurant employees have complained loud and hard about the government now collecting withholding tax from them to the tune of 8% of their total table check averages, recent IRS probes have uncovered continued vast underreporting of tip income in some cities. My Downey correspondent, though, used my comments as a sort of leaping-off point for some pointed remarks about tipping in general.
"What does intelligence have to do with tipping?" Roff goes on. "There are many intelligent people who prefer to dine at home where the food is nutritious and there are no surly, incompetent waiters and waitresses. We do dine out on occasion, but the evening is spoiled when the bill is presented and husband and wife huddle together to determine if the tip should be 15% or 20%. They never agree. I've yet to have a meal anywhere where the service warranted a 20% tip. I gladly tip my mailman, newsboy and young neighbors who perform even a small service. But, to feel obligated to tip 20%. . . . We are not cheapskates. I prefer to share my money with the Union Rescue Mission in downtown L.A."
Well, now. First of all, I know that lots of intelligent people dine at home, and I'm all for it; I'm also sorry to hear that Roff and her husband inevitably end a night on the town by disagreeing--though I must note that her remarks in this matter bear out the perhaps "sexist" restaurant-business observation that men tip better than women; and, believe me, I think it admirable that Roff would rather give money to a worthy cause than to a surly server. But nobody, at least in this country, has ever suggested that a 20% tip is obligatory, to the best of my knowledge--and I, for one, have certainly never advocated tipping even 15% to truly surly and incompetent restaurant staff.
But tipping in restaurants is old news in our nation--a convention that has become a custom. Restaurant price structures, from coffee shops to palaces of haute cuisine , are based on it. The people who work in restaurants, often very hard and very capably, depend on it. A tip is part of the cost of dining out, and if you can't afford to add, say, $7.50 (15%) onto a $50 check, then you probably can't really afford the $50 check either. You, as customer, have to pay for everything you get at a restaurant, one way or another--just like you have to pay for most other things you get in life.
The cost of the service, of being brought food, being helped with it, being advised about it, and so on, is, by common agreement, more or less 15% of the food's cost. You might think that's right or wrong, but that's the way it is. In Europe, as is well known, something between 12 and 22% of the meal total is added automatically to your check as a service charge. It is not optional; you pay or you wash dishes. Here, we have a choice; we can withhold or reduce tips for truly awful service, or be extravagant in the face of the great kind. We're lucky. We've still got freedom of choice in this matter--and we ought to have enough good manners and, yes, intelligence to exercise that freedom responsibly.