The kindness of strangers

The pandemic changed the way many customers tip — and now it’s time for employers to pay fairly and discard tipping entirely 

On Wednesdays during the height of the pandemic, my daughter and I bought take-out dinners. It was a way to support struggling restaurants and their workers. 

Takeout also helped break up the monotony of lock-down life. Oooh, a trip in the car! A chance to talk to someone else across some manner of virus-repelling barrier! At the time, it felt like such a treat. 

That’s when my tips began creeping up. 

And at a time when most people were staying home, rediscovering the pleasures of bread-making or doing puzzles, those lovely people in restaurants around the city were showing up to work so I could pick up my oh-so-anticipated bag of Thai, Korean, or Middle Eastern food. 

I was so grateful that I was happy to tip, and tip well, for takeout. But let’s be clear: tipping has conventionally been a token of appreciation for service, a way of saying thanks for prompt or friendly table service. The better the food, the ambiance, the skill of the server, the better the tip. 

Or if the experience was not up to snuff, a low tip, or even no tip, could send a message too. I briefly worked as a server when I was in my 20s and once received an 11-cent tip. I couldn’t argue, really. It was a bad day. 

Michael Lynn is an internationally recognized expert on tipping, based at Cornell University in New York. His research finds that more extroverted or neurotic people tip the most. He says extroverts are looking for more attention from servers. The neurotic are more prone to guilt. I may be somewhere in the middle of that calculation. 

But pre-pandemic, I wasn’t tipping 20 per cent on a pick-up coffee and muffin, or a takeaway sandwich. Judging from the tip jars you’d see, many people did as I did and dropped in a few quarters, a loonie, or maybe a toonie. 

No more. 

Tipping has become more about guilt and confusion than gratitude. How do we ease away from the big tips of the lockdowns? Or should we? It’s like withdrawing your care for servers. And when did the card readers lose the 15-per-cent tip option that used to be the standard, which is now apparently 18 or 20 per cent? 

Tipping is so inconsistent that it’s hard to know what to do in Halifax, never mind in other parts of the world. In most European restaurants, a tip is automatically added to the bill. In South Africa, you should tip widely and generously. Almost no one tips at restaurants in New Zealand, and Vietnam bans gratuities. 

The real question is why do we tip at all? There’s a theory that the practice began in feudal times, when rich lords would throw coins to the peasants they passed in the streets, as a means of buying safe passage. 

In current society, the more relevant question is why don’t restaurants and other service businesses pay their employees a living wage, and just let us all enjoy our slightly more expensive meals without the additional stress of adjudicating the tip? 

And while we’re asking, why shouldn’t retail workers get tips as well? They typically make minimum wage and provide a service to customers, helping them find the right size and style, or making suggestions. 

I know, now I’m advocating more tipping. I’m conflicted. Everything is expensive and 20 per cent on a typical restaurant bill for four people is the equivalent of a fifth meal. On the other side, I don’t know how people live on minimum wage and the vagaries of tipping culture. 

I hear stories of servers in some downtown bars making hundreds of dollars a night in tips. I also know that when bus tours visit a restaurant the tips will plummet while the workload goes up. 

Tipping is emblematic of the impact of the pandemic. It’s upset our expectations and public behaviours. It’s also brought issues around how we treat front-line workers into sharper focus. 

The Great Resignation, as reporters have dubbed the supposed labour shortage, may be less about workers quitting unsatisfying work because of some new awareness that life is short and we should enjoy it, and more about a refusal to be paid a wage below the poverty line. 

If you’re one of those employers complaining you can’t find staff, maybe it’s because minimum wage plus the uncertainty of tips just doesn’t cut it in a post-pandemic world. 

And if you’re a minimum wage worker depending on tips, I’ll do my best to keep supporting you, and hope for a day when you can rely more on what you’re paid and less on the kindness of strangers. 

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