The Tipping Point
In 1989, I was teaching in China. While I was there, I made a trip to a city in Shanxi Province in order to visit the parents of a friend of mine - someone who lived in Staten Island but had been born and raised in China. My friend's mother was in the hospital. His father, my host, invited my daughter and me to an elegant restaurant for dinner. He also invited the doctors who were treating his wife. He explained that it was customary to give gifts to one's physician. After all, one wanted the best possible care for a loved one. Tipping a doctor! What a horrible idea. How much do you tip? How do you go about tipping? What if the doctor doesn't enjoy the dinner you've invited him to?
Does tipping improve service? I doubt it; if it did, taxi drivers would be more courteous than flight attendants. Furthermore, tipping is undignified, since blurring the line between a fee and a gift puts both patron and server in a vulnerable position.
Restaurants should raise their prices and put the words "no tipping" on all checks and menus. If they did, dining would be a more elegant experience. In America we don't tip physicians. If we live in apartment houses, however, we have to tip our supers. Let me tell you two stories I heard from my friend "Mark." I won't use his real name because I don't want his superintendent to learn who he is. Some time ago, his daughter got married. Lots of wedding presents were mailed to Mark's address, and his super put notes in his mailbox to inform him whenever one arrived. One day, however, the super approached Mark saying, "We won't accept any more packages for your daughter. She doesn't live here any more." As Mark tells it, he took two $20 bills from his pocket and handed them over without a word. There was no thank you, but the presents continued to be accepted and Mark continued to be informed. Some years later, a UPS man rang Mark's bell bringing a package for apartment 8G, next door to Mark, who accepted it. He put a note under 8G's door, but then ran into the super's wife and told her about it. "8G don't take care of Tommy, Tommy don't take care of her," said the super's wife.
Some time ago, I visited someone in an elegant Manhattan apartment building that had no doorman. There was a note from FedEx saying a package for a certain tenant had been refused by the super. I remembered Mark's stories and wondered whether there was a pattern. I ran into the UPS man making deliveries on the block and asked him about the note from FedEx, his employers' competitor. The UPS man said that in a building with a super but no doorman, packages were accepted only for those tenants who had given appropriate gifts at Christmas. I asked Mark whether he had tipped his super the Christmas before his daughter's wedding. In response to my question, he told me he always gives his super a big Christmas present. He explained that when the super complained about the flood of gifts after the wedding, he was being helpful to Mark, telling him in effect that extra service required extra pay. On the other hand, when the super's wife refused 8G's package, 8G was punished without being told why. 8G never learned that she was being punished at all. Unlike Mark, she had not paid for the right to be informed.
Punishment may make sense if it is negative reinforcement. We human beings can - sometimes - learn from our experiences. We may decide that the unfortunate consequences of a particular action or inaction should lead us to change our behavior. We can also learn from the experiences of others. We can't learn, however, if we don't know what is causing the unfortunate consequences. The punishment is not a lesson when we don't know that it is in fact punishment. Sometimes residents of apartment buildings ask each other how much to give at Christmas. Unfortunately, there is no criterion to determine just how big a gift should be. It would be better for everyone if the gift were an obvious transaction. There should be a sign in the building saying that if you want the super to accept packages for you, you should pay a specific fee for the service. New York draws residents from out of town and out of the country. How are they to know about the necessity of giving Christmas presents when New Yorkers themselves are not sure? How can you play by the rules if the rules are a secret?
A present is not the same thing as a transaction. It is a simple act of generosity or friendship or love. Giving is not the same thing as trading. Services should be paid for; gifts are gifts, not payment.
Tipping, by its nature, both increases and spreads. I can remember the days, way back in the 1940s, when 10% was a respectable tip in a restaurant. Then it grew to 15%. Now, many people say it is 20%. Nevertheless, increasing rates of tipping are a minor problem compared to the fact that there are always new places where tipping is expected. Why should we have to leave a tip when we stand at a counter and wait to be served a cappuccino? Will stores be next? Or will the day come, in our ever more money-oriented world, when we will have to worry about how much to tip the doctor?
This essay appeared in And Then, Volume 10, 2001