Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Tonight, all over the western world, hundreds of thousands of diners in thousands of restaurants will be faced with the most difficult question of their day: how much should we pay for this meal?
Paying for a meal in a restaurant is far more complicated than a purchasing decision like, say, buying a car. With a car you may have to figure out the “APR financing” or whatnot (I clearly don't drive), but in the end you and the salesman figure out how much money you need to exchange for the car. When the waiter puts the check on your table, on the other hand, you have to figure out how much you should pay by asking yourself a series of quesitons that touch on mathematics, altruism, and the very fabric of our existence as social animals.
Was the service good? Was it unexpectedly good? Was the food satisfactory? If everything was good, how much should we tip? Fifteen percent? Twenty percent? Do you calculate that before or after adding the tax? If the service was not good, how much should we tip? Will we come back to this restaurant? Did my wife see me staring at the waittress's cleavage and if so, will she get mad at me if I tip too much? Was our water refilled enough? If I only want to leave thrity-nine dollars, can I ask for change for two twenties, or will the staff think I'm cheap? Do I care what the staff thinks? Does the waittress wear shirts like that just for tips? If she does, should I reward such behavior?
But why do we go through this process? Having to tip makes people stressed out. Couples have arguments over whether they should have tipped more or less. Waiters and waitresses end up resentful of diners' power over them, and get undertipped often enough that they don't like the tipping system either. Cooks, busboys, and other back-of-house staff sometimes don't get tips distributed to them, or individual waitresses will pocket tips instead of splitting them with the rest of the staff—meaning that a good deal of the time, everyone is unhappy that tipping is a part of our culture.
The easy solution would be to pay wait staffs more and work the increased salaries into the menu prices. That way, paying for a meal would be as simple as paying for sneakers, marijuana, or furniture. The only downside to this is waiters and waitresses wouldn't leave work with a bunch of wrinkled cash in their pockets—then again, since they're probably just going to go out and get drunk with that money, is that really a downside? Maybe our young food workers would be more fiscally responsible if we bumped up their paychecks and didn't give them spare change.
The current byzantine estimation process of service and food quality known as “tipping” is the opposite of a “magic eye” puzzle—the more you look at it, the less sense it makes. Waiters suffer when they give good service and they get stiffed; they don't know how much they're going to get paid for their service in advance, which is a pretty demeaning position. Customers suffer from having to deal with questions over who, how much, and whether to tip. Like war and segregation, tipping is a system that harms everyone who comes into contact with it. Normally I consider it outside of this blog's misison to suggest solutions, but here I feel obliged: please, United States Congressmen, take a break from debating health care to make tipping illegal and force restaurants to pay their workers a fair wage. Compared to the other stuff you're dealing with, it'll be easy. Thanks in advance.