Before you go thinking I’m the antiChrist, it wasn’t me who launched a potentially World War III level kerfuffle at brunch by declaring, “I don’t tip servers.” It was my friend’s cousin who’s sentiments started the most lively debate I’ve witnessed in quite some time.
To get a fuller picture, imagine the following: four middle class women, one in her 30s and three in her 40s. One straight, one lesbian, and two somewhere in between. Two are college educated, two are not. Two have served as waitresses, two have not. One is differently abled, while three are able bodied. Two are biracial, two caucasian. Three out of four identify ourselves as socially and culturally aware and evolving.
The time came, as it always does at the end of a pleasant meal, where it was time to divvy up the bill. I scanned the receipt, added together my items, then spoke, as I calculated out loud, “My total came to $14… plus tax and tip…”
It was my indirect yet outspoken way of reminding others to include their fair share of all the expenses. It irks me when it’s time to split the bill and folks short change what they owe because they don’t account for their portion of tax and tip.
Imagine my surprise when my friend’s cousin immediately responded with, “I don’t tip servers.” Now I may never have been a waitress in my life before, and I’ll admit, in my 20s I tipped like crap, but to not tip at all? At first glance her sentiments fell right past the realm of awkward and landed smack in the center of rude.
When I was 25 I fell in love with a woman who was a server in a restaurant. We were together for 7 years. I saw firsthand what it was like to be a waitress and how heavily she relied on tips to pay her bills. The first few months we dated it impressed upon me greatly how she’d work double shifts the week rent was due in order to pocket enough money to pay rent for her little studio for one more month. When we’d go out to eat my girlfriend would often tip 15% and 20% when 10% was the standard at that time. I noticed immediately that she was a woman making minimum wage, yet chose to tip almost twice as much as anybody else. She asked if I’d ever been a waitress before, to which I replied, “No.” How she responded has stayed with me all these years later. She told me she could always tell the difference between those who have worked in the restaurant industry and those who haven’t by the way they tip. When you’ve worked as a server you understand exactly how important a tip is and will always pay it forward by tipping your server generously. While I appreciated her sentiments, I rarely increased my tips to more than the standard. Fast forward another decade and another relationship. My next partner, who had also worked as a waitress, said the the exact same thing. This time I listened. I figured if two of the closest, most intimate individuals I’d ever have in this lifetime were sharing with me identical insider information, it was likely sage advice. From that point forward I have tipped the most I can afford while dining, adding an additional 5–10% above the norm.
My friend’s cousin stopped the conversation cold with her declaration. We could practically hear the mastication taking place at neighboring tables. My friend looked visibly embarrassed to be related to someone who sounded so off-putting. The three of us exchanged nervous glances, quickly and silently negotiating who was going to speak first in response.
Before I realized it, I heard myself saying, “If only my girlfriend from my twenties could hear us now!” Suddenly all eyes at the table were on me instead of the offending cousin. “I was notorious for tipping poorly in my youth…” I stumbled. Come on ladies! Someone throw me a bone here.
Without missing a beat, the offending cousin picked the conversation right back up by saying, “I don’t refrain from tipping because I’m cheap. I refrain out of protest against the 1%. My choice has nothing to do with individual servers.”
We all stared at her blankly. Luckily that didn’t stop her from continuing. “Think about it. Take a national chain for instance. Let’s say Olive Garden. The owner nets billions; more money than we could ever fathom. Yet he pays his wait staff minimum wage. Why? Because he knows he can get away with it. His customers will pay his employee’s wages for him by compensating their minimal salaries with tips. In essence, he’s pushing his responsibility of his payroll onto us, working class individuals, who gain nothing by paying his employee’s wages for him.”
Wait, WHAT? I considered what she was saying; not in a polite way, where I was merely doing my due diligence yet knew at heart we disagreed, but truly, deeply contemplated her angle. If she was correct, how would I feel? I’m on a limited income that is below the national poverty line, yet some billionaire somewhere expects me to pay a portion of his employee’s wages for him? Angry. I’d feel angry. So he remains richer and his employees and I remain poorer? Nope. That isn’t just, at all. Ms. Protest made fair points. Jesus. More than fair. Viewing tipping now through her angle was enraging. I could totally see how and why she wants to empower herself by disengaging from the position she’s forced into. It’s her way of taking her power back in a dynamic that is otherwise disadvantageous for her.
“I never really thought about it that way,” one of my friends offered.
“Me neither,” I affirmed.
My other friend, the one related to Ms. Protest, spoke up, “Well this restaurant is locally and independently owned. It’s a mom and pop shop here. The owner is the same person who cooked the food we just ate, and her husband is our server. I’m not going to short change either of them because the owner of Olive Garden is a manipulative prick.” Also a fair point.
The next few minutes were spent unlike the close of any meal I’ve had amongst friends. Instead of battling out who owed what on the tab, we dove into some of the most enlightening conversation I’ve had all year. We talked about tipping and racism, tipping and sexism, and the lack of tips given to queer folks at all. Each of us have read or experienced something relevant to the conversation. Instead of duking it out, we listened to one another, finding and following the thread of validity each of our experiences shared. It was a crash course in opening our eyes to a level of cultural participation we hadn’t previously been aware we were engaged in. A seemingly kind gesture, such as tipping a server, suddenly meant more than we ever realized it did.
I wish I could tell you our discussion ended with clear and concrete answers about the “right way to tip in America”, but it didn’t. Something much more powerful transpired. Four individuals chose to take an uncomfortable situation and lean into it. In doing so we learned more about the culture we participate in and how our actions, or lack thereof, have a direct effect on one another. We were able to see, and more importantly feel, the weight of the ripple effects our choices create. I left our brunch that day feeling more alive and more invigorated than I have in quite some time. But not before I left a nice, big tip for our server, right on top of the tip Ms. Protest decided to leave too.