A few thoughts on tipping

I stood in the pouring rain, hair slicked back across my skull by the howling wind, and sighed wearily as the hose popped out of the tub again, showering me in frigid water which was almost indistinguishable from the rain. I was soaked to the core, and I was clarifying a tub.

I stepped inside to get a package of test strips, and water streamed off me onto the tile floor. I would probably need to squeegee before I could mop. I’d already been at it for an hour–the tub had to be shocked twice, and it still wasn’t clear. The room was filthy–the guests had by the looks of things left their towels in the tub overnight while tossing water everywhere. The walls of the sauna were covered in a strange chalky substance. The trash was overflowing, and I had to pick through used condoms and god knows what to sort out the recyclables. I was missing a hand towel–either it was jammed under something or stolen. All of the bedding had to be washed, including the pillows. Mud littered the floor.

That day, I spent an hour and a half cleaning up. I found a dollar wedged into a roll of toilet paper–it was unclear whether it was left behind by accident or left as a tip. I took the tip.

Several months later, I found myself on hands and knees rinsing down a shower–a routine cleaning, after a lovely couple who were very tidy and respectful. They left me an eight dollar tip.

In which of these situations should it have been appropriate to tip me? Both? One? Neither? You might be surprised by my answer.

Earlier in the summer, I had stayed in a hotel in San Francisco, just off Union Square. We were a party of four. I had a vile attack of the evil stomach and spent several hours in the bathtub, soaking numerous towels in the process. We cleaned up as best we could, though.

We also left a twenty dollar tip.

Tipping is a curious institution. Different nations have different cultural rules about tipping–the United States is a rather tip-happy place, and sometimes it troubles me. I’ve worked in a lot of industries where tipping is common–although in the United States, that’s not saying much, because almost all aspects of the service industry have tips associated with them. Car park attendant? Two dollars per car, minimum. Hairdresser? 15% Skycap? Couple bucks, at least. Even in the spa industry, not only is it typical for therapists/aestheticians to be tipped, but they in turn are expected to tip the spa staff. Waiters tip out to the kitchen and bussers. Whole hierarchies of tipping exist behind the scenes.

I understand the idea behind tipping.

I go somewhere and receive a service. The service was exemplary. It was above and beyond the demands of the job. The person who worked with me was helpful, wonderful, and made my experience truly awesome. So I tip them, in appreciation for their excellent service.

However, tipping has become…expected. Always. If one of our therapists doesn’t get a tip, they wonder what they did wrong. If I don’t tip the skycap at the airport (for doing his job), I get a filthy look. A large controversy at work is still being worked out because the owners said they did not want employees tipping other employees. Period. Ever. Which is something I am happy to comply with–because I feel that therapists should not be tipping me for doing my job, and I likewise would feel uncomfortable for tipping them when they massage me. I’m not sure it’s appropriate for employees to tip other employees, really. (Unless in a case where, for example, an employee of a restaurant dines at their workplace, or if I book a massage properly through the front office, or in similar circumstances.)

Tipping almost seems guilt associated–a classic example is my hotel room in San Francisco. I felt that for the maid, cleaning up after four people, one of whom had made a colossal mess in the bathroom, was a lot of work. It was above and beyond the call of duty. Especially since maids are usually assigned a large number of rooms to finish within a small amount of time, our room would present added stress in the cleaning crew’s day. So I tipped them, to say “hey, I apologize for the mess, and thank you.” I felt that a tip was appropriate in that case. I also tip at restaurants, partly because of social convention, partly because I know wait staff must declare, and partly because, in general, wait staff amaze me. It is indeed their job to seat me (in some cases), take my order, relay my order to the kitchen, bring me my food, deal with my needs, and present me with the cheque. But most wait staff bring personalized service to the table, make me feel warm and welcome, and often go to extraordinary lengths to make sure I’m a happy customer. When I was vegan, wait staff would bend over backwards to make sure I had something to eat. And I appreciated it, and I tipped. I have had shitty service from terrible waiters, and have agonized over the tip question–I really should not be tipping someone whom I felt gave poor service, should I?

I think it’s time to start reconsidering which services we tip for, and when. Tipping constantly cheapens the quality of service, in my opinion. If you go to the chiropractor’s, you don’t tip. But if you go to a massage, you are expected to. Why? If you had a perfectly good, pleasant massage, you shouldn’t feel obligated to tip. If you had an amazing massage that left you feeling utterly relaxed and renewed, by all means tip, to show the therapist your appreciation. I would hope you always feel excellent after a visit to the chiropractor for adjustments. Do you tip them? Do you tip your dental hygienist for cleaning your teeth? Probably not. Should you?

One of our therapists today got a very large tip for a warm stone massage, and she was pleased by it (obviously). But it was what she said that I liked: “wow, X must have really liked her massage, I’m so happy for her!” Not: “wow, x left me a great tip!” And that’s how it should be. As a member of the service industry, I feel like it’s my job to deliver great service, to make guests feel welcome and comfortable, to attend to their needs, and to make them want to come again. I should not be tipped for doing this, because it is my job. My employers pay me (and very well, I might add), to do this. People using our suites in a routine manner should not feel obligated to tip me at all, because it’s my job to clean up after them. I would hope that they feel comfortable in my hands–so comfortable that they book with us again. It’s not necessary to tip me for my work–“thank you” is enough. I appreciate tips that customers give me, but I dislike the sense of obligation that comes with them. I want all customers to get the same level of service–excellent, whether or not they tip me. The amount of money they give me in excess of their bill should not affect the level of service I provide. If I do something extra (like running over to the deli to get a smoothie for someone, as happened recently), it might be reasonable to tip me–but I don’t expect it, because my job is to do everything possible to create a wonderful client experience.

The thing that’s frustrating is this: most people in the service industry are underpaid and are forced to rely on their tips. Our constantly tipping culture has created a vicious monster–tipping is par for the course, therefore employers can feel comfortable paying their staff minimum wage, and saying “well, you can make up the rest in tips.” Tips should not be used to make a living wage, they should be a bonus above your regular pay. When receiving a tip, your reaction should not have to be “yay, I can do laundry this week!” or “I can eat!” Rather, it should be “wow, I can put this away for the vacation fund.” One should never expect (or be forced by low pay to expect) a tip–it should rather come as a surprise, a heartfelt accolade which means “you did an amazing job, and I was extraordinarily pleased by it.”

I’ve been handed a pile of bloody towels and told “here, deal with this,” by a customer who didn’t tip me for handling potentially hazardous material (his rudeness, and his blood). On the other hand, I’ve told a customer her total is 12.50, been handed a twenty, and told to “keep the change.” For doing absolutely nothing other than hand her a towel and a bottle of water. A man once tipped me because I kept his wallet in my till for an hour while he tubbed. (Although he checked it first to make sure I didn’t steal–maybe he tipped me for not stealing?) Sometimes the people who tip are kindly–sometimes they are rich. But it troubles me, because I wonder are you tipping me because you loved my service, or because you think I expect it and that I will resent you as soon as you leave if you don’t tip?

I have had to revise my personal tipping standard. I must ask myself when someone is providing me a service how well I think they are being paid to do it, and if I think that amount is not enough, I am sort of forced to tip, even if that person is providing a routine service in a haphazard manner. This bothers me. It bothers me that many employers rely on me and you to make up their difference in pay. It bothers me that I tip a man for cutting my hair, but not a woman who cleans my teeth. Both are providing services. Both are very good at that service. Yet one of them expects me to give him money above his already exorbitant rates because it’s industry standard. And if I didn’t tip him, he wouldn’t want to book me again. I’d rather tip the woman who cleans my teeth, because she does an excellent job and deals with the inside of my mouth, for gods sake, but I asked her once about this and she said she “wasn’t allowed” to accept tips. Because she’s a professional, you see, with a degree.

I’ve been told by friends who wait that they dislike European customers who “don’t tip.” (Although this is mainly due to the convention throughout Europe of including gratuity in the bill (talk about the institutionalization of tipping)–why not just charge more in the first place?) Well, why should they tip? It’s time to take the expectation out of and the bonus back into tipping, people. Before looking at a tip scale or trying to calculate 12%, ask yourself if the person you worked with provided you with amazing service first. Especially if you are in a restaurant, it probably means someone in the kitchen will say “god those guys on table 9 were real assholes,” which is unfortunate, because they should be saying “man I must have given satisfactory service on table 9, because they didn’t tip.”

I know that a lot of people in the service industry (who do, after all, rely on tips), will disagree with me on this issue, and for that I am sorry. But I really dislike this attitude that tipping is expected, that you should always tip, that you are a cheapskate and scumbag if you don’t tip. No, you’re just satisfied with the service. But not blown away. Sorry. But tipping should never be expected.

I think in both the examples above, I should not have been tipped, because I was performing my job. Those customers paid my employers a large amount of money to do whatever they wanted with their space for a set period of time, and they did it. And my employers, in turn, paid me to clean it up. Was the eight dollar tip a nice surprise? You bet. But I’m going to treat those customers exactly as I treat others the next time they come in, because everyone deserves to be treated like a queen (or king). (Especially when they just spent over five hundred dollars on services in my workplace.)