The tipping debate

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

There are a number of topics that, from time to time, set off a storm of varying viewpoints when they are mentioned in Speak Out.

One topic that comes in a wave every couple of years has to do with tipping. It usually starts when a server at a local restaurant complains about the low level of tipping by diners in this area.

Tipping is a custom embedded in American culture -- so much a part of our dining-out experience, in fact, that it is recognized by the federal government as a big enough source of a server's income to offset the minimum-wage law. Owners of restaurants, for example, can pay less than half the $5.15 minimum wage to servers under certain conditions.

What's interesting is that most servers don't expect big tips for bad service. Indeed, most of the servers who contact Speak Out take pride in the service they provide. But diners cite many reasons for leaving small tips or no tips at all, and sometimes the decision has nothing to do with the quality of service.

Many callers in the recent outbreak of comments about tipping have suggested that diners shouldn't be responsible for paying servers a living wage. These diners want restaurant owners to pay a decent wage that would preclude the need for tipping.

Diners generally have their own rules for tipping, and many of then think 10 percent is enough for the best service, while many servers -- and a lot of diners -- say 15 percent and 20 percent are more in line.

And what do you do at many restaurants where diners serve themselves but also receive service from servers? A full tip? A partial tip? No tip?

While etiquette books can suggest guidelines for tipping, there are no real rules. Tipping depends mostly on the relationship that is established between a server and a customer in the short time span it takes to order and consume a meal. The better the relationship, the better the tip.

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