Turned Off by Tipping

Turned Off by Tipping

By Rachel Levin



Because America’s new high-tech tipping tradition has become a bit of a free-for-all — and it’s turning at least one otherwise generous person off.

By Rachel Levin

I’m greeted most weekday mornings with a smile. Often by name. Sometimes my low-fat double latte in a small cup is already made before I’ve even paid. And still, when the smiley guy behind the counter swivels that damn Square screen toward me, I survey the options: 15, 20, 25 percent … and I admit it: Four days out of five, I sheepishly press that other option. You know the one: NO TIP.

Maybe it’s actually not displayed in ALL CAPS, but it might as well be.

NO TIP. NO TIP. NO TIP. It plays, like a silent refrain in my brain, as I walk to my office, feeling not so much like a bad person, just sort of a stingy one. But baristas are typically not on my People to Tip List. (Should they be? Philip Galanes, please tell me!)

Before Square came on the scene in 2010, customers could just quietly opt to tip or not tip. Now we have to publicly decline…

Oh, sure, on the rare occasion that I pay cash for my coffee, I always leave the change in the tip jar. (Even quarters.) But tip jars are, like, a scrappy American icon. Square, on the other hand, is a brilliant, sleek mobile payment app that makes point-of-sale easier for everybody. And also, well, kind of awkward.

Before Square came on the scene in 2010, customers could just quietly opt to tip or not tip. Now we have to publicly decline the (often gratuitous) offer, as the potential tip-ee just stands there at the counter, waiting, watching for our next move. 

Or, of course, we could just succumb to Square’s guilt trip and start virtually throwing money around, like a little league Jordan Belfort.

Which is kind of what’s been happening. For everyone, it seems, but me. According to Square, across all its businesses, both retail stores and service providers, 45 to 50 percent of all card transactions include a tip, an increase from 38 percent last year. Molly Neitzel of Molly Moon Ice Cream, which has several shops around Seattle, says her scoopers’ tips have doubled since adopting Square last year. ”When we first switched to Square, we just had it at Capitol Hill, but as soon as our staff realized how much Square was impacting their tips, word got out,” says Neitzel. “Employees were trying to trade shifts to work in Capitol Hill; we knew we needed to switch over quickly, or we were going to have a staffing issue!”

Restaurants like Sushi Yasuda might be making waves by bringing Japanese customs to Midtown Manhattan and eliminating tipping altogether. And mystery man Tips for Jesus has been leaving select lucky servers $1,000, $3,000, $5,000 tips on bills for, say, burritos. But it’s Square that is singlehandedly changing not just how we tip in America, but whom.

Do all these people really deserve a place on the People to Tip list?

This is coupled with the fact that we can’t check out of Whole Foods anymore without being asked if we’d like to “round up” for the local food shelter. (And, I mean, what horrible person who just spent a hundred bucks on groceries says no to that?) The omnipresence of on-the-spot altruism is generating good money for good causes, for good people. But I have to admit: As a consumer, a customer, a basic citizen — being constantly bombarded by prompts to give kind of … cheapens the act. 

Don’t get me wrong, I actually like tipping. When tipping is traditionally expected. Waiters. Bartenders. Bell staff. Hotel housekeeping. Cabbies. Pedicurists. Curbside bag checkers. The list goes on. And everyone on it deserves to make more than their actual often minimum-wage paycheck. But the woman who rings up my prepackaged salad and bottle of fizzy water at the market? The guy at the street fair who designs those cute T-shirts? The retail salesclerk who sold me the $120 hoodie? Do they really deserve a place on the People to Tip list?

I’m actually a big tipper too. Most former restaurant servers are. And I’d never stiff anyone. Except one drunken night at a fancy San Francisco spot, when I accidentally signed the slip sans tip — and the waiter chased me down the Embarcadero and bullishly asked if something was wrong with his service. No, no! I apologized profusely and paid up. I, uh, just had too many martinis … and I was never good at math.

Nor was I ever a very good waiter. My managers yelled at me constantly. Six months slinging soggy calamari on Martha’s Vineyard, and I never mastered that arm-balancing stacking skill, so I could only carry two plates at a time. I’d flat-out ignore tables in my section when I got too slammed. At the Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires, I’d bring out ice buckets for bottles of red wine. (Which I had difficulty opening and would occasionally ask the customer to uncork for me.) I’d even sometimes scowl at old ladies — not because they were 10 percent tippers — but because they requested iced tea, which required assembling paper doilies and straws and lemon slices and was a pain in my overworked, underpaid, ugly-uniformed ass.  

All of which is to say, I understand the value of a tip. I appreciated every tip I ever received. (Especially the $1,200 I once got from the 1996 version of Tips for Jesus, this raunchy sailor who went by “Soldier of Fortune.”)

I haven’t waited tables in 15 years, but working in the service industry stays with you. It’s what makes me want to tip well today. I just don’t need Square’s help.