On Friday, XOJane published a think piece titled “UNPOPULAR OPINION: I Don’t Feel Guilty For Not Tipping You” by Sarah Bartlett. It is exactly as bad as it sounds.
First, I want to make clear the issue I have is not with XOJane; they’ve published a lot of good stuff, and this is an opinion piece from someone who hasn’t written for them before. I also don’t fault them for publishing it. Just the opposite, in fact: it’s good to get these kinds of ludicrously off-point pieces out in the open so we can address them directly. Besides, even if I did fault them, every website publishes something spectacularly stupid from time-to-time; it’s an inevitable part of the job.
But holy cow, guys, this piece is bad. It’s really, really bad. It’s like the distilled essence of every horrible, self-important college kid you’ve ever met, a thin veneer of defensive arrogance wreathed in insecurity and dripping with a clueless inability to conceive of situations beyond one’s own experience, a smug, self-satisfied grin rampant with the belief that it has the world all figured out. At points, the willful lack of empathy on display here is mind-blowing. Fortunately, Bartlett’s arguments have holes in them large enough that an African Bull Elephant could comfortably mosey on through. Let’s explore them, shall we?
Before we get going, I’m going to do what Bartlett didn’t and point out the obvious separation between the situations of restaurant workers and that of, say, baristas. Throughout her piece, you’ll see that Bartlett equates them, not even acknowledging that the two situations might be different. While I do think it’s nice to leave some extra change in a tip jar, it’s a very different scenario from someone who depends on tips to survive. I suspect the reason Bartlett doesn’t separate between the two (rather than a couple of token disclaimer paragraphs midway through) is that she knows full well her overarching argument falls to pieces if she treats them as non-interchangeable scenarios. Still, it’s always interesting to watch someone build themselves a tower of self-deception, especially when you have the opportunity to take a wrecking ball to it after the fact.
Alright, then. Let’s dive into this thing.
Recently, an old “high school friend” turned “Facebook-friend-I-forgot-I-had” posted a photo of a receipt, and it popped up in my newsfeed. This receipt wasn’t hers — it was for an unknown diner at a restaurant-that-shall-remain-nameless where Facebook friend works. She captioned this photo: “Not even a 10% tip?! #cheated.”
I spent the next couple of hours feeling irrationally irritated after I saw that photo, but not at the customer who failed to give what this waitress felt she deserved in a tip. I was annoyed at her for feeling entitled to complain about it.
Sign #1 your incoming hot take might be about to break the land-speed record for idiocy: you accuse servers of “entitlement.” Absolutely no one has ever done that and then failed to proceed to make an ass of themselves.
The art of tipping is, for most people, really freaking annoying. How much is too much? How much is too little? Is this the only reason I had to learn how to calculate percentages in 5th grade? Am I really supposed to tip this floral delivery guy when I didn’t even know he was coming to deliver me flowers that I didn’t even buy? Also, I don’t carry cash anymore, so, crap.
“Use my own inability to do basic math as an excuse to act like a bag of turds: check. Set up obscure straw man hypothetical: check. Complete non-sequitir: check. YEAH! I am ON POINT with this XOJane piece!”
But the bread and butter of my tip annoyance is the mandatory tip of your server in a restaurant. Why do I owe someone extra money just for doing their job? I work retail, and get paid crap for it. I’m expected to be courteous and helpful and provide “excellent customer service” with absolutely no possibility of a tip or commission. Why should it be any different for someone working in a restaurant? The way I see it, the restaurant is paying the employee, not me.
Yes, and part of the social contract as currently constructed is that you are expected to tip, because by not doing so, the only person you are punishing is your server. You’re not taking a stand against a corrupt system. You’re not some brave warrior fighting against injustice. You are serving your own interests, and the least you could do is be honest about it. Randroids are annoying as hell, but at least they make no pretense of altruism.
“But the system is unfair!” Bartlett might say, and in fact, yes, it is! It absolutely is! But the part that she seems to be unable to wrap her head around is that the entire restaurant system is unfair to both her and the server.
I’m on record for my belief that the current American tipping system is a disastrous mess. I know very few servers who don’t wish the way we do business would change, and of the ones who do, all are either taking an extraordinarily short-sighted view of what would be best for the entire industry, or sit in such good situations themselves that as far as they’re concerned, everyone else can go screw themselves (to wit: this second group consists exclusively of assholes. Fuck ‘em). Unfortunately, while our system sucks, Bartlett — or anyone else — refusing to tip isn’t going to change anything.
Disclaimer time: I live and eat 98+% of my meals in Washington State, one of 7 states that doesn’t have a different minimum wage for tipped and non-tipped employees. The waiter or waitress in whatever restaurant I am in makes at least minimum wage which, coincidentally, is what I make in my retail job. And sooner or later, that minimum wage is going to jump to a staggering $15/hour. But we are still expected to tip people on top of that wage, just as we would in states where waitstaff are making less than $3 per hour. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.
The emphasis there is mine, and it’s because that statement is a particularly interesting one in context. Really? “Staggering?” A $15/hour minimum wage is “staggering.” Hmm. I’m going to assume Bartlett is unaware of the fact that as of 2013, if the minimum wage had kept pace with worker productivity, it would’ve been $21.72. If you likewise adjust for inflation (and the intervening couple of years, obviously), that number gets even bigger. And yet $15 is “staggering” to her. Keep this in mind going forward; we’ll be circling back to it.
Now, Sarah actually does have a point that if the minimum wage went to $15/hour and the tipped minimum wage were abolished, 20% should no longer be the standard tipping amount. At that point, it really should drop to around 10-15% — a lot like what it is in many other countries. This is why tipping still exists in many other countries, even when servers are paid a decent living wage. The fact that Sarah later uses a picture of herself eating in another country and points out tipping isn’t required there is somewhat undermined by the fact that she picked China, a country known for a level of worker mistreatment that would be hilarious in context if it wasn’t also brutally, horrifically inhuman.* Good call there, Sarah. Not like the irony is now thick enough to cut with a knife or anything.
Speaking of that sub-minimum tipped wage...
Let it be known, I personally do not believe that a tipped minimum wage should be allowed. That just lets the employer off easy while asking the customer to pick up the slack on what should be an employer’s expense. It isn’t fair to the worker or the customer, and I would advocate for the tipped minimum wage to be abolished.
I do not want anybody living in poverty, but I don’t think that the wage of someone should depend on the whim of a customer, either. Servers and bartenders deserve a solid minimum wage just like the rest of us.
So I’ve got two competing reactions to this quote. On the one hand: good! Congratulations, Sarah Bartlett! In acknowledging the inherent wrongness of the tipped sub-minimum wage, you meet the minimum baseline for being a decent human being. You don’t get a cookie for that or anything, but it’s good to know you aren’t actually Snidely Whiplash.
On the other hand: Bartlett understands the tipped sub-minimum wage is terrible and unjust...and yet she still think she shouldn’t have to tip while it exists? That actually might be more sociopathic than someone thinking people shouldn’t have to tip because they don’t know about the sub-minimum wage. I’m kind of leaning in this direction, to be honest.
And yet, we live in a society that customarily mandates tips, and businesses go out of their way to make customers feel uncomfortable if they don’t tip. From tip jars that practically smack you in the face when you’re ordering a coffee to the new tablet payment trend that “suggests” you add a $1-2 tip to your transaction, even if you all bought was a $2.50 cup of tea, you sometimes have to go out of your way NOT to tip.
Never mind that these “opportunities” to tip often come before you have received much service at all. The quality of service isn’t even what matters anymore — it’s just expected.
What’s interesting here is that Bartlett is actively unhappy that people are even asking her to tip. In her mind, her right not to be hassled supersedes the right of underpaid employees to make a living wage. Sure, she’s just disclaimed that she thinks everyone should make a living wage, but that doesn’t mean much when she then turns around and repeatedly asserts her fundamental right to not tip when she doesn’t feel like it.
Interesting, also, how she jumps from restaurant situations to clearly very different scenarios involving ordering coffee. It’s almost like the realities of a restaurant situation completely undermine everything she’s trying to say.
Thanks to Instagram and Twitter, we now live in an era of “tip shaming.” I’ve seen pictures of receipts that shame celebrities or other wealthy people for not providing some grotesque tip. As though Mark Zuckerberg is obliged to tip you more than I am even if we receive the same service: the amount of a tip doesn’t depend on the percent of our income. We don’t owe you anything but decency, respect, and the listed prices we’ve agreed to pay.
Tipping is a form of decency in American society, Sarah. If you are not tipping, you are not being decent or respectful. You are being terrible, and you should feel terrible. The fact that you don’t, as you are so quick to repeatedly remind us, is a symptom of a much bigger problem — as is the fact that in these situations, your sympathy immediately goes to the person being publicly shamed, rather than the person suffering real-world economic consequences.
Also, let’s again point out the fact that Bartlett subtly jumps back to restaurant situations here to serve her argument. You know she’s doing so because no one has ever been tip-shamed for failing to tip at a Starbucks. Restaurants are the only place where that happens, and it’s because in the vast majority of states, restaurant employees (servers, bartenders, delivery drivers) are the only ones who need those tips to survive. Bartlett either doesn’t know this, or she’s convinced herself it’s a minor, unimportant detail. Since she acknowledges the sub-minimum wage, I lean towards the latter.
Food is a good like any other. I don’t ask customers to throw in 10% for buying clothes from me, and I resent the implication that a food service worker is working harder than I am, and therefore deserves a tip. The truth is that tips are an outdated tradition doing absolutely nothing to improve the livelihoods of people in the food-service industry.
I’m going to put this as plainly as possible: restaurant jobs are harder than retail jobs. I know it hurts to hear that, but it’s true. Sorry, Sarah; your lot is not the harshest one, and you are far from the special snowflake you see in yourself. You can resent the implication all you want, but I’m not implying, I’m straight-up telling. Your job is easier than a job waiting tables, and if you’d ever worked in a restaurant, you’d damn well know that already.
I’ve worked multiple retail and multiple restaurant jobs — on average, there is absolutely no comparison of which one is more physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding, and it’s not even particularly close. Do you get breaks at your job? Generally-speaking, do you have regular hours? Is your pay directly dependent on your ability to put up with harassment and abuse from customers (not should it; is it)? Oh, you do, you do, and it isn’t? Kindly have a seat, please.
Now, is it possible that a few rare retail jobs are harder than a few rare restaurant jobs? Sure. But not in the vast, vast majority of cases, and arguing that the rare exception is somehow more meaningful than the overwhelming number of counter-examples renders one’s point laughable.
Bartlett’s last sentence is actually completely correct — tips are an outdated tradition that, from a grand perspective, harm servers more than they help them. The problem is that she deploys that perfectly valid point in the service of her own indecency, and in so doing, corrupts whatever inherent value it might possess.
For all these reasons and more, I’ve finally gotten over the guilt that goes with not tipping. I don’t eat out often- maybe three times a month, including ice cream and coffee runs — but when I do, I rarely tip. The last time I tipped my waiter it was because he offered me a free refill on my cocktail when I clumsily spilled it on the table, adding to the mess he already had to clean up. And yes, I felt he deserved it. But the person scooping my ice cream cone? Mixing my hot chocolate? Or the person delivering my steaming bowl of pho?
No, to me, the 60 seconds you spent serving me doesn’t merit an extra dollar. I simply don’t believe in it. And I’m not apologizing for it.
Sarah, let’s be real, here: if you were over the guilt for not tipping, you wouldn’t feel the need to repeatedly remind us you don’t feel guilty about it. Also, I feel like a broken record in pointing out your use of a false equivalence between restaurant workers and baristas here, but for fuck’s sake, you just keep doing it. Servers don’t spend 60 seconds serving you, and the fact that you can’t mentally separate between the two illustrates the spectacular idiocy of your entire viewpoint.
Ultimately, Bartlett’s real argument, like so many espoused by those working shit jobs and criticizing others in a similar position for agitating for something better, is a Crab Bucket.** It’s why Bartlett views servers and other food service workers as the enemy, rather than the broken system that forces them to work for tips — a system which, I might add, puts them in an inarguably worse position (for forcing them to rely on tips) than their customers (for forcing them to tip at all).
You can tell this is what Bartlett is really arguing based on a lot of the coded language she uses; the “why should servers make more than me” point is a major tip-off. You see this a lot in arguments against Strike for $15 and anything that has to do with raising the minimum wage, too. “I don’t want to get paid the same as fast-food workers, because I deserve to make more than them” is a common refrain — as if economics is a closed circuit and not a living entity with wages that would adjust to a new baseline. It’s human nature to take the shortsighted view and subconsciously fear that someone else’s success must come at one’s own expense, as if all of life were a zero-sum game — that philosophy is basically the driving force behind a lot of the Republican playbook. It’s also an extraordinarily dumb relic of the evolution of the human brain, and it should be fought against at every turn.
Moreover, Bartlett echoes the same basic principle at play in the philosophy of all non-tippers: it’s not really about what’s fair or just, it’s about a paean to one’s own greed. Bartlett isn’t refusing to tip because she’s taking some grand stand; she’s serving her own interests and no one else’s. The reason she feels the need to constantly and defensively remind the reader that she doesn’t feel guilty for not tipping is because deep down, she knows damn well that she should.
* The implication of “we could learn something about worker practices from China” is the most wonderfully, perfectly self-defeating part of this entire piece, and I love it to itty bitty pieces. She could’ve gone with Japan, where tipping also isn’t a thing, and made my job harder (not impossible; my BA in East Asian History wasn’t for nothing), but instead she went for China. Life is beautiful.
** God bless you, Terry Pratchett.
Image via Anton Watman/Shutterstock.