Tipping Points

Posted on March 6, 2013


BusI live in one of those places where tourism is a significant part of the economy. At this very moment, people all over the world are booking flights and reserving hotel rooms so they can devote a fraction of their summer to experiencing life in this exotic location.

Not that this location is all that exotic. There are no snow-capped mountains, palm trees, ancient temples, or howler monkeys. Grilled cheese and tapioca are considered spicy foods. And one of the downtown bus tours slows almost to a stop so visitors can catch a glimpse of the indoor parking garage. “It was the first such facility to be built in the city, has hourly and monthly rates, and includes space for more than three hundred vehicles.” Many of the tourists crane their necks for a better view. Some take pictures.

The lesson, I suppose, is that the motivation to travel isn’t so much about what’s here. It’s really about getting away from there – the neighbors, the dog, those annoying commercials on the radio, that front-page story about upcoming pot-hole repairs – anything that’s familiar, and therefore uninteresting. We seek out what’s different and exciting.

But sometimes those things that are different and exciting can create problems. Local customs can be especially confusing.

Tipping, for example.

In Japan, and probably in other countries, it’s considered disrespectful to offer someone money beyond their regular fee for a service they’ve provided. It suggests to them that you believe they made a mistake on your bill, or that you think they don’t earn enough. Meanwhile, in North America, failing to leave a tip means that either you were extremely dissatisfied or you’re a complete jerk. But even here, tipping is appropriate in only certain situations.

When I was little, my father would take me to the barbershop, and after paying for my haircut, he would hand me a couple of quarters. I would take them over to the barber, who by then was already starting on his next customer. I’d tap him on the leg and he’d look down, pretending to be surprised at this unimagined gesture of generosity. Managing for a moment to ignore the thousands of tiny spears pinching my neck, as well as the useless powder he’d brushed over them, I’d find myself looking forward to my next haircut, when the barber would welcome me back as a most treasured customer who, all those weeks ago, had presented him with the riches of loose change.

On some other Saturday morning, we’d go to the dentist’s office, a place of creaky floors and reluctant footsteps. Like the barbershop, it had an adjustable chair padded with cracked vinyl. Quiet, unidentifiable music seeped in from somewhere. The predominant sound came from a drill instead of clippers, and the sharp instruments produced a discomfort unlike anything a comb or scissors ever did. In my mind, though, the two had a common element in that they both aroused in me the wish that I could be almost anywhere else but there. And so it was easy for me to notice that at the end of the appointment, we never seemed to give the dentist any money. Thus began my education about tipping.

During the Mass in church, men would come around with long-handled baskets and we’d all drop small envelopes into them. The envelopes were pale pink, green, or yellow, and inside we’d tucked seventy-five cents, or maybe a dollar bill. I thought we were giving God a tip, although I couldn’t imagine why.Argument

As we got up from our table at a restaurant, I’d listen while the adults discussed what to leave for the waitress. After a meal filled with disagreements, this was always the loudest and the most animated.

At baseball games, my father would slip the usher some money for helping us find our seats and wiping them off with a filthy rag, even though the tickets had the seat numbers printed right on them, and we’d spend the next few hours breathing in cigar smoke and getting covered with peanut shells and splashed beer.

The strangest part was that many of these people were expecting a tip. Yet for some reason, the butcher and the grocery store cashier assumed no such thing. Neither did the man who drove his truck down our street, selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Or plumbers, or firemen, or the nurse who stitched up my finger after it was pinned in a slamming car door.

The mailman received a nice gift around Christmas each year, but so did the newspaper boy, who also got a tip every single week. We never got a telegram, but if we had, we’d be expected to show our gratitude with cash. Heaviest of all, the new telephone books showed up mysteriously, deposited at our front door in the middle of the night by invisible ghosts who apparently worked for free.MailmanWhen I got older, I’d occasionally go to some fancy place where they parked your car, hung up your coat, and handed you a towel in the bathroom. Office buildings had a person who sat on a stool in the corner of the elevator and pushed the buttons for you. The guy at the car wash always finished up by wiping down the driver-side arm rest, a convenient and conspicuous spot to be standing when the happy owner of the sparkling vehicle got in.

But contradictions persist.

We tip the taxi driver, but not the train conductor. The chauffeur, but not the airline pilot. We tip for pizza delivery, but not for heavy furniture or heating fuel. We tip the person who cleans our motel room, but not the lifeguard at the beach. The babysitter, but not the teacher. The bartender, but not the pharmacist.

What’s the general rule, then? Is there a grand unified theory of tipping? I’ve managed to do little more than narrow it down:

We pay extra for food that’s cooked, rather than raw. (The exception would be a sushi bar, although not a sushi bar in Japan.) We pay extra for cosmetic enhancements, but not for medical services – shoe shines and manicures, but not eye exams or lung transplants. We pay extra when someone does something we could have just as easily done ourselves, like opening a door or carrying a suitcase, but not when someone has gone to school for eight more years to learn skills we will never have, like installing circuit breakers or neutering the cat. We pay extra for things we really want, such as flowers or a massage, but not for things we buy because we have to, like insurance or dry cleaning.

If I had to pin it down, I’d say the pattern is that we tip for luxuries, but not necessities. When we believe we’re treating ourselves in a special way, we also feel compelled to share our good fortune. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

The truth is, I don’t understand tipping any more now than I did after my first trip to the dentist. So if you’re one of those tourists headed this way, I have just one piece of advice. Take the downtown bus tour and give the guide a few dollars at the end of the ride. But if you use our world-famous indoor parking garage, there’s no need to tip the lady in the booth. I’m almost sure about that.


Posted in: In Over My Head