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Dear Pierre,

Some help from you, please, regarding tips and tipping and intimidation (I guess I am too easily intimidated).

Tipping here in America has always been difficult for me to navigate. When and how much are never-ending questions for me.

Signed,

I need help

Dear Need Help,

You are so not alone, and it only gets worse as the pandemic continues to change our culture. We’re fast becoming a cashless society. That, of course, has vast personal privacy implications. Every time we swipe, beep or otherwise engage the credit card machinery our financial Big Brother records who we are, where we are and what we are buying. Those three factors can lead to all sorts of unwanted consequences. We’re not just ID-ing and locating ourselves, we’re opening ourselves up to be misinterpreted, discovered and found.

But that’s a screed for another column. It strays from your questions: when and how much to tip.

When the pandemic hit, I found myself – when picking up takeout food or the few times I ate in a (well-ventilated) restaurant – tipping extravagantly. I figured it was important to help compensate for lost wages. The restaurants looked so empty. When I went to get gas in Oregon, I doubled my usual dollar tip to the worker pumping the fuel (Oregon is one of only two states – New Jersey is the other – that requires a hired hand to pump the gas). And when a taillight went out in my old Volvo, I took it to my usual repair shop. How much? I asked the manager. “I’m not going to charge you for a lightbulb,” he smiled. “But if you want to tip my mechanic…” I left a ten-spot on the counter.

Times change. Masks are off. (Not for me. I always am masked in public places indoors, crowded places outdoors). Restaurants are jammed again and the menu prices inflated. That means, of course, that tips based on a percentage of the tab will keep pace with inflation for restaurant workers.

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The universal use of credit cards has imposed tipping into places it rarely was employed in America. If you shop with plastic you’ve probably been presented with a screen that requires you click before it accepts payment. And in order to click you must answer a tipping question. Almost everywhere. For a takeout coffee and for all kinds of other purchases that require a clerk (but often a clerk who performs no special service). The screen shows the price you must pay and then prompts you for a tip, usually starting at 15% and increasing in increments of five percentage points. Of course there are options. You can click “no tip” or you can click “custom tip” and do the tipping math on your own (the machine won’t help you figure out how to pay less than its lowest pre-calculated recommendation).

Once you either punch a pre-set price or go for nothing or choose a cheapskate ten percent, the clerk flips the pixelated document back and gets a good look at your choice.

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This is customer intimidation. This is far from deciding independently to offer a gratuity because you want to reward service or inject disposable funds into the retail economy.

Why would the credit card companies create this potentially awkward social phenomenon? Money honey, of course. VISA, et al, make their bucks on a percentage of the dollars charged. If you succumb to peer pressure and punch 15% instead of the 10% you intended to leave, VISA makes more. Micro payments become macro money when you figure how many VISA transactions occur each day. As John D. Rockefeller supposedly answered when he was asked how much is enough money: “More!”

There is another issue to contend with regarding this growing intrusion into our psyches and decision-making processes. Who decides what happens with that 15 or 20 or 25% you punch when a barista just pushes another anonymous paper cup of coffee at you and looks toward the next potential big tipper in line? Does the business skim a service fee off the top of charged tips? Are the tips equally shared amongst the workers even if the work isn’t evenly distributed and accomplished? And how about those special servers who are so kind and helpful? Do their tips just disappear into that common pot even if you want to reward them?

Despite the convenience of charging everything, I’ve answered some of these questions for myself by carrying a wad of bills again. If I hand the money to the mechanic as an extra for his fast work, I know it goes into his pocket (unless the shop has a tip-pooling policy – even then it’s his choice to heed the policy or pocket the loot). If I leave the cash on the table or, better, discretely slip it into the server’s hand, I know VISA isn’t getting a percentage. And I’ve found that when I do tip with cash I tend to tip better.

Of course I still, Need Help, haven’t answered your specific questions – I’ve been ranting and raving. “When and how much are never-ending questions for me,” you wrote.

Here’s what I do. That’s not an answer because I think we all must make these choices for ourselves since there is no prix fixe at most American bistros (although it is a custom that’s becoming more commonplace over here). If the service is just standard, I leave 15%. I leave the 15% not because I want to reward the average but because I know that tips are factored into the expected take-home pay in restaurants and in a growing number of American businesses that rarely witnessed tipping in pre-pandemic times. If service is awesome, I’ll go 20% or even higher. If it’s dreadful I’ll usually still tip, but about ten percent. I’m not sure why ­– perhaps a combination of societal expectations (although that factor rarely influences my demeanor) and the realization that it may be a bad day for an employee who is counting on the money.

But I will not be intimated by a screen that’s shoved at me asking if I want to leave at least 15%. If I don’t, I’ve got no problem spending the extra seconds and punching “custom tip” or even “no tip.”

An anonymous cup of overpriced coffee shoved at me by an anonymous clerk ain’t worth a tip. But a clever sign over a jar of cash and coins can move me to pay more – like the note at a falafel joint a few doors down from my University of Oregon campus that reads: What is pita spelled backwards?

Hope this helps, Need Help. Hasta la proxima,

Pierre

Send your queries to me at Laufer@uoregon.edu.