Saturday, April 26, 2008
Was there something wrong with my service?
by Cody Lyon
It’s a scene played out in restaurants across the country:
A meal is finished, the check is paid but soon a dismayed waiter returns to the table to confront a dissatisfied customer.
“Was there something wrong with my service?” the waiter asks with an earnest look of concern on his face.
The question might be answered with a litany of complaints that ends with an unhappy guest, a stiffed waiter and ruffled feathers for everyone involved.
The word “tip” has been called an acronym for “to insure promptness” in the service industry. But in the United States, tipping has become more of an expectation, rather than a reward for excellent service.
Webster’s dictionary defines the word tip as “a gift or a sum of money tendered for a service performed or anticipated."
The practice of tipping was actually a European import. In the United States, tipping took off in the 1920s after overcoming great opposition from those who saw it as patronizing and un-American.
And, up until the 1970s, waiters and waitresses could expect to earn an average 10 percent gratuity on restaurant checks. At some point, during the period from 1970 to 1980, servers across the country got a raise to the current 15 percent.
But even among individual American patrons, tipping habits can vary wildly.
In the United Sates, the current social norm is that a customer in a restaurant leaves 15 to 20 percent of the bill as gratuity. Despite such norms, there are many guests who are not necessarily aware that that servers and bartenders depend almost entirely on tips for the bulk of their pay. To be sure, usually, there are no guides on most restaurant menus, no signs in nightclubs and bars that explicitly describe tipping guidelines and as a result, tip amounts are often at the mercy of the customer’s whim.
Sometimes misunderstandings over tipping can even set the stage for national, cultural and class differences and in worst cases, seterotyping.
At the most basic level, the ritual of tipping raises a perennial question: Why do we still rely on tipping as a legitimate way of making a living?
The truth is, jobs in restaurants and bars that rely on tips as income can be quiet lucrative.
Ask any waiter or bartender in a busy restaurant anywhere across the nation and you’ll likely hear dollar amounts that have been known to evoke envy from many a 9 to fivers.
With that in mind, some experts point to a surprising psychological relationship that develops between the server and guest during service situations in the United States.
According to Michael Lynn, an associate professor of market and consumer behavior at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management, and a former waiter, there are other reasons why restaurant guests feel compelled to leave extra money for their waiter or waitress, the money we call a tip.
“People tip mostly for social approval of the server,” Lynn said, noting that failure to do so makes the server upset with them.
University of New Hampshire hospitality professor Joseph F. Durocher says the fear of a tense moment looms over customers who are paying for a pleasant experience as much as they are a meal.
“Most people are afraid to tip less for fear of an altercation,” said Durocher, who is the author of the book “The Wealthy Waiter.”
According to a survey conducted by the Web site Tipping.org, 70 percent of a group of restaurant customers the website surveyed felt pressured to tip, even if they felt the service was bad.
But, what about those customers who come from cultures and countries where no such psychology exists, where there is no real desire to seek a server’s approval or perhaps more importantly, places like France where there is no 15 to 20 percent tipping rule?
Unfortunately, this has resulted in many restaurants and bars becoming hotbeds of unfortunate stereotyping and unnecessary misunderstanding and tensions.
As a result, some establishments, especially those in areas with heavy tourist clientele, management allows servers to indicate on a check that service is not included, even allowing for the adding of a gratuity.
“I actually get offended when I’m in tourist spots like Miami and the tips are already added, leaving one no choice, even if the service is poor,” said Markus Schwade, a resident of New York who was born and raised in Germany.
Schwade says that in his country the tip is a reward for good service and not a customary action, let alone the principal part of a waiter’s income.
Antoine Maisani, a native of Paris, co-owns a bar in New York’s East Village. He says because his European friends are so used to the gratuity being included in the check, adding another 15 to 20 percent seems out of place.
“It’s as if you went to China, and in China, the custom was to tip another 40 percent,” said Maisani, arguing that Americans would see this extra charge as outrageous.
Maisani says he has been with groups of French friends in New York for dinners, and when the check arrives, it usually has the tip added.
“I find it upsetting and somewhat offensive, but I understand,” Maisani said.
Professor Lynn, who has written over 25 publications on tipping, says domestic tensions sometimes bubble up due to the fact that more than one-third of the nation’s population is not aware of proper tip amounts. He says that figure varies among various ethnic groups, often fueling cycles of distrust and resentment between servers and customers.
The end results can be hurtful.
Sherie Weldon, a New York resident who once worked in a restaurant as a server, says that she notices a difference in the service she receives as an African American woman.
“I notice the shady service, and sometimes the less- presentable looking food,” said Weldon, who relayed an incident at a high-end restaurant in New York where the service was lacking.
“I guess because of our race, they didn’t think we had the economics to be there,” she said.
Lynn says such disparities could be avoided with a proliferation of better information nationally so all patrons were more aware of the norms.
“We need to get more knowledge about what the tipping norms are into the hands of consumers, which will decrease some of the differences of behavior, which will in turn decrease much of the server stereotyping,” he said.
That does not mean that restaurants in the United States are going to start including the gratuity in the checks anytime soon. Many argue that Americans would not tolerate a uniform service charge added because it would take away the server’s incentive to go the extra mile.
Professor Durocher underscores this belief rooted in the service side with a quote by the 19th-century hotelier E.M. Statler: “Life is service. The one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow man a little more, a little better service.”